Jessica Koslow and Gabriela Cámara Turn Mexican Food Inside Out at L.A.’s Onda
Onda, the blockbuster L.A. restaurant that chefs Jessica Koslow and Gabriela Cámara opened at the glistening Santa Monica Proper hotel on October 28, is billed as a conversation between the sister cities of Los Angeles and Mexico City. And like these two cities, Onda is about merging global influences.
For example: There’s an oversized “inside out” turkey quesadilla that’s inspired by Israeli turkey shawarma.
“It was really important for me as that marriage of culture, using my heritage and hers,” says Koslow, the Sqirl chef who at one point had plans to open a pan-Jewish restaurant in West L.A. before an investor backed out.
On the night we visit Onda (which means “wave” in Spanish”), Cámara walks over to our table and explains that we should make tacos with the smoked pork-jowl dish. But there are no tortillas on the table. What we’re building are lettuce wraps filled with delightfully crispy and fatty pork, uncompromisingly spicy burnt pickles, and habanero hot sauce. If this is an experience that reminds you of eating bo ssam in Korean restaurants, that’s the point. The chefs are aware that this is how people like to dine in L.A.
Koslow also points out that Onda’s crispy pig-ear salad resembles larb. Meanwhile, there are tostadas with translucent pickled pig skins to remind you that this is a restaurant with Mexican DNA but also its own distinct point of view. “You’ve got these playful takes on things that make you feel like you’re in L.A.,” Koslow says.
To cook the turkey thighs for its quesadilla, Onda uses a trompo. The chefs marinate the meat with al pastor spices and layer 10- and 15-pound stacks of turkey in between chicken fat to keep the meat moist as it roasts on the vertical spit. A big house-made tortilla has a blend of mozzarella and Parmesan melted atop it, and there are overflowing portions of turkey, crispy oyster mushrooms, and salsa verde (along with some burnt hoja santa) bursting their way out of the tortilla.
“If we’re doing a quesadilla, it’s really, ‘How can we do a quesadilla and make it uniquely Onda?’” Koslow says. “‘How do we make it our voice?’”
The quesadilla is about, among other things, overabundance and purposeful messiness and a belief that sharing food enhances the dining experience. Onda also serves whole fried fish, sea bream on the night we visit, that comes with heirloom corn tortillas for do-it-yourself tacos. It’s up to the guests to take the fish apart.
“It’s pretty messy, a whole fish with all the bones in it,” Koslow says. “It’s very much meant for engagement.”
“I’ve always liked menus with food people can share,” says Cámara, who runs Contramar in Mexico City and 2016 Food & Wine Restaurant of the Year Cala in San Francisco. “That’s what I did at Contramar. I feel that the way we are eating is much less formal than it used to be. It’s the same pace of the menu as Cala and the way I like to eat. I want people to use food as a way of interaction.”
One thing that the chefs will probably see a lot at Onda is guests using dips or sauces or pickles from previous courses to enhance their DIY tacos. The silky Suncoast black beans and charred salsa, both part of an assortment of dips you can order with chips as a starter, are definitely things you’ll want to keep on your table as the evening progresses.
“We’ve realized we are giving portions that are friendly and meant to be part of the entire experience,” Koslow says.
Another thing we notice at Onda is how there’s no chicken or red-meat dish on this first version of the restaurant’s menu. That’s just something that happened as the chefs thought about how to make food that is uniquely theirs.
The desire to use offcuts and other underutilized ingredients fits right into the ethos of Onda, a restaurant that wants to serve crowd-pleasing food with unexpected twists and turns. When the chefs think about familiar items, they immediately consider how to remake them. That’s why, for example, there are fermented chiles in the guacamole.
Koslow and Cámara are working toward turning Onda into an all-day restaurant. Right now, the restaurant is only open for dinner, but the plan is to start quick-service breakfast and lunch, as well as midday bar service, in the near future.
“I think it should be a welcoming comfortable space where you can have a great meal whatever time of day,” Cámara says. “In the U.S., people don’t linger for four-hour lunches. But maybe in Santa Monica, people can go from breakfast to lunch.”
If you want to spend a few hours here during the day, the chefs would love you to do so. The Santa Monica Proper is a wellness-minded hotel where you can have a Peloton bike delivered to your room and where a spa visit can include an ayurvedic consultation, but Onda is here if you’d rather just caffeinate or drink cocktails while eating spicy food at a leisurely pace. Something that’s made Cámara happy in the early days of Onda is seeing dinner guests linger as they enjoy long meals with dessert and coffee. Why not, after all, have a lot of your own conversations here?
By the way, the conversations the chefs are having about daytime service have spurred a lot of ideas. They’re not quite ready to share details, but they’re definitely thinking about different ways to use their trompo.
Onda, 700 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, 310-620-9917