Los Angeles

This Mariscos Tasting Menu Is so Good It Might Make You Cry

Chef Gilberto Cetina is sourcing incredible seafood and turning it into the best mariscos in town.

Photo by Stan Lee for Thrillist
Photo by Stan Lee for Thrillist
Photo by Stan Lee for Thrillist

The second course of the tasting menu comes with a dramatic presentation at Holbox, Chef Gilberto Cetina’s stunning modern marisqueria in Mercado La Paloma. You sit at the newly expanded counter in front of their dry-aging fridges in the big market hall, eye to eye with gorgeous whole fish hanging upside down as South LA locals, USC students, and workers from the next door DMV file past you, just a few feet from the register where you can otherwise order √† la carte. You watch Cetina and his team as they work the raw bar, deftly shucking oysters and slicing fish. The dish arrives, a¬†tight lump of ceviche made with local white seabass, two dollops of avocado salsa, and a slab of Santa Barbara sea urchin layered into the spiny purple husk of the urchin itself, plated on a bed of ice.

But the dish is perhaps not intended to be as dramatic as it was a few weeks ago when, upon receiving her plate, my wife suddenly reached over and squeezed my arm in quiet alarm. “It’s moving,” she whispered. I laughed, thinking it was a trick of the breeze from the overhead fans that keep air circulating in the high-ceilinged warehouse that holds the market, but she wasn’t kidding. She pointed at her plate, where one solitary burgundy spine on the underside of her urchin shell wriggled in a short arc. Suffice it to say the seafood at Holbox is exceedingly fresh.

The emphasis is always on sourcing for Cetina, getting the freshest sea creatures from the closest waters possible. “Sourcing is one of the things that I spend the most time on,” Cetina said. “I think it’s the most important task we have in our kitchen, building relationships with farmers.” Now he’s regularly getting fish from Omega Azul in Baja, sea urchin and more from Sea Stephanie, and prawns from TransparentSea¬†and letting the catch dictate what they serve for any given tasting menu.

Photo by Stan Lee for Thrillist
Photo by Stan Lee for Thrillist
Photo by Stan Lee for Thrillist

The menu’s first course is always a selection of bivalves, whatever is freshest. In late summer, that might mean an oyster with little pops of smoked trout roe and cucumber, another oyster topped with urchin and a touch of smoky salsa, or a simple ceviche of geoduck with a spot of avocado crema. The ethos is clear from the first bite: great seafood with creative presentations, but always rooted in Mexican culinary tradition.

Sourcing wasn’t always easy, Cetina said. He had a hard time getting the good stuff in the early going, mainly because people were a little skeptical about the concept. He tells a story about visiting producers during his research and development phase, telling them, “Here’s a list of products I’m looking for; I want spiny lobster for a lobster taco. And they would ask, ‚ÄėWhat kind of food is it?’ And I would tell them it’s Mexican seafood, it’s mariscos. And immediately, they would say, ‚ÄėOh, you know what? We also have frozen Australian lobster tails.'”

Now he’s getting all kinds of ingredients that are generally considered fancy, like local abalone, sea urchin, spot prawns, bluefin tuna, whatever is best and freshest that day. But it has also raised some interesting questions about perception-many of those ingredients are unusual to find in mariscos and are more commonly associated with high-end Asian preparations, bluefin in sushi, or abalone at Chinese celebrations. Cetina and his team want to be careful to keep dishes clearly in the Mexican tradition to show that these ingredients belong in their cuisine. Moreover, Cetina said, “All those ingredients are native to Mexico. We have spot prawns and sea urchins in Baja California, but they’re just never thought of as Mexican ingredients, which is a shame.”

Photo by Stan Lee for Thrillist
Photo by Stan Lee for Thrillist
Photo by Stan Lee for Thrillist

In one course of the tasting menu that has become a mainstay, Cetina lays a ceviche of bluefin tuna on a tostada raspada with a few dots of sharp chile de arbol and peanut salsa on top. The tuna is lovely, tender, and rich, treated with as much precision and care as you will find anywhere regardless of cuisine, but, as Cetina tells it, it’s almost beside the point. “The fact is, it almost plays backup to the tostada,” he said. “Our focus is really more on the tostada because that’s such a traditional Mexican thing,” he continues, “and with the ceviche, it’s bluefin because that’s what’s biting right now on the Channel Islands‚Ķ we don’t shy away from it because it’s one of the iconic ingredients of Japanese cuisine, but we do try to present it very much in the context of Mexican food.”

The tostada raspada is worthy of the attention, too. Making the tostadas is an involved process that is most common in Jalisco, and Cetina said it took quite a bit of research and development to nail down. They cook one side of a tortilla, then scrape the raw masa off the other side, dry it, and later fry it. That leaves it thin and crispy, rough on one side in a way that plays perfectly against the luscious tuna on top. No matter what was layered on top of the tostada, though, you would never mistake this for anything other than a remarkable Mexican dish.

And the ingredients aren’t the only thing out of the ordinary for a mariscos joint-even offering a tasting menu is a rarity. Cetina said that Holbox was initially intended to be something small and perhaps transient, a fun little ceviche bar extension of Chichen Itza, the Yucat√°n-style restaurant stall in the market, which his family also owns. But as he began playing with the menu at Holbox, running specials and working with unusual mariscos, regular customers started asking him to whip up a bunch of his favorites for them, whatever he felt like serving. Word spread, and suddenly, it was a tasting menu. Things grew slowly, two diners one night, four another, but now it’s blown up into a bona fide hit, sold out for months in advance.

Photo by Stan Lee for Thrillist
Photo by Stan Lee for Thrillist
Photo by Stan Lee for Thrillist

There’s good reason for that, of course-it’s a truly special meal. The balance of creativity with classic, technical dish construction with familiar Mexican preparations is a powerful combination. The Taco de Jaiba is another perfect microcosm of the menu, a taco filled with house-smoked yellowtail, Dungeness crab, and locally made queso oaxaca, a smoky and rich taco that is topped with a stunning salsa macha that’s been infused with crab butter for a spicy, saline sharpness.

The menu is always composed of four cold dishes followed by four hot dishes, each taking a more or less familiar format. There are ceviches, tostadas, and tacos. Perhaps you will get a tetela, the Oaxacan stuffed triangle of masa, filled here with an earthy kanpachi liver and black beans, topped with grilled shrimp and dressed with a bright salsa verde made from chiles and lettuce. There is likely to be a tamal, made from Yucat√°n-style masa colada, soft and savory and topped with abalone and abalone liver sauce. Lobster is a fixture, too-local or from Maine, not the frozen Australian stuff-grilled over mesquite so that it’s gently smoky, accompanied by cabbage stuffed with spiced house-made fish sausage and resting on a complex and intense mole amarillo.

The blend of nostalgia and novelty, the brilliant recontextualization of high-end ingredients into mariscos, and the intensity of the flavors combine to make the meal genuinely affecting. On the perfectly nerdy food forum Food Talk Central, posters report becoming misty-eyed and nearly crying at dinner and noticing their neighbors at the small counter tearing up, too. Posters on the same forum also found a review on Yelp in which tears were shed. It is quite a meal, and even if you don’t weep yourself, you will probably leave with one of the best dinners of the year.

Over the last few years, Holbox has grown into an iconic LA restaurant, a mariscos tasting menu at a counter in a warehouse market that feels like it could only ever be here. It was supposed to be an experiment, a trial run to see if it was worth expanding into a full-on marisqueria somewhere else-specifically somewhere where they could get a liquor license. But now it’s not going anywhere, rooted as firmly in the community as the menu is rooted in Mexican cuisine.

Cetina and his family have been at the market since it opened in 2001, operating Chichen Itza and then Holbox. “The fact that it’s a community space, that 90% of my staff live in this community, the fact that it’s a unique place to come have a meal,” Cetina said it all contributes to their decision to stay in the space instead of relocating or expanding. “The reality is that if Holbox was in a different space, the food would be the same,” he said, “This is the best we can do. We don’t tone anything down because we’re in this casual mercado.” That much is clear, and guests have responded to Cetina and his team’s diligent, creative, unique work. With reservations, with awards, and with their tears.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on¬†Instagram,¬†TikTok,¬†Twitter,¬†Facebook,¬†Pinterest, and¬†YouTube.

Ben Mesirow is a Staff Writer at Thrillist.

Los Angeles

How to Spend a Weekend in Topanga Canyon

Nature and the arts collide in this beloved canyon community.

Hanan Isachar/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images
Hanan Isachar/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images
Hanan Isachar/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

Situated in the Santa Monica Mountains and known for its vibrant creative community, Topanga is one of Los Angeles’s most prized destinations for art and outdoor enthusiasts alike. And while LA boasts its own sprawling landscape of fun to tap into, you’d be remiss to miss a chance to explore this tucked-away collection of state parks, and cafes, and restaurants-especially when it all rests just 20 minutes away from the city. From a quaint caf√© with dazzling canyon views to a world-renowned, open-air theatre, here are the best ways to pass some time in Topanga now.

Photo courtesy of Inn of the Seventh Ray
Photo courtesy of Inn of the Seventh Ray
Photo courtesy of Inn of the Seventh Ray

Friday

Book dinner at Inn of the Seventh Ray
Owner Lucille Yaney opened this iconic restaurant in 1975 after spotting the property on a drive through the canyon with her late husband Ralph, and it’s safe to say she had a good eye. The land perfectly fits into Yaney’s vision of a romantic, alfresco dining space with tables tucked into cozy nooks and gazebos, all beneath canapes and fairy lights. Today, Yaney co-owns the venue with executive chef consultant Brad Miller. Together, they continue to fulfil the restaurant’s original mission to serve pure, natural foods reflective of the season’s best. That approach appears in dishes like 8-Hour Black Vinegar Braised Short Rib with creamy rosemary polenta, duck bacon Brussels sprouts, and caramelized onion and fig jam; Roasted Mushroom Toast with oyster mushrooms and sherry tarragon cream; and Beets & Whipped Black Pepper Creme Fraiche. Consider the carbs here. Pastas and sauces are made in-house and from scratch, as is the bread (available regular or gluten-free), an order of which you won’t want to miss. Check out the wine list, too, which offers a robust organic and biodynamic selection that has helped the restaurant garner some impressive accolades in recent years.

Check into Topanga Canyon Inn
In addition to plenty of excellent Airbnbs available to rent in the Canyon, there’s Topanga Canyon Inn, a charming bed and breakfast comprised of two Mediterranean-style buildings-Casa Blanca and Casa Rosa-both built by the owners. Guests can enjoy bespoke design details in each room, along with gorgeous mountain views from their own private balcony. Come morning, join other travellers for breakfast, served daily at Casa Rosa.

Saturday

Get coffee at Café on 27
Ready your camera for a coffee date at this AM eatery and caf√©, where ample (and busy) outdoor seating offers some of the Canyon’s best views. A full breakfast and lunch menu is available (complete with hearty orders like eggs Benedicts, soups, and club sandwiches), but for lighter morning fare, spring for a pastry and any of their specialty drinks, such as the turmeric latte or Moroccan mocha.

Bradley Allen Murrell/Shutterstock
Bradley Allen Murrell/Shutterstock
Bradley Allen Murrell/Shutterstock

Hike Topanga State Park
Spanning 11,000 acres and 36 miles of trails, Topanga State Park is the largest state park within the Santa Monica Mountains and one of the world’s largest parks within city limits. Visitors can access the grounds via more than 60 entrances. Once on the trails, enjoy sweeping vistas while exploring the region’s range of plants, habitats, and wildlife, including several resident bird species.

Grab lunch at Topanga Living Café
Guided by their Topanga upbringing and need for a community gathering spot with great eats, sibling team Agustina Ferguson and Bayu Suryawan opened this daytime eatery in 2016. Ever since, locals and visitors have found refuge in the caf√©’s warm, airy space and nourishing, hyper-fresh fare-all California-inspired with global influences. Check it out in plates like the Island Style, a breakfast salad with Balinese corn fritters, a poached egg, and house-made chilli jam, or the tacos (Baja Fish or Baja Shrimp, Carne Asada, or Kabocha Squash), made-to-order and served on handmade tortillas. If you’re seeking something shareable, try the Farmers Market Crudite, a seemingly humble order whose bright beet hummus reminds us that eating your vegetables is, indeed, very cool. And take a drink to-go. The team here takes great pride in their coffee (organic espresso, courtesy of their iconic pink La Marzocco machine) and a lineup of made-to-order smoothies, juices, and teas. Shop your way through town
Visitors can stroll through the town centre’s most popular shops for various fun finds, including Moona Star, Pebbles, and Topanga Homegrown. Be sure to stock up on specialty, local snacks at Canyon Gourmet and satiate your sweet tooth while you’re at it. The organic soft-serve there is a must. Pro tip: Top it with any of their artisanal syrups for a winning combo, namely, the vanilla with cardamom.

Photo courtesy of Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum
Photo courtesy of Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum
Photo courtesy of Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum

Catch a show at The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum
This beloved open-air theatre has hosted productions for decades and is recognized worldwide for its Shakespeare interpretations. In addition to its annual summer season, which includes works like Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the venue hosts concerts, rehearsals, and classes throughout the year for budding actors and playwrights of all ages.

Snag a slice at Endless Colour
This family-run pizza joint specializes in from-scratch pies with clever topping combinations (think purple potatoes, fontina, and truffle oil in the Purple Molly Potato or spinach, leeks, and goat cheese in the Super Greens). Bring some friends, order a pie or two, and check out the drinks list, which includes offbeat options like orange wines and hard kombucha.

Photo courtesy of The Canyon Bakery
Photo courtesy of The Canyon Bakery
Photo courtesy of The Canyon Bakery

Sunday

Check out The Canyon Bakery’s “Sunday Funday”
Situated on the grounds of the aforementioned Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, this bakery specializes in naturally leavened breads, pastries, cakes, and cookies using locally sourced, whole grain flours. There’s a takeout window on Sundays, from 9:30 am until the bakery sells out. A strong following lines up for favourites, such as whole grain croissants and gluten-free pizza, so be sure to arrive early to get your fill.

Try tacos to-go at La Chingona
On your way out of town, grab some tacos at La Chingona, where a team puts forth fresh, organic, gluten- and dairy-free tacos. Orders range to include options like grass-fed beef (carne asada), shrimp (wild-caught), and soy chorizo and can be fashioned into plates beyond tacos, too (think tostadas, salads, and bowls). Open only on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays; this taco stand sees good demand. Plan accordingly, pending your travels, especially to savour an order or two of the churros.

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Nicole Schnitzler is a contributor for Thrillist.

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