Chef John Sedlar is one of the most interesting working chefs in Los Angeles. The food, service, and look of both his Playa and Rivera are perfectly articulated fine dining with a laid back, LA hints to New Mexican cuisine. Sedlar’s best trait is that he gets bored easily and constantly is playing with food. He grows big ideas which have seen in boozy dinner menu and an often utilized rooftop garden. He is an always working food filter who takes influences and surroundings and funnels them through the Playa/Rivera point of view. His most recent experimental menu is a mashing of Mexican cuisine and Chinese cuisine: it’s Playa’s Mexi-China menu.
The concept has the Beverly Boulevard restaurant using their obvious New Mexican muscles to the tune of a Chinese workout. It is a collision of flavors and stylings that could very easily fall into a culinary gimmick but sidesteps any issues with brilliant meltings of the cuisines. Sitting down to try a few things from the menu, the image of a hometown haunt of mine popped into my head: Takosushi, an Asian-Mexican fusion restaurant that was all the small town foodie rage in 2004. You were served aioli smothered spring rolls and fried sushi with greasy quesadillas and silly, silly tacos. It was cute for a small town but a concept that ultimately falls flat when you see what more experimental minds are up to: I was excited to see what Chef Sedlar was going to do with the concept.
The menu looks good, too. Scanning it you begin to flag cultural marks: you see mentions of tacos, salsas, maize cakes, and tamales from Team Mexico and potsickers, Kung-Pao, bok choy, and dim-sum for Team China. The majority of the dishes sound like they are perfect balances of each food world. Names like Kung-Pao Camarones and Dim Sum Tamales and Spring Roll Cielo Verde promise a far East and South of the border mishmash: it was time to put down the menu and try out how Playa’s Mexi-China is.
We took on a wide selection of foodstuffs, from vegetables to cones to delicious plates to share. We’re going to start from the top of the menu and work our way down. The Chinesca Chicken Salad Cone is a nice pulled chicken start that serves as the thesis statement for a menu: you get a corn tortilla chip cone topped with nutty, rice vinegar flavors put on mildly spiced stewed chicken. As you chomp down to completion, you end with an avocado/guacamole finish. The flavors here would appear to lean more toward the Mexican but the powers of the nuts and rice vinegar provide for Chinese flavors wrapped in a static taco.
You take a sip of water to cleanse your palette and sooth the tiny spice and you decide to try the Kongming Lantern Chiles Gueros. These are a ball buster: two albino peppers lightly tossed in lime and sea salt. They appear dainty and good enough to pop in one bite–but you absolutely cannot. Their spice is a hidden warrior who will attack your mouth well into the next dish. Chef Sedlar came around and spoke to us during our meal and mentioned that this dish is one that they are still trying to crack. It had perviously been seeded and filled with cream but they decided to go for a more purist approach when we tried it. This was the only item we were a bit wary of because it was too powerful for our gringo tongues. Know if you are ordering this that you will need a pitcher of water to go with it.
Mao’s Maize Cake is a funny take on a taco and egg fu young. On a corn tortilla, a very soft fried duck egg is decorated with cabbage and bean sprout. You are going to want to pop the delicious duck yolk into the tortilla, which will serve as backdrop to the “Far East” seasoned cabbage and bean sprout. The richness of the egg and the pureness of the maize accompanied with cabbage and sprouts give one of the highest points in Mexi-China: it’s like a high five from the Yucatan to Hong Kong.
Double Happiness are two small cups of marinated oysters. On the white plate setting is a Chinese take and on the orange is the Mexican. The Chinese preparation is very brothy, like a chilled miso soup with oyster. There are palpable soy and fish sauce flavors who run the oyster into your mouth. The soy-ginger gelée brightens the thick mouthfeel. The Mexican preparation is clean cut: this is fresh oyster flavor paired with herbaceous, Cielo Verde greens. A finishing with serrano salsa make a spicy nudge. These were very fun to eat but were a little tough to assemble a perfect forkful. It would be interesting to break these two glasses into four shots, which allows you to take these flavors as gulps. You’ll be able to dwell in them more comfortably.
The Potstickers were one of the biggest triumphs of the evening: it is the most excellent blending of the cultures. You are given a perfect, savory, thin dough that is a distillation of everything a potsticker shell should taste and feel like. It is filled with what tastes like spicy carnitas and topped with pineapple salsa and some pipían verde. Speaking with one of the servers, the pork is cooked in traditional Yucatan style and stewed in spices. The cleanliness of this spicy meat combined with lingering soy makes for a Mexi-China moment of zen: this is experimentation at its finest.
