Michael Cardenas and Mario Alberto adjust the volume at their modern Studio City restaurant, which is the lighter, brighter resurrection of Lazy Ox.
Mister O’s, which prolific restaurateur Michael Cardenas is opening in L.A.’s Studio City neighborhood Tuesday evening, is a thoroughly modern, built-for-2018 destination. But it’s also a restaurant with some important DNA that dates back almost a decade.
Lazy Ox Canteen, the seminal restaurant that Cardenas and chef Josef Centeno opened in 2009, was a pioneer in many ways. The Little Tokyo spot was one of the first restaurants that put downtown L.A. on the map as a dining destination. Centeno had honed his skills at pristine fine-dining mainstays like New York’s Daniel, but he was purposefully going for something more grungy at Lazy Ox.
“Josef and I, we had a dark rock ‘n’ roll vision,” Cardenas says.
There was an aggressive amount of offal; Cardenas describes the food as “pig ear-y.” But it turns out that what Lazy Ox represented was the opposite of gloomy. Lazy Ox helped change so much about Los Angeles dining because it was a restaurant that exuberantly blended many multicultural influences. This was modern Angeleno food, long before restaurants all over L.A. copied the playbook.
Lazy Ox made a lot of sense when you considered who was involved. Cardenas, who worked for Nobu Matsuhisa before making a fortune with his celebrity-friendly Sushi Roku and Boa Steakhouse empire, was born and raised in Japan, the son of a Navy-enlisted Mexican-American father and a Japanese mother. Centeno, who grew up in San Antonio and was the opening chef de cuisine at Northern California’s Manresa, has roots in Mexico and all over Europe (including Spain, Germany, France, and Poland).
Lazy Ox closed four years ago, but its impact is still undeniable. Centeno runs a family of dynamic downtown restaurants (Bäco Mercat, Bar Ama, Orsa & Winston, P.Y.T.) and has also gone fast-casual with BäcoShop. Lazy Ox alum Kevin Lee is running the kitchen at Venice’s Makani, a stellar Korean-Angeleno restaurant that’s one of the year’s buzziest openings. And Cardenas has teamed up with Lazy Ox alum Mario Alberto on Mister O’s.
Cardenas, who recently converted the old Lazy Ox Instagram account into the Mister O’s account, says that Mister O’s “is the resurrection of Lazy Ox.” But this doesn’t mean the food is similar. A lot has changed since 2009, including the age and eating habits of the team involved and the tendency of Angelenos to consume more vegetables than ever, so this isn’t a place to gorge on innards, trotters, jowls, and ears. The airy Mister O’s room, with its colorful decor and a lounge that feels residential, gives off a mid-century Palm Springs vibe. Everything is lighter and brighter at Mister O’s than it was at Lazy Ox.
Executive chef Alberto, who was part of the Lazy Ox opening team and went on to become executive chef at Laurel Hardware, Ysabel, and Tallula’s, cooks with lots of local produce and no limits. Marinated pluots with zucchini mousse, swiss chard, and stone fruit vinegar are a sweet, tangy, savory, bitter, and creamy symphony. This is summer on a plate. Alberto fries turmeric bread and tops it with tiger figs, marinated olives, farmer’s cheese, and orange blossom honey. The Mister O’s “fierce avocado” comes with chunks of salt cod that might remind you of luxurious crabmeat. Ricotta gnudi with truffle butter, brussel sprouts, and pea-leaf mole looks resplendently green and tastes just as bright.
The spicy, creamy, habit-forming green sauce that Alberto serves over mussels or clams merges Anaheim chile, dill butter, Pernod, and bacalao broth. Shigoku oysters with a burnt chili negro, dill dashi mignonette, and little pieces of seared shishito, are, as Alberto says, “reminiscent of something from Latin America but new and different.” Alberto says the oysters are “a very simple dish,” but the way he layers flavors is revelatory.
Mister O’s is a place where you can eat a light meal of vegetables and seafood, but it also has you covered when you want a half chicken, a burger, or some shrimp bolognese. Then there’s the pork can-can, a Puerto Rican-style chop with chicharron attached. The way Alberto sees it, so many menus have porchetta, so why not do something that’s both familiar and a little surprising?
“It’s basically a porchetta cut,” Alberto says. “It’s the loin with the belly attached.”
Alberto confits it and then fries it. He tops the chop with giardiniera, and the pickled vegetables pair nicely with the meatiness, fattiness, crunchiness, and juiciness of the pork. The comforting baked beans that come with the can-can are an heirloom variety, Eye of the Goat. Alberto calls this tremendous shareable entrée a simple dish, too.
