A Force Is with us in Lodi…
When talking about Ruben Larrazolo, his favorite chef to work with, Spanish grape specialist/winemaker Markus Bokisch tells us, "the thing about Ruben is that he doesn't run a Mexican restaurant, he runs a Mexican bistro — where anything is possible when it comes to food and dishes." It's safe to say, many of Lodi's winemakers feel the same about chef Larrazolo, who lets his imagination run rampant when it comes to cooking — especially when matching food with wine.
Increasingly so, his menu at Alebrijes Bistro is reflecting the same. "Number one," Ruben tells us, "we want people to know that we cook everything from scratch." Okay, so do a gazillion other restaurants. But… "number two," says the chef, "we stepped out of the box and left basic Mexican cuisine a long time ago. Oh, we still offer burritos and tacos, but our burritos and tacos, and everything else on our menu, is more what you would call gourmet."
Hmm… so what do you mean by gourmet — meatloaf with heirloom tomato catsup? "No, something cooked with a little more care, and with some concern for fresh, seasonal ingredients, where you end up with things that you won't find in any other restaurants, especially Mexican restaurants." You mean, like tacos and burritos? The chef smiles, and he says, "well, maybe I should just show you…"
Which serves us right for being so facetious with a chef who's more than earned his chops (a two-time winner in San Joaquin's "Ultimate Chef's Challenge"), and who named his restaurant after the little, colorful, shape shifting papier-mâché monsters (the alebrijes) present in the corners and ledges all over the restaurant. Actually, we should have known, because the first time we visited Alebrijes Bistro, back in March 2009 when Señor Larrazolo didn't know us from Adam, we remember being totally shocked after we ordered the house guacamole — and the man himself came up to our table, pushing a cart with a large volcanic Mexican mortar, fresh avocadoes, chopped radish, green chile and garlic, limes and salsa fresca, and proceeded to prepare the guacamole right there, after asking us if we had any particular preferences. Talk about culinary cojones.
So after softening us up with one of his original cocktails — a neon red margarita made with pungent rosemary and citrus tamarind (Alebrijes offers a slew of fresh margaritas made with hibiscus, pomegranate, mango, basil, jalapenos, you name it…) — the chef starts us off with a petite sized filet mignon with lush, melted queso, and caramelized chipotle and onions flowing into a tiny pool of natural juices. Some amuse-bouche… almost dreamy, lush textures and collisions of sweet, hot, umami (through the onion confit) sensations. Naturally, this got us off off our seats to go marching into the kitchen to ask the chef what the heck he's thinking, and where's those melted cheese appetizers we asked about?
"Lately, more and more of my customers have been coming in for dishes like the petite filet. They are willing to try things that are more complex and elaborate, which has led us to say even more, 'no more Americanized versions of Mexican food.'" Pointing out the line in his Honda sized kitchen, he says, "look, we have about 32 different sauces to play with every day. We'll do veal, we'll do the freshest fish we can find, we'll do strictly sustainable or organically grown vegetables… why don't you sit down and try a few more dishes?"
So back to the ranch we go. After a few minutes our server presents us with smoked shrimp cakes garnished with a roasted corn poblano relish and a cilantro vinaigrette; and by gosh and golly, this dish was even more intense than the filet: the chunks of sweet shrimp mingling with the herby green and sweet sensations of the vinaigrette, the relish adding its own sweet/hot harmony to the ensemble, swaying seductively on the palate like the Supremes when they used to be backed up by the Temptations.
This was followed by a salad of nutty, buttery, spice and bitter edged mesclun (mostly oak leafs and arugula) with pungent sweet red onions and a smoky chipotle vinaigrette (there is also, btw, a vegetarian/vegan "Heart Healthy" selection on the Alibrijes menu — can your Mexican restaurant do that?), followed by ancho chile crusted salmon in a sauce of red pepper mole (a convergence of earth and ocean sensations, or as Obi-Wan said to Luke, I felt a disturbance in the Force somewhere…).
Then the dish that really slayed us: a red, succulent chop of Colorado lamb in a chipotle glace with green apple pico de gallo. By then we were also enjoying a bottle of 2007 Harney Lane Lodi Petite Sirah — as juicy, wild and meaty as the lamb, with sweet blueberry and cracked pepper tones that seemed to melt in harmony with the sweet/peppery notes of the sauce. This wasn't a culinary disturbance, but a complete rupture from how we expect flavors coalesce, and we were lapping it up like the animals we were.
Coming out to chat, chef Ruben takes down one of his alebrijes to fondle, and tells us more about his story. "After cooking in Mexico City for about 15 years (starting as a teenager), I moved to Napa and worked there for four years, in restaurants like Bistro Don Giovanni. In Napa I met my wife, Adi, and we moved here to Lodi to start our family (they now have two kids — Victoria who is 6, and Ben who is 5).
"In 2007 when we opened Alebrijes it was very scary, especially in the beginning when we never had more than 10 people coming in to eat each day. The stock market crash the next year didn't help, but all this changed once the local papers started writing about the good things we were doing. We weren't going to make it as a Mexican restaurant, but the customers we had coming back — especially many of the winemakers, who we started to form very good relationships with — were appreciating the way we were making the guacamole at the table, our unusual sauces like duck mole with pomegranates, even the simple things like the way we make our chips to order all night long, or the way we wrap peppers with bacon."
"But as you could see, we are doing things a little differently here. And now we are changing our menu with every season, and offering new dishes every night. It is like the alebrijes — a fusion of colors and traditions, a mythological creature… if we can get more people to appreciate the way we are combining the cooking of different regions and styles, I think we'll be alright."
Memo to wine country foodies wherever you may be: chef Ruben Larrazolo is doing just fine right now… come feel the culinary energy that has gotten Lodi's winemakers so excited!
Visit Alebrijes Bistro at alebrijesbistro.com. The restaurant is at 1301 W. Lockeford St. in Lodi, and best approached from S. Ham Lane. Call 209.368.1831 for reservations, and enjoy!