By Andy J. Gordon
It is a daunting task to launch a high-end restaurant in a difficult economy, not to mention having to deal with the sky-high rents of Beverly Hills. The people behind Taberna Mexicana must have been extremely confident when they opened their new Bedford Drive establishment in the midst of some of the most expensive real estate in the ritziest part of Los Angeles. Having recently experienced the elegant atmosphere, expert service and fine creative dishes of executive chef Alex Padilla, it is clear to us that Taberna Mexicana has the right stuff to compete in this challenging market.
The food at Taberna Mexicana (www.tabernamexicana.com) is sophisticated with authentic touches that showcase Padilla’s abundant talent. Padilla’s family is from Honduras, but he spent his teen years in Houston, where he learned to cook from his mom who was a chef at Ninfa’s, the most famous Tex-Mex restaurant in that city (and maybe in all of Texas). Padilla left Houston for San Francisco, where he honed his skills for 17 years under the guidance of Nancy Oakes, a James Beard-award winner at the French/New American restaurant Boulevard. After departing from Boulevard, Padilla traveled through Mexico and Europe, where he learned regional styles to add to his expertise. He came back to Northern California and successfully launched three award-winning restaurants, including Thea and the Mexican bistros Colibri and Consuelo. In 2006 he moved back to Houston to take over as executive chef at Ninfa’s. Later he moved on yet again, and opened a Taberna Mexicana in Phoenix, before launching the Beverly Hills location. The Beverly Hills restaurant uses the best ingredients available and includes locally sourced produce that Padilla finds at farmers’ markets during the week. His approach pays tribute to the regional cuisines of Mexico, using their traditional methods combined with modern cooking techniques. The results are extremely flavorful and delicious. Nothing tastes heavy or greasy, and the absence of lard makes any meal at Taberna healthier than a typical Mexican dining experience. Every dish has a refinement rarely found in typical Southern California Mexican restaurants.
The décor is a fine balance between upscale elegance and casual comfort. The bar area is inviting, with a handful of two-seat high-top tables and comfortable bar seating. Behind the bar is a prominent display of high-end tequilas and other top-shelf libations. The friendly and knowledgeable bar staff use fresh, quality ingredients to mix up tasty and powerful cocktails. The dining room has a high ceiling, fine leather seats at the booths and tables, and Mexican tiles and artwork on the walls to create a warm, welcoming atmosphere.
Unlike the typical basket of greasy chips presented upon arrival at most Mexican places, Taberna offers house-made plantain, yucca and blue-corn chips, served with pasilla pepper salsa as well as a tomatillo, mango and avocado salsa. Being a heat seeker, I asked if they had a special hot salsa and received a habenero concoction that brought a ton of fire but was tempered by a tangy, fruity flavor. The drink menu has a variety of specialty cocktails, wines and beers, but their fine tequila collection suggested that margaritas would be the best choice. Brent, the skilled bartender, whipped up a Refrescante Morgan, his special blend of Espolon Reposado tequila, Cointreau, and orange juice, tinged with a hint of ginger and jalapeno. The flavors blended brilliantly with the sweetness offset by the spice and chilies. My companion tried the Padilla Picante, a nice blend of vodka and orange juice with hints of serrano chilies and fresh basil.
We dove into the menu with a few tasty appetizers. The Atun was a delicate blend of sushi-grade Ahi tuna with chilies, oils, jicama and spices. Taberna’s version of guacamole includes pumpkin seeds and queso fresco. It was creamy and a delicious complement to the crispy chips. The Quesadilla De Hongos were a trio of mushroom delights with Oaxaca cheese and roasted poblanos in freshly made corn tortillas.
Before hitting the main courses, it was time for another cocktail so I asked for something inventive. Brent sent out a delicious strawberry margarita made with Partida blanco tequila and fresh muddled berries.
Then it was on to Taberna’s main courses. They consist of a wide variety of regionally inspired preparations from the land and sea. We chose the Cochinita Pibil, a fabulous version of Yucatan pork stew. The meat was incredibly tender with a distinct depth of flavor, a taste that can only be accomplished with slow cooking, precise seasoning and an expert touch. Another creative entrée was the Pato En Pipian Rojo, a succulent duck dish prepared two ways. The crispy breast was a bit dry but still had good flavor, while the confit duck leg was juicy and succulent. The duck was cooked with a complex red pumpkin-seed mole sauce, with an awesome chipotle raspberry sauce served on the side for dipping.
We could not end our meal without trying a few of the inviting desserts. The Mexican Flourless Chocolate Cake was densely decadent and had a hint of heat from an infusion of guajillo chilies. The cake was served with a rich, creamy Horchata ice cream enhanced with cinnamon. It was a delicious and refreshing combination. Another dessert not to be missed is the Sopa De Fruta, a seasonal farmer’s market selection. On this day fresh peaches were served with a drizzle of caramel. A fabulous pineapple jalapeño granita accompanied the fresh fruit. The tangy concoction had the consistency of soft Italian ices with chunks of pineapple, and the subtle heat was offset by the fruit’s sweetness. It was a brilliant creation that brought an end to a completely satisfying meal.
Taberna Mexicana is an excellent choice for diners seeking fine food in a comfortable, upscale setting. A great way to sample the place is during their generous happy hour (Monday to Saturday from 3PM to 7PM, and all day Sunday) in the bar area. With a generous selection of food items from the bar menu, and several beer, wine and cocktail choices all priced at $3 each, patrons can experience Taberna’s fine food and drinks at a fraction of their normal price. Whether you go for happy hour or a complete meal, a trip to Taberna Mexicana in the heart of Beverly Hills is guaranteed to please all serious Mexican food lovers.
369 N. Bedford
Beverly Hills, CA 90201
Photos courtesy of Taberna Mexicana and Andy J. Gordon