A couple of chairs flipped right side up in the middle of a gutted dining space. That is how we roll with Chef Gonzalez in his unfinished room, also known as Phase Two in the grand scheme of things at Roe in Belmont Shore. Thanks to some dedicated parking spots, we start our session on time and with a lot of elbow room.
Your earliest food memory:
My mom's potato pancakes and my grandma's mole.
Favorite meal growing up:
Hamburger and fries. We ate so much at home, it was such a treat to go to McDonald's. I went to school with sardine sandwiches. Do you remember Eddie Murphy from Delirious when he talked about homemade hamburgers? I just wanted McDonalds. I also like In-N-Out double doubles, animal style.
Your best recent food find:
Smoked Oaxaca Red Chile – Melissa's Produce turned me on to it (Oaxaca Chile), and I'm not sure where the retail consumer can get it.
Most undervalued ingredient:
Vinegar. I use different types for different dishes. Sometimes when I'm tasting a dish, it can be a soup or salad– you can salt it enough, but vinegar just gives it a kick, this brightness that's like nothing else. It's not like lemon or citrus or an acid. They lend a big part to a lot of what I cook, I think, that's not looked upon enough.
I can make you a dish and use a $20 olive oil, and you'd be like, “That's okay.” And I can give it a little splash of the vinegar and you'll say, “This is amazing.” Just talking about it makes the back part of my mouth salivate.
Was your dream concept to build Roe in phases? Or was solely the restaurant?
It just happened that way, the market space was pretty much ready to go – the restaurant needs a whole new look.
Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
Vietnamese food. I go to Pho 79 [Editor's Note: He had to ask someone about the place inside Asian Garden Mall. Nobody ever remembers the names of pho places. It's like internal GPS.] When I walk in with my girlfriend, they know what we like. I go to get specialty ingredients from the grocery stores. It's actually one of the most intriguing cooking cultures to me that I'd love to in depth and explore a lot more.
Okay, some of your dishes need explaining. Fish dip? Soy egg?
“French Fish Dip” is a play on the classic “French Dip” sandwich, only we use fish, caramelized onions, tarragon on a toasty baguette, and you dip it in our “Bad Ass Bisque” instead of Au jus. “Soy Egg” is a hard boiled egg marinated in soy and mirin.
Tell us about the next phase.
The next phase is going to be a fish-focused, chef-driven, season cuisine restaurant with raw bar. Although we will have original dishes, the menu will be made up of global cuisine that is constantly changing with what is available and in season. We will have a full bar and will focus on a mixology program. We would also like to offer a Saturday and Sunday brunch that is still seafood focused with a “kickback” beach environment.
Where was your most recent meal? What did you have?
Hakata Ramen Shin-Sen-Gumi. Hakata Ramen & Takana fried rice with spicy miso.
Best culinary tip for the home cook:
Season and taste as you cook.
We read something about Kangen water?
Kangen water is alkaline water. It restores proper Ph levels in your body. It also cleans our vegetables and hydrates our fish.
Eric DiStefano– he really took me under his wing when I started with him. Then, when we were both confident in my abilities, he gave me responsibility and locations to manage on my own. He not only allowed me to grow, he made show that I did.
You worked with Aquarium of the Pacific; we don't suppose you've crossed paths with Andrew Gruel and Jethro Naude (of SlapFish)?
Yup, I actually worked with them on their food truck. I met Andrew when he was the director of Seafood for the Future. I think very highly of them and what they're doing.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten:
Durian, that stinky ass fruit.
One food you can't life without.
Chile. I love spice. It gets your blood flowing. And you don't always have to use it for spiciness. I have six different chiles in the back that aren't even spicy. The Oaxacan chile has a smoky flavor that chipotle doesn't have. Melissa's will be here next month roasting Hatch chiles.
When I started cooking, I always cooked with a little spice. And then I went to New Mexico. What they considered Mexican food was totally different from what I grew up on. It just opened my eyes. I went to Hatch and saw the chiles grow. I asked the farmers, “What makes these so unique?” and they gave me the whole story about the Colorado river and how it goes through all the different rock formations, pulling a lot of minerals from all the red rock, going right into it. I tried growing a Hatch chile in my backyard, and it didn't turn out the way it did over there.
Favorite places to eat:
Pho Hung Phat in Long Beach. Empenadas Place in Venice Beach. Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe.
You're making breakfast. What are you having?
Breakfast burrito with sausage, potatoes, eggs and red & green chile (Christmas chile) from a place in New Mexico called Tia Sophia's. The combination of the two chiles works extremely, extremely well.