The sun has almost vanished behind the purple outline of Catalina Island, the barometer dropped to a cooler version of perfect SoCal temperature. I’m on my third “inspired cocktail” at the Ritz Carlton’s Laguna Niguel’s oceanfront lounge, 180blu, when Chef Richard Sandoval, a restaurateur boasting fifteen ventures around the world, walks in and shyly introduces himself, kissing everyone hello. Sandoval motions to the waitress and points at my Tamarind-Togarashi margarita, dangerously drinkable for something that counts Patron Silver as one of its ingredients. The chef is here to wish us buen provecho before we embark on a Sandoval-exclusive culinary weekend to sample his three recently opened Southern California restaurants, Raya, La Sandia, and Zengo.
Chatting with Chef Sandoval, it doesn't take long to notice the lack of pretension that defines so many culinary superstars. (It’s also probably why you don't know who he his.) Sandoval hops on the barstool next to me and graciously asks how my flight was, becoming visibly animated when I say I came from NYC. He confides that it's of his top three favorite cities because of “the energy and the people.” I later learn that Sandoval loves New York restaurants like Nobu that first showcased the ease with which Latin and Asian flavors can be combined to create bold, eclectic flavor fusions. His enthusiasm for my hometown makes sense, since his empire began a decade ago with his contemporary Mexican restaurant, Maya, on the Upper East Side.
But back to California. Our first stop, Raya, is located right inside the hotel, where breathtaking views of the Pacific are the norm. Our dinner menu is a mix of popular menu items and some fall seasonal specials. Standout starters include the California hamachi tiraditos served in a ponzu sauce and Maine lobster tacos, but they are quickly overshadowed by Raya's famed sweet-corn soup, which arrived in tragically petite tasting bowls. Delicate flakes of crab and lobster meat, puréed avocado, a truffled masa dumpling, and, finally, a black blot of puréed huitlacoche - the controversial Mexican ingredient otherwise known as “corn smut” - blend beautifully with a piping hot sweet corn puree.
The next evening, we drive to the newly renovated Santa Monica Place in Santa Monica, where Sandoval’s two other restaurants, La Sandia and Zengo, opened in August. Sandoval says that opening the Santa Monica locations, along with Raya, represents a homecoming of sorts for him. Even though he was born in Mexico City and spent time living elsewhere around the world, his family lives in Southern California, and he considers it home. “We’ve been crazy since the beginning,” says Sandoval. “It was a lot of work since we opened both restaurants at exactly the same time, and they’re right next to one another. We didn’t expect to be so busy, so in the beginning it was a struggle with the staff, but now we’re finally on track. I’m super happy with them.”
Like he said, Sandoval’s restaurants are adjacent, located on the top level of an outdoor mall. He also wasn’t kidding about them being busy. We arrive around 6:30 and already both places are nearly full. We start with margaritas, chips, and guacamole - straightforward, authentic Mexican classics. The group agrees that we could collectively polish off another six baskets of homemade tortilla chips, but we are escorted away from the table and into Zengo, where Asian fusion-y small plates await us. Zengo is the most publicized of Sandoval’s three SoCal ventures, with locations in Denver, Washington D.C., and New York.
"Try the best chicken wings you will ever have in your life,” says the foodie to my left, as our spread of never-ending small plates begins to arrive. I cannot remember ever being particularly excited about a chicken wing, and I had my formerly vegetarian sights firmly set on the wakame-hijiki seaweed salad with cucumber, carrot, daikon, apple, and ginger dressing - but she was right. The secret, besides the chipotle-teriyaki sauce, said Sandoval, is marinating them in chicken fat. Other must-try dishes are the charred tuna wonton tacos and the glazed black cod, which gives other miso black cod joints a run for their money.