Living in Los Angeles, we are often spoiled by an array of Mexican restaurants offering authentic cuisine, but oftentimes these are small holes in the wall and mom and pop restaurants tucked away in neighborhoods not often visited by those on the westside. I'm happy to report that Chef Richard Sandoval's restaurant La Sandia at Santa Monica Place delivers truly authentic Mexican cuisine made with the freshest ingredients that will have you feeling like you're dining south of the border. From the moment you step inside, you'll feel like you've been whisked away to a nice restaurant in Acapulco, or even in a nice Mexican hacienda, with its beautiful open courtyard. The roof is covered now during the fall/winter months, but on a nice day, it's an open rooftop, which will definitely make you feel like you're on vacation. No need to book that plane ticket, because you can really feel like you're in Mexico just from dining here.
I started off with a delicious cocktail, perfectly mixed. Off the Mole Festival menu which runs until the end of November, the Habanero Blood Orange Margarita is mixed with tequila reposado, citrus, blood orange-habanero purée with a mole negro rim. I've never had a cocktail quite like this one, and it's the perfect way to celebrate the annual Mole Festival in Mexico City. Lucky for us, Richard Sandoval brings it to Santa Monica.
I first had the pleasure of trying the Enmolada Quesadillas. I must admit I don't usually order quesadillas at Mexican restaurants, but was I in for a treat! The plate is beautifully presented with four cheese quesadillas in corn (not flour) tortillas, each topped with a different mole representing the different parts of Mexico from where they originate. The first I tried was the quesadilla with the most common of moles, Mole Poblano from Puebla, perfectly described on La Sandia's Mole Festival menu, as having complex, nutty flavors with spice, chiles, and Mexican chocolate. It was absolutely perfect, just the right combination of spicy and sweet, as it should be. Sometimes it's hard to find the right Mole Poblano, but Chef Sandoval has got it down. It helps that he's from Mexico City and grew up helping his grandmother in the kitchen. All the chefs at his restaurants follow his recipes, and at La Sandia, Chef Miguel Martinez does an amazing job. From Querétaro, by Mexico City, he also understands how to prepare Mexican cuisine the authentic way, so you know you're getting the real stuff here.
Next, I tried the Mole Rojo, from Oaxaca, made with mild guajillo chiles, chile ancho and oregano. This may be the tastiest of the bunch, reminiscent of a red enchilada sauce. With each bite I couldn't stop exclaiming how delicious everything was. Then I tried the Mole Pipián of Mexico City, this one a green-colored mole since it's made with tomatillos, pumpkin seeds, chile poblano and nuts, packing a bit more of a spicy kick that will have your taste buds singing. I loved it! Lastly, I tried the Mole Negro of Oaxaca. This is probably the most bitter of all four, but equally delicious, made with nuts, charred tomatoes, and avocado leaves. Each one of these moles is the real thing, giving you a tour of Mexico while you truly enjoy each bite. This plate is best for sharing, and you get all of that for just $9.95. It really is a steal!
You can also order a variety of entrées off the Mole Festival menu, choosing any of the moles atop your choice of Pan Roasted Chicken Breast, Sautéed Jumbo Shrimp, Grilled Hanger Steak, Slow Cooked Carnitas, or Market Vegetables. The great thing is the chef recommends which mole goes best with each option, offering a sort of cheat sheet, if you will. For the Mole Pipián, it's recommended you order the Jumbo Shrimp or Market Vegetables, for the Poblano, chicken breast is the traditional option, the slow cooked pork carnitas are the recommended option for the Mole Rojo, and for the Mole Negro it's the Hanger Steak. Of course you can choose whichever combination you like, so have fun with it. But I can attest that the carnitas are definitely the perfect combination for the Mole Rojo...what an absolutely scrumptious dish! Another great cocktail option to accompany the moles is the Guava Mojito, also off the Mole Festival menu. It's made with rum, mint, lime, and guava purée...delicious and refreshing! They really know their cocktails here too.
I was already quite full by now, but had to try a unique dish I had never seen at any Mexican restaurant. On their brunch menu, the Breakfast Relleno de Tamal is exactly what it sounds like...a tamale inside a poblano chile. And yes, it is as ridiculously good as it sounds...never mind the calories. The poblano is stuffed with a chicken tinga tamale, but not only that. There's a fried egg on top, all sitting atop a divine jalisco sauce drizzled with fresh crema. Wow! You really need to experience this for yourself.
Another great thing about La Sandia is there is definitely something for everyone. If you love Chile Rellenos, but are concerned about the calories in that one, they even offer a Latin Light menu with many of your Mexican favorites to enjoy scaled down. I enjoyed the Chile Relleno Trio. At just 475 calories, you get a small cup of Chicken Soup, a divine chopped salad, a side of avocado, chipotle sauce and tortilla strips for your soup, and a delicious poblano chile stuffed with fresh market vegetables and Mexican cheese. I liked it just as much as the other one, so if you're counting your calories, this is definitely the way to go. This dish is also a perfect example of how everything at La Sandia is made with the freshest ingredients. As Chef Miguel Martinez was telling me, there are no freezers there. Everything is fresh, and you can taste it in every bite.
La Sandia even offers light versions of cocktails under 150 calories. There is a Latin Light Margarita, a lighter take on the traditional margarita and the Sandia, a lighter margarita made with muddled watermelon, citrus juices, nectreese sugar, lime and tequila, of course. It's flavorful and refreshing! They also offer a light Watermelon Agua Fresca, a fresh juice made from watermelon, the restaurant's namesake.
I really thought I was done by this point, but couldn't leave without trying their churros, and I was so glad I did! These churros were perfect, with a warm, fresh dough center, made just right. The dough just melts in your mouth, and they come with an exquisite chocolate dipping sauce. Enjoy them with a cup of espresso and you'll be in heaven.
You have until November 30 to enjoy the Mole Festival. La Sandia will also be celebrating Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) with two special food and drink offerings on November 1st. Enjoy the winning combination of the Mole Rojo with the slow roasted carnitas I mentioned, along with the Habanero Blood Orange Margarita . For more information on everything going on at La Sandia, including their all night Happy Hour offered Sunday-Friday at their tequila bar and lounge, visit their website at www.richardsandoval.com/lasandiasm or their facebook page. La Sandia is located at 395 Santa Monica Place in Santa Monica. Call 310-393-3300 for reservations. Buen provecho!