Now Playing

The lively dining room is akin to a posh Mexican resort.

Olé!

by Jamie Gwen | Photography by Melissa Valladares | Riviera Orange County magazine | January 29, 2014

I have two words for you: mole negro. If there was an Oscar for Best Sauce, and a James Beard Culinary Award for the Most Extraordinarily Sumptuous Pottage, chef Rick Bayless would win it. Twenty-nine ingredients combine to create a complexity of flavors that will blow your culinary mind. Let’s give a warm bienvenido to Red O Restaurant: Mexican Cuisine by Rick Bayless. The Emmy-nominated culinary pro you know from his win on Top Chef Masters or his decade on PBS sharing insight into Mexico—One Plate at a Time has arrived in Newport Beach, and we’re elated.

My first attraction was the indulgent design of the restaurant—the opulent red decor that draws you in from the first step. It exudes the feel of a lavish Mexican resort, with a gorgeous bar, sparkling chandeliers and a mirrored back bar showcasing bottles filled with the finest liquors. The visual is stunning, and the establishment definitely delivers on architecture and ambience.

And then there’s the glory of the chow. It’s upscale Mexican fare with a twist-a modern approach to Oaxacan and Yucatan cooking, utilizing a multitude of bright, locally sourced ingredients. And Executive Chef Keith Stich—of Wildfish Seafood Grille fame—heads the kitchen here and is doing justice to Bayless’ culinary legacy. More about that in a moment. But first, a margarita.

Peruse the cocktail list and the choices will charm you. The Topolo margarita is the signature—a shaken concoction of silver tequila, orange liqueur and housemade limonada. Served on the rocks, it’s a mix of light and pungent, and I could have three more. Feeling frisky? Opt for the Alacran, a specialty shaken blend of traditional ingredients spiked with a Serrano chile syrup and rimmed with Tajín, the Mexican chile spice blend that will warm you from the inside out.

This is Red O’s second SoCal outpost, and the menu is designed by combining Bayless’ blend of sophisticated flavors and a more casual approach to shareable plates. The four-star Topolobampo and his Frontera Grill, both housed in Chicago, have earned him marvelous awards, and the influence of California cuisine has raised the bar for Latin eateries.

The 61-item menu (good luck choosing) includes a starter selection of ceviches, fundidos and guacamole, and during my dining excursions, my companions and I polish off a tasting of the latter, with a sampling of the pomegranate walnut, the classic, the macha and the yuzu. The pomegranate walnut is beautiful; the macha rich with arbol chiles and toasty garlic; the classic a reflection of perfection; and the yuzu is citrusy and floral. I believe that guacamole is a reflection of the avocado and a skill of talented hands, and I can tell you that all four guacs are supreme. I would gladly dip plantain chips all day long.

The ceviche tasting is righteous too. Our favorite: the Scottish steelhead and the albacore. The salmon is clean and creamy. The albacore is toothsome and marinated flawlessly. Freshly shucked oysters on the half shell are served with a tomatillo-habanero mignonette and a smoky chipotle garlic sauce that is wild with flavor.

You also should host a tasting of soft tacos. My favorite is the grilled skirt steak with salsa rojo. The chicken tinga taco is a winner too—simple and delectable when combined with the warmth of a homemade tortilla. Next: the pork-belly sopes. The meat is fatty and delicious, and the sauce is extraordinary. I do think the cornmeal cup overwhelms the succulent pork just a tad, however. The grilled white Mexican shrimp and lollipop kale salad grows on us. We almost clean the plate, short of needing a bit more of the orange-habanero vinaigrette. The shrimp are cooked brilliantly. The kale is full of subtle bitterness, and the sweetness of the grapefruit and avocado bring it all together.

For entrees, the lamb mole negro, as mentioned previously, is exquisite, with gamey notes, the addictive sauce and a saute of bitter greens. The enchilada short rib wows my fellow foodie diners too, with red guajillo sauce, melted Sonoma jack cheese and black beans—a hefty dish that will keep you full for a few days, at least. And, oh, the sides! Don’t miss the Mexican street corn tickled with cotija cheese strewn throughout the charred sweet corn and the fried sweet plantains with homemade crema and queso—seriously noble.

To gild the lily, a meal here is not complete without a plate of just-made churros. But the star of the whole meal is the Mexican vanilla ice cream sundae drenched with goat-milk caramel and topped with buttered pecan and bacon streusel. That alone is worth the trip.
It’s authentic meets progressive at Red O—dramatic decor, an outdoor atrium patio for partying, and a canopy of palm trees all topped off with phenom flavors, impressive service and tons of tequila. So don your sombrero and step into O.C.’s new Mexican frontier. I think you’ll be delighted.

Who Goes There
Mexican food aficionados, tequila-lovers

You Must Order
The guacamole tasting, mole negro and the Mexican vanilla sundae

Sip List
The Topolo margarita is a specialty, but for a real taste awakening, order the Alacran, with Serrano chile syrup and Tajín.

A Must-Read
You’ll find a comprehensive menu here that features a list of 61 enticing dishes.

Best Table in the House
Almost anywhere, but the bar is always a hot spot.

Red O Restaurant
143 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach, 949.718.0300

Appetizers: $10-$17
Ceviches and raw bar: $16-$55
Sopes and tamales: $14-$15
Salads and soups: $8-$16
Enchiladas and tacos: $22-$36
Entrees: $22-$46
Sides: $3-$7
Desserts: $10

Sun.-Thu.: 11am-10pm, Fri.-Sat.: 11am-11pm