The Spring Rolls are a vehicle for multi-cultural salsa exploration. Imagine ordering vegetable spring rolls and dipping them in tomato based salsas: how would that taste? This dish answers that question and then some. The rolls are lightly fried and filled with Cielo Verde items. They are the bases for six salsas. In a small jade green bowl, you have a thin spiced salsa that is the most classic Mexican salsa concept. In a bowl with a lime green interior you have a peanut sauce that has an added dimension of peppery spice. The pipían verde makes a reappearance in a shallow bowl and proves to have more cinnamon spice and garlic notes. A waiter mentioned the pipían is a pumpkin seed salsa: that makes understanding this verde incredibly easier. The bowl with the red interior is an ingenious mole/soy fusion. A bright orange chipotle sauce in a clear blue bowl is the biggest stand out with its smokey, spicy strength. It makes the greens in the Spring Rolls stand on their head. The final bright green tomatillo salsa is the quietest but has its place in making the greens greener.
All of these salsas have a base in spice. The concept of this dish is taking Spring Rolls and fucking with what they are soaked in: salsa is now a new best friend of these common treats. Which salsa is best? This is personal matter you will have to figure out yourself.
At this point in the meal, you will realize that you are grabbing for lots and lots of water: there is an underlying spice to everything here. Both styles of food making rely heavily on strong, pungent flavors that clear your nose as much as they coat your tongue. Grab a cleanly sweet El Matador cocktail and glass and glass and glass of water: you still have the best dishes coming.
The Kung-Pao Camarones appear to be a taco. This trick is actually a circle of nutty salsa made to look like a tortilla with fat shrimp, chiles, and sprouts on it. This dish was one of the first that we thought leaned on one culture more than another: it feels like a nutty shrimp kung-pao with an underlying Southern spice. The taco-like presentation makes it a valuable part of the menu.
As a nod to lettuce wraps, Chef Sedlar uses Iceberg Lettuce as tortillas with the Celadon Scallop Tacos. This is the most intelligent dish of the night as it is taco and wrap, East and South all at once. With scallops seared in a wok to the absolute definition of seared scallop, a mango-habanero salsa, rice noodles, and the lettuce give you Gulf of Mexico wraps. Like the Kung-Pao, this dish falls more on one culture’s flavor than the other–but the effect of a taco/lettuce-wrap draws the line from Mexico City to Hong Kong so passionately that you can let the flavor bit go.
Dim Sum Tamales sound the most insane of the dishes and could easily be flawed. Arriving in a bamboo heat holder, four little dim sums filled with shrimp tamales sit before you. The dim sum itself is super, super, super authentic to a shrimp dim sum framed with notes of corn from the tamale. You notice this with the more bites you take. Alone, the dim sum feels regular. Hence the aguas chile salsa, a thin neon green sauce that tastes like a spicy watermelon and avocado flavored crème fraîche. The dipping and slathering of the dim sum bites into the salsa makes heavenly bites.
The Bok Choy is traditionally Chinese and doesn’t attempt to add anything else but the soy and garlic flavors that make bok choy happy. They are a best friend to these dishes cast in more than one culinary role.
The Beijing Duck Chow Mein With Pickled Serrano is the biggest Mexi-China reward. Coming to you in a nest of fried chow mein and pickled vegetables, salsa, and duck, you crack into this baby and rub it into the Mexican interpretation of hoisin sauce and giggle worthy Chinese character drawn in dried chipotle. The duck is a pure medium rare. The addition of the Chinese Lap Xoung sausage brings a meaty compliment. The overall effect of this dish is surprisingly clean and American given all of the many influences at play. You realize with this dish that the idea of Mexi-China is less about fusing two worlds together: it is a unique celebration of America. All these dishes are coming from a melting pot of cooking traditions, where flavors from your land and my land are matched up for new food finds.
Dessert is happily light. You have two options: two scoops of ice cream/sorbet or the “Xinjang Almond Gelatin Fruit Salad.” The iced treats are a Chinese ice cream scoop (which has a thick, light chocolate and black sesame flavor) and a Latin French sorbet scoop (which is clean and floral and like a perfume). The Mexican Wedding Cookie that comes with it brings out strong flavors you may have missed in both iced treats. The fruit salad is peary (both Asian and cactus) swimming in a kiddy pool of lemon nectar (that is called “Buddha’s Hand Lemon Syrup”). The mixture of these fruits with some panna cotta is a dainty, fruity ending. Neither desserts are going to kill you or take you from full to pass-out mode: they are carefree non-indulgences.
Playa’s Mexi-China menu is great fun and an example of experimentation in LA food gone very right, where a chef sees two food happenings approaching each other and connects them in all the right spots. Playa is an always friendly atmosphere and the service is never not ace. Although very modern feeling and borderline super fancy, you feel like you are in a family’s dining room eating with happy Pancho Villa and Mao Zedong.
The Mexi-China Menu is a great supplement to their regular menu. Judging from the crowd last night, this is going to be something you are going to want to try: every table that sat down had to try the new menu. The menu is now available and we suggest you stop by to taste a few bites from this cooking of culture. Only in LA can something like a “Mexi-China menu” go so well–and leave it to Chef John Sadler and his extremely talented team to get everything right.