Updated after the jump: Rick Bayless responds! And isn't happy . . . and one of the kings of LA food blogging has even funnier things to say about Bayless.
Last Thursday, the CCNMA: Latino Journalists of California (formerly the California Chicano News Media Association) held a fund-raising mixer at Marché Moderne (who says raza can't go bourgie?). I usually don't attend such shindigs, but this one was different: Not only were the Mexi media moguls commemorating the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Los Angeles Times columnist Rubén Salazar, but the keynote speaker was LA Weekly's Pulitzer Prize-winning food columnist, Jonathan Gold.
The choice seemed strange, combining the somber remembrance of a pioneer with a man paid to make people salivate, and Gold began his remarks by noting this. But the crowd of about 50 (each of whom paid $60 to attend) didn't mind, especially as Gold launched into a critique of a person whom he said many people call America's greatest Mexican chef: Rick Bayless.
Gold said Bayless was a “good” chef who knew his way around Mexican recipes, but he sneered at Bayless' nerve in coming to Los Angeles and opening a restaurant–Red O–that presumed to introduce Angelinos to “authentic” Mexican cuisine. In particular, Gold zeroed in on Bayless' inclusion of chilpachole (a glorious seafood soup from Veracruz) as some rarity; Gold said the soup was easily available in the Southland, alongside dozens of other Mexican regional specialties. Very true: I saw Red O's menu, and you can purchase nearly every meal he offers somewhere in Southern California (most of them in Orange County, even). Gold also said the décor of Red O made the restaurant seem as “if it survived a nuclear blast,” much to the delight of the crowd, who snacked on Argentine- and Spanish-inspired appetizers offered by the ever-flexible, ever-impressive Marché Moderne team.
The food god went on to extol the virtues of Southern California's homegrown Mexican cuisine–the burritos with no real provenance to Mexico, yet wholly wabby; the baked nachos; the tacos. Gold mentioned a burrito place whose name I can no longer remember because I was on my fourth glass of Cabernet, but, he noted, the restaurant was essentially a fraud: The woman who had run it for decades wasn't the woman in the restaurant's name, and there was no first location, even though this particular place advertised itself as the second. Was it Lucy's #2? Linda's? Licha's?
Ah, who cares? Gold's point was well-taken: It's funny to watch outsiders lecture Mexis on what constitutes authentic and real. I like Bayless, and he is a seminal figure in the history of Mexican food in the United States, but there's nothing better than seeing the king of all food critics take down a giant.
UPDATE I (II is after the video): Bayless himself responds below in the comments, none too happily:
First of all, I'm incredulous that Jonathan Gold didn't check his
facts. I know it's all the rage for journalists to go into unsupported
hyperbole, but I never said I was going to introduce Southern California
to “authentic” Mexican cuisine. I said I was going to bring the
flavors of Frontera Grill to Los Angeles. Which is completely true. I
guess getting a Pulitzer doesn't mean you're beholden to truth. But I'm
sure it made for a “fun” evening for all gathered there. Such is the
state of modern journalism.
Compare Bayless' claim about the intentions of Red O in that comment to an interview he gave to KNBC-TV Channel 4, in which he explicitly says he opened his place because he was intrigued “how the true flavors of Mexico, from central and southern Mexico, would play in Southern California.” Guy must've never heard of SanTana (as I go on to write in a comment below), never visited the rest of Southern California. See the rest of the interview below; Bayless' view of Mexican food in the Southland begins and ends with El Cholo, apparently. Sad. . . .
UPDATE II: A friend reminded me that Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA–perhaps the best blog on Mexican food in America–dropped a particularly brutal review on Red O earlier this year. Funniest line: “And the Carlsbad mussels [in the chilpachole]? They tasted more like Long Beach!” BURN. . . .