Hearing some of our FTC’ers talk about Anepalco in Orange County, I had made a note to try it the next time we headed to the OC. The plating looked beautiful and the reviews seemed pretty solid. So when I read the Eater news blurb about Chef Daniel Godinez (of Anepalco) opening a new eatery in L.A. County, we decided to check it out.
I was curious what “Modern Mexican Cuisine” would be like. Would it be like the Alta-Cocina dishes found at Babita’s? Or the cooking of Chefs Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu of La Casita Mexicana fame? Or something else?
Maestro took over the space formerly occupied by Azeen’s Afghani Restaurant, and when you walk in, it looks nothing like Azeen’s. Clean lines, very modern, minimalistic with a bright bar in the back.
Brimstone (Pineapple, Fresh Ginger, Lemon, Repo Tequila):
While you could taste the Pineapple and Fresh Ginger, the balance was slightly off, a bit too heavy on the Reposado Tequila. If they dialed it back slightly, this would be a pretty nice way to start off the evening.
Street Corn (Chile de Arbol Aioli, Cotija, Chapulines):
This sounded intriguing on the menu: I kept wondering how they’d display Chapulines (Grasshoppers) for a “Modern Mexican” angle. The dish appears and looks unique (and nothing like the commonly found plating in many Mexican eateries around town). It turns out they roast and grind down the Chapulines into a powder that they dust the Raw Baby Corn with (on the 2 skewers).
There’s no instruction by the server when this dish arrives. It looks interesting, but as a diner I was wondering, “Do I dip the skewers in the bowl of Corn Water?” “Do I eat it separately?” The fact that it’s just 1 bowl made it a bit odd for sharing.
We ended up eating the Baby Corn Skewers by itself: It tasted slightly grainy (it was uncooked Baby Corn), with the Chapulines Powder adding a slightly nutty flavor.
The Corn “Soup” was really more like “Corn Water.” It was mildly seasoned, with large kernels of cooked Corn inside, but the Chile de Arbol Aioli and Cotija Cheese were “melted” (floating in odd splotchy-looking patterns) on the surface of this Corn Water. It looked rather unappetizing.
But flavor-wise, it was really more watery than anything. It didn’t taste fully integrated like a great Corn Soup.
Tacos Ahogados (Free-Range Chicken, Natural Broth, Cream, Queso Fresco):
These Tacos Ahogados turned out to be different from the usual notion of “Taco” that you might be thinking of, being deep-fried like a Taquito. The frying was clean, and the Free-Range Chicken filling was lightly seasoned. But the downside with the plating (sitting in a pool of Chicken Broth) was that by the time the dish made it to our table, each Fried Taco was soggy. There was no crispness (at all). Just soggy shell with a light Chicken filling.
Lamb Barbacoa (Nopales, Nixtamal Tortilla, Cilantro):
This was delicious! Soft, tender, Slow-Roasted Lamb exhibiting a nice gaminess with a slight piquant flavor from the Nopales and Salsa.
But what made it standout more were the Organic Handmade Tortillas:
There was a nice heft, a toasted softness, a nice mouthfeel and subtle chew. They were almost as good as the Handmade Tortillas at Broken Spanish. Delicious.
On our 2nd visit, we started with Roasted Beets (Goat Cheese Quemado, Pineapple, Hearth On Fire):
One thing so far is that the plating is beautiful and interesting. Thankfully the Roasted Beets’ taste matched the plating: A very nice balance of earthy sweetness from the Roasted Beets, enhanced by the tropical bursts of a stronger sweetness from the Pineapple, but balanced by the funky Goat Cheese Quemado. This was pretty enjoyable.
Calamari (Roasted Bell Pepper Puree, Lime Juice):
There was decent crispiness to the Fried Calamari. It also packed a decent spiciness (more than Jalapeno level), but overall it tasted like a “Fried Calamari Appetizer” that was spicy. I didn’t really get what made it “Modern Mexican” in this dish, but otherwise it was fine.
Octopus (Chorizo Salsa, Soup Plantain, Avocado Puree):
The plating here started to hit the border between “that’s neat” and “gimmicky”. Arriving on an empty glass bottle, the Grilled Octopus sits atop a mass of soft Raw Masa. It made it look like “Sand on the Beach”; if they added a curled up Letter in the Bottle that might’ve completed the motif, LOL.
The Grilled Octopus tasted fine, but nothing really stood out. In addition, this felt just a touch too precious: You get 6 tiny pieces of Octopus for $12, while the previous Calamari appetizer was $11 for easily twice the portion. It just felt oddly disproportionate.
Duck Carnitas (Roasted Tomatillo, Cauliflower, Escabeche):
I love Duck, so I was really excited to try this. Just the notion of “Duck Carnitas” sounds amazing. Maestro’s version is sadly mediocre.
It’s not “bad,” but the Duck Carnitas tasted rather muted and old. It was tender enough, but nothing stood out about it, and the Tomatillo Salsa’s tartness really overpowered the delicate Duck. In addition, the thick cut Toasted Bread they served with it was not only too thick (a lot of Bread per bite), but also sweet (like a King’s Hawaiian Bread). The flavors just clashed.
Lamb Barbacoa (Nopales, Nixtamal Tortilla, Cilantro):
With more friends joining us on this 2nd visit, we ordered the Lamb Barbacoa again, and it was as good as the first time. Tender, Slow-Roasted Lamb, nicely balanced with a touch of tart with the gaminess and salt. It won’t dethrone places like Aqui Es Texcoco or my favorite Barbacoa y Birria Estilo Guerrero, but it was respectable, and a great way to get Lamb Barbacoa on weeknights in this part of town.
Service was a bit haphazard, but they’ve just opened, so I hope they straighten up over time.
I would say we enjoyed the Alta-Cocina cooking of Babita’s and the modern cooking of Chef Ray Garcia at Broken Spanish much more than Maestro. Currently, it feels like Maestro has excelled at interesting, beautiful (and borderline gimmicky) plating and presentation, interesting-sounding ingredients that aren’t usually found on many Mexican restaurants’ menus around town, but the taste leaves room for improvement.
The Lamb Barbacoa and Roasted Beets Salad are noteworthy already, so I’m hoping Chef Godinez and his team can continue to refine and improve the flavors in the other dishes, at which point, Old Town Pasadena will have a new Modern Mexican restaurant worth visiting.
110 E. Union St.
Pasadena, CA 91733
Tel: (626) 787-1512