Alberto is a lot of things at once, which is what makes Mister O’s so compelling. This is one of L.A.’s most promising new restaurants largely because he cooks with such freedom and confidence and creativity. Alberto’s a chef who grew up in East L.A. and whose parents are from Mexico. Alberto, who previously cooked alongside L.A. Peruvian godfather Ricardo Zarate, is inspired by food that ranges from Latin-American dishes to Middle Eastern specialties and so many things in between. He’s at the helm of a restaurant that’s part of a legacy, but he wants to write his own path. He’s a chef who “never intended to be a chef” and “fell in love with the kitchen by accident” after going to film school and studying photography.
“We’re so caught up in identifying with something,” says Alberto, who’s talking specifically about heritage and history but more broadly about everything else. “I think part of it is just kind of letting go and approaching everything intuitively.”
That’s when the modern magic happens, in a restaurant where the bar director, Rafael Jonathan Barba, spent time in the kitchen of Michelin darling The Restaurant at Meadowood and now thinks about drinks the way chefs think about food. The Mister Old Fashioned features candy cap mushrooms and brown butter.
Cardenas is a classics-loving, old-fashioned soul himself, candid to the point where he’ll tell a reporter he’s just met what he pays for rent at Mister O’s ($6,000 a month) and how much money it took to open the first Sushi Roku in 1997 ($300,000) and how much revenue Sushi Roku made in its first year ($4.8 million). He shares all these things without me asking him to do so. He smiles when he self-deprecatingly says he has a restaurant in Chicago (Katana) that’s not doing well. He casually mentions some off-the-books hospitality ventures he had in a past life. He hints at some past acrimony between himself and Centeno. Again, this is not something I bring up. He just says it.
“I’ve got to call him, man, and I’ve got to make my amends, and I love that guy, and he does well,” Cardenas says of Centeno.
Then some more candor: Cardenas calls Sushi Roku and Boa his “institutional restaurants,” his “disco restaurants,” his “cookie-cutter” places that are built “for the masses.” He loves these restaurants and the success they’ve had, which has allowed him to do “grassroots passion projects” like Lazy Ox and Mister O’s.
“My Sushi Roku business, we do $60 million a year in sales,” he says. “That’s a golden goose. When I do these organic projects like Mister O’s, it has to go to these one-off communities. I would have loved to do it in Venice on Abbot Kinney, but the rent rate is astronomical.”
So why open these challenging indie restaurants when he’s already conquered the mainstream?
“It’s like being bipolar,” Cardenas says. “It’s like the Beatles. Paul McCartney had to make his own album. I want to make some new songs.”
Cardenas, who lives in Malibu and whose investments also include chef Michael Cimarusti’s Providence, is a restaurateur with insane range. He also uses music to describe the difference between Lazy Ox and Mister O’s.
“Instead of dark, dingy rock ‘n’ roll, it’s more Motown music,” he says. “It’s happier music.”
You can taste the pleasantness and the maturity in Alberto’s food.
“For me, I think it’s just a spirit,” Alberto says.
That, ultimately, is what Lazy Ox and Mister O’s share. It’s an attitude that involves taking the pulse of the city and also just responding to it in the way you see fit. Things don’t need to be as aggressive in 2018, but you can still use everything you’ve learned and gained on your journey here.
So on a Mister O’s preview night, about half an hour before service starts, Cardenas and his front-of-the-house team talk to their staff about how to handle VIP guests (“soigne” means one thing, and “trifecta” means something even more special). They remind the staff of the secret phrase (it sounds like something you might hear at a taco truck) you should say if you notice the health department entering the restaurant. They stress that all drinks that leave the bar must be on a tray. Then the lights are adjusted to the right level, what seems like a careful calibration between glowing and dim, and Cardenas smiles widely and says, “Oh yeah!”
This is still fun. That’s why Cardenas still does it. He knows that the future of food is in fast-casual; that’s often how he likes to eat with his children on his days off. But he still wants to create proper sit-down restaurants with “a little je ne sais quois,” places that seem familiar but also defy easy description in a city where customers don’t care about easy descriptions. That’s modern Angeleno food right there.
As Alberto points out through his cooking but also in how he discusses Mister O’s, modern Angeleno food is about evolution.
“Lazy Ox was a great time, but it’s gone, you know, and people attach themselves to things that don’t exist anymore,” Alberto says. “I’m not attaching myself to or identifying with anything. At this point, it’s just being in the moment and being here.”
Mister O’s, 11838 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, 818-358-3839