Photography by Ethan Pines and Peden + Munk
Just as I’m about to enter the Lazy Ox, the large, heavy door swings open and out tumbles a grumpy old man.
“Don’t go in there!” he yells, blocking me from entering this new gastropub on the outskirts of downtown’s Little Tokyo. My guests slip inside, but the door closes before I can enter, and I find myself on the sidewalk, face to face with Grumpy Old Man.
“Why not?” I ask.
The chef, Josef Centeno, won Angeleno’s award for Best New Chef in 2007. He was cooking atOpus at the time—serving some of the most original, most delicious modern cuisine I’d come across in years. I remember being particularly impressed with an innovation involving Cream of Wheat that was served like soft polenta. And I remember an exquisite sesame seed-crusted mackerel…
“Because it’s terrible,” Grumpy says. I can smell wine on the old man’s breath.
“I see,” I say. “So, how’s their wine?”
“Ha! I wouldn’t know. We always bring our own.”
“OK, so what’s so terrible?”
I probe, while trying to peer through the window, eager to get a glimpse of the interior. It’s my first visit. The place appears to be packed.
“Because everything has too much flavor!”
“Too much flavor?” I ask. “And that’s a bad thing?”
“The mussels were so spicy we couldn’t eat them,” he slurs, punching an index finger into the air, then grabbing my arm to make sure that I’m paying attention.
I glance around to see if I can spot the “we” that he’s referring to, and I notice two women standing at the curb. A black Suburban pulls up, and the two women climb in. They wave at their friend, urging, “Hurry up, let’s go!”
“I’m telling ya,” Grumpy says, stumbling away, “the mussels were practically on fire!”
The Suburban speeds off, and I open the heavy door. I’m greeted by a pretty, red-haired hostess with a Dutch accent. I’m also greeted by an onslaught of intoxicating aromas. The front door is just a few steps away from the stoves, the kitchen nothing more than a nook carved into one corner of the pub, which seats maybe 60 people. I smell Moroccan spices. I smell potatoes being fried. I recognize the scent of beef that’s been roasting slowly all day. I smell butter browning in a hot skillet. I see flames licking up from a pan on the stove. I recognize Centeno. He’s the one pulling something from a large Wood Stone oven, but what is it? It looks like mussels.
I glance around the room, and I don’t see a single grumpy face. It’s a festive crowd—the United Colors of Benetton on a pub crawl. Like the neighborhood itself (a stone’s throw from Skid Row), the crowd feels edgy and urban, slightly dangerous in a Quentin Tarantino sort of way. A sleeping ox looms above the crowd while Johnny Cash warbles through the sound system, barely audible over the din of laughter and clanking pots and pans.
My guests and I settle into our chairs and reach immediately for the wine list. It’s an interesting, one-page selection—a few that I’ve heard of but mostly a bunch of obscure labels that don’t ring a bell. So I ask the waiter to select his favorite red, something big in the range of $50 (on the high end of the list). He uncorks a Cascina Ca Rossa Langhe Nebbiolo for $42. It’s fantastic.
The first thing we order are those mussels, roasted in a white-wine bath in the stone oven. And, “Hey, look!” I say, pointing to the menu. “It’s the pot roast with Cream of Wheat t
hat we loved at Opus.” So we get that as well, and before we know it the table is crowded with plates.
Are the mussels spicy? Well, yes, they’re full-throttled and roaring—but not on fire. The chef makes his own homemade version of Sriracha hot sauce, which he adds to the mussels along with velvety lumps of feta cheese. Centeno cooks with an unapologetic, testosterone-fueled gusto that reminds me of Mario Batali or Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook over at Animal. But with his own unique point of view.
The menu is vast, divided into a printed version with two dozen items, plus a chalkboard with an additional two dozen specials that are constantly evolving. Thirty dishes later, I’ve barely scratched the surface. And I’m really liking what I’ve found.
