Dia De Campo chef Ken Johnson. Photo by Jason Speth
I am always suspicious of attempts to modernize or fancify Mexican food. This is a cuisine in which simplicity is a virtue and traditions are powerful. The ideas of the Aztecs and Mayas are attenuated after centuries of European domination, and I’m usually in favor of seeking out the most authentic expressions of what remains.
There are exceptions, and one of them is in Hermosa. Dia de Campo comes from the team that created Little Sister, which introduced locals to arcane Asian cuisines presented with authenticity but contemporary style. Dia de Campo shares both that aesthetic and some design features with Little Sister – an interior with rustic and industrial elements in a high-ceilinged space, along with cryptic murals in odd spots. But the bigger footprint has allowed four separate dining areas. There’s a comfortable lounge next to the bar area, shared tables in the middle, and booths along one edge. Our party of three gravitated to the latter in the hope that it might be quieter. As far as we can tell, it isn’t. Even at 7 p.m. on a weekday the music was up and our server had trouble hearing us. I can only imagine what it’s like on a Saturday night.
The menu encourages shared plates and is slightly confusing. Things have been categorized in a way that seems vague and arbitrary. The best thing to do is just pick a few items that look interesting, consume them, and then order more if you’re still hungry.
We started with a wood grilled albacore salad, lamb nachos, a duck quesadilla, and cocktails from their interesting but cryptic menu. The cocktails arrived first, a Claremont, Frida350, and Paz. That translates as a cucumber vodka martini with cilantro; a rum fizz; and mix of tequila, grapefruit liqueur, and ginger beer with peach respectively. There are creative cocktails here that have character and are worth sampling, but if you’re not adventurous there is a respectable selection of beers and wines, and a long list of tequilas for fresh margaritas.
Dia de Campo’ dining room combines rustic and industrial influences. Photo by Jason Speth
The lamb nachos and albacore arrived quickly and immediately confirmed that some aspects of tradition are thrown out the window. Nachos are usually composed of chips layered with cheeses, beans, and salsa and baked. They are finger food for the bar crowd. This was a crispy whole tortilla layered with braised lamb, then another whole tortilla, then a layer of pickled onions and salsa topped with chili cream sauce and a sprinkling of cotija cheese. There’s no possibility of this being finger food, because it would be a mess, but it’s a delicious mess. We attacked it with forks and found it to have layers of flavor as well as food: creamy sauce, tang of pickled onions, dry crispness of chips, and rich lamb — all separate flavors that worked together. I wouldn’t call these nachos, or any other standard term, but these are fine and original enough to deserve a name of their own.
The albacore salad had flavor ideas that were just as brilliant, but slightly less effective because the ingredients were cut too large. Creating combinations of the gently smoky, moist fish with the hearts of palm, watermelon, marinated celery, or tequila radish would have been an interesting experiment in flavor. I might order this again and do the surgery at the table, because there was a lot to love on the plate, but it would be a better dish if better prepared.
There were no such flaws with the quesadilla, which was conceptually the most conventional of these starters. The savory duck meat in mildly spicy mole´ sauce was made even better by alternating bites with the pickled white and purple onion. The guacamole with green apple added a cooling, tart crunch whenever it was applied.
We continued with a short rib empanada, fried oyster torta, and a carnitas taco. I ordered a “El Cinturon” cocktail because my previous beverage had unaccountably run dry. This was the most interesting drink of the evening – a flamed cocktail of aged tequila, cinnamon, orange, and chocolate bitters. Though the drinks here are on the expensive side, this is one I’d definitely come back for.
The empanada is as much a visual as a taste delight. Photo by Jason Speth
The empanada filled with short rib meat was served under an over-easy fried egg and over some red mole sauce with corn, microgreens, and cotija on the side. Before digging in I paused to admire it. The people here understand how well-presented food delights the eye and stimulates the palate. This was beautiful while still true to its rustic roots as a meat pie. It was tasty, too. The flaky dough was soft rather than crisp, but fine for mopping up the sauce.
The fried oyster torta was a misnomer. What makes a sandwich a torta is the use of a soft, yeastless bun. This was served on very good baguette. I’m not complaining, as I liked it much better that way. But it was more like an oyster po-boy sandwich with a kick of chipotle aioli and more of those tasty purple onions. (The onions are on almost every dish, but if you’re allergic you can ask for them to be left out. In fact, if you have any allergy you should let your server know, because the menu here doesn’t include every ingredient.)
The sandwich was served with homemade potato chips that had been dusted with a dry Mexican spice. If you prefer them without the spice, that can be arranged too.
I ordered the taco because I wanted to try something that’s my usual benchmark for Mexican restaurants. They aced the flavor. It was concentrated porkiness, very moist and juicy – so much so that the tortilla fell to bits after one bite. I sampled it with a bit of the house-made hot sauce and it was even better. That sauce is flavorful rather than just hot, and I considered buying a bottle.
We finished with churros, presented in a twist so they looked like Dali-esque doughnuts by their bowl of thick dipping chocolate. If the chili lime sugar is traditional, it’s a tradition I’m not familiar with, but it’s an interesting twist. I would have been happy with the cinnamon-laced chocolate sauce, but my companions preferred it this way.
Our meal for three ran $152, of which $58 was for our five cocktails. This was not a Mexican experience like any other in the South Bay. Dia de Campo will inevitably be compared to their neighbor Palmilla, a compliment since that establishment previously had the modern Mexican arena to itself. Both bring Mexican food into the 21st century and use prime ingredients. Dia de Campo adds a hefty shot of daring experimentalism. Hermosa Beach is an unlikely center for this particular breed of culinary elan, but we have geniuses in our midst who have decided to see what can be done with foods from south of the border, and genius makes its own rules.
Mon. — Wed., 5 to 10 p.m. Thus. 5 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Fri. 3p.m. – 1 a.m., Sat. noon to 1 a.m. Sun. noon to 9 p.m. Valet parking adjacent (small cars only), street parking, lot in back. Full bar, wheelchair access okay, some vegetarian items, reservations recommended. Menu at diadecamponb. 1238 Hermosa Avenue, Hermosa Beach. (310) 379-1829.