It’s only been two days since Esdras Ochoa made the 15-hour plane journey from LA to Hong Kong, but there’s little evidence of any expected jet lag as he shows us around the 4,000 square foot shell that will soon become 11 Westside, his first restaurant in Asia. Set on the first floor of a luxury residential building on Davis Street in Kennedy Town, it’s an unusual location that appears in stark contrast to Ochoa’s most recent hit, Salazar; the almost exclusively outdoor restaurant in LA’s Frogtown is where everyone, from “Mexican grannies to USC hipsters” gather to get a taste of Sonoran-inflected cooking and authentic tacos from the man known as LA’s taco king. Just this April, GQ declared Salazar one of their best new restaurants of 2017—another accolade that joined the existing heap from American critics since its opening.
But he’s here now, sweltering a bit in the humid Hong Kong springtime, smiling as he talks about the excitement of being in a new city and working with a team of young guns—among them architect-designer Jon Chan, co-founder of Boba Bear—who tempted Ochoa to open in Hong Kong just three months ago. The restaurant is slated to open by July, with a speakeasy-inspired bar at the back named The Wilshire—a hat-tip to the lengthy boulevard stretching from east to west across LA—that is envisioned by former PDT bartender Daniel Eun, currently the general manager at The Normandie Club in Koreatown. After our brief tour of the site, we sat down with Ochoa and his team to talk tacos, Mexican hospitality and what to expect from 11 Westside.
Hong Kong Tatler Dining (HKTD): It was only a few weeks ago that eater.com reported you were leaving LA for Hong Kong. How did this all begin?
Esdras Ochoa (EO): Just three months ago, actually. People approach me a lot, and that’s actually how I started Salazar. This guy, a customer of mine, approached me and said he wanted to start his own restaurant. He was very persistent. But we talked, and we made it happen. When I met Jon [Chan] and the guys, it was kind of like that. They were so young! I was polite—my parents taught me how to be respectful—but they were serious. They flew me here and I was like, where do I sign? To be in Asia—that was what got me. Honestly, it was pretty surreal.
HKTD: What was your first impression of Hong Kong?
EO: When I got off the plane, when I was walking through the city, it was like I was in Disneyland. It’s like in the movies. I love this place. It’s lively. The only thing is—and we gotta work on it—is that people don’t smile as much. I know people are hustling and bustling and stuff, but if we can make a little difference, even if it’s just at our restaurant, then we really want to have that Mexican hospitality.
HKTD: There’s a lot of expectation because if there’s one thing expats complain about here, it's the lack of good Mexican food.
EO: I was looking at that. The Mexican food scene here is very far off from what I’m accustomed to. There’s this crazy idea of what it is. Since there are not a lot of Mexican restaurants here I want to give you a taste of many things. You guys deserve it.
HKTD: What should we expect from the menu?
EO: What I’ll be doing is a hybrid of what I’m doing in LA. It will have an essence of Mexicali, an essence of Salazar. I want to bring a lot of elements from where I was born, in Mexico City. I want to have carne asada, carnitas, and maybe we take it back to the styles of Sinaloa, or to Nayarit. I want to do a braised stingray taco with chipotle and peppers and tequila, braise it with butter, and serve it on a handmade corn tortilla.
HKTD: How do you even decide what dishes to include? How big is the menu in your head?
EO: It’s small, actually. I’m not going to be here all the time so I have to keep it simple. We’ll incorporate more dishes as we go along. For sure we’ll have our carne asada taco, our barbecue chicken taco, our al pastor taco, which is pork marinated in pineapple and spices, cooked on a spit. And handmade tortillas. That’s a must. You gotta make them by hand.
HKTD: You’re widely known as the ‘Taco King’ of LA. How do you feel about that?
EO: That’s huge. Back home, there are a million Mexican restaurants. Honestly, I don’t deserve it. There are a lot of good chefs out there. Maybe what gives me an upper hand is that I was born in Mexico, I grew up in Baja. My parents still live there. I go there every month so I'm always in tune with the right flavours. A lot of these chefs, they’re Mexican but they were born in LA or have never been to Mexico. They cook well, but they don’t have that essence that I have, that reference point.
HKTD: What makes a perfect taco?
EO: It’s really simple. The tortilla, you have to do the right one by hand, whether it’s corn or flour. Grill the meat the right way. Char it, season it. In LA there are those who overdo it, they marinate their meat with orange juice, paprika. Sometimes all you need is a bit of salt. I barbecue over high heat, fast. You want to char the meat and seal in the flavours of the juices and let the meat speak for itself.
We judge a taco by its salsa. There’s a joke back home— if you put cardboard on your tortilla, but the salsa is really good, it’s going to be a dang good taco. Salsa saves everything.
HKTD: Might we see a Hong Kong-inspired taco too?
EO: That’s a difficult question. I see duck everywhere and suckling pig—we’ll definitely have that, in the form of carnitas. I was playing with barbecued pak choi, served with some Mexican vinaigrette. It was really nice, and it’ll probably be on the menu. But I’ve only been here a few days. It’s inspiring, though. What I love about the city is that you get a Gucci store and then there’s a guy selling fishballs on the sidewalk. It’s not like LA—you’d never see a guy slinging tacos