That roast beef with Cream of Wheat is just as good as I remembered. And so is the creamy pasilla chile soup topped with pork belly chicharrones and a couple of red grapes, an oddly brilliant idea, but familiar territory from my last visit at Opus.
As far as I can tell, those are the only things he’s repeating. Meanwhile, I’m happy to discover that I love cold chicken livers chopped into a relish and served on crostini. And Centeno’s steak frites proves far superior to the one Thomas Keller sells at Bouchon. It’s piled high with homemade fries seasoned with fresh dill, along with thick slices of toast slathered with bone marrow butter.
My tablemates and I are fully occupied with the array of plates in front of us—charred octopus with pickled shallots, a roasted cauliflower gratin, hand-torn pasta with a sunny side up egg. We’re chewing and swallowing with smiles on our faces as I shuffle the plates to reach for a salad of romaine and dandelion leaves with a creamy anchovy-garlic dressing. We have more food in front of us than we can possibly defeat, but when our waiter walks by, an amazing aroma triggers our hunger reflex anew.
“Razor clams,” he says. And a few minutes later, we’re making room for a plate of half-foot-long, blade-shaped clams—everyone’s favorite dish of the night.
I’m able to find only one savory dish that I don’t really like, and that’s because I almost choke to death eating it. It’s a “Moroccan style” beef jerky, shredded and topped with a fried egg. I don’t know what makes it Moroccan, but with that first forkful, I inhale so much vinegar that I cannot catch my breath. I cough and wheeze and gag until I’m blue in the face. I almost see the light. And yet, as soon as I recover, I’m reaching for another bite.
Centeno does go overboard from time to time. Take the house-made merguez sausage. It’s fabulously rich and smoky, larger than typical merguez, but also better than most. Problem is, the dish is crowded with too many competing ideas. I push my fork in and come up with slow-cooked greens, mashed celery root, a pear that tastes like licorice, and some sort of fruit chutney, not to mention two different sauces drizzled on top—I can’t keep up.
I find the yellowtail to be similarly overdressed for a night out at the gastropub. What would have otherwise been an outstanding crudo was bullied over the cliff by too many accompaniments. And while this sometimes happens, it surprisingly doesn’t make me mad.
Centeno is like a border collie or Jack Russell terrier who’s been cooped up too long and finally let out to play. He’s running in circles as fast as he can, unable to contain his excitement, a million things to do. It’s clear that he’s mulling two years’ worth of recipes in his head, and he’s undoubtedly having a great time. You can see it translated on the faces of everyone in the restaurant. It’s infectious. It’s incredibly refreshing. And it’s the best example of a true, chef-driven gastropub L.A. has ever had.
The one area where the Laxy Ox really frustrates me, however, is dessert. While the savory menu rambles on and on, desserts come up short, both in number and success. That said, there are three out of six that do make me want to return: a chocolate pâté topped with a thick, brittle layer of praline; stone-oven-roasted, caramelized pears served on a warm buttermilk biscuit; and a divine lemon trifle.
As I’m dipping my spoon into that trifle, luxuriating between lemon curd and whipped mascarpone, I keep thinking to myself, “This makes me really, really happy.”
Daily, lunch, 11am–3pm; dinner, 5pm–midnight
WHAT TO WEAR
Cufflinks with sneakers, porn-star mustaches, thigh-high boots, white-girl afros, thick eyeglasses
ABOUT THE COFFEE
It’s from Four Barrel in San Francisco. Sadly, the staff hasn’t been properly trained in how to brew it. Here’s hoping that will change.
WHERE TO PARK
No valet. There’s plenty of parking on 3rd Street.
WHAT IT COSTS
Snacks/appetizers $4–$16, sandwiches/entrées, $10–$25; desserts, $7
What the stars mean:
0 = poor, unacceptable
??? = fair, some noteworthy qualities
?????? = good, above average
????????? = very good, well above norm
???????????? = excellent, among the area’s best
??????????????? = world-class, extraordinary ???in every detail. Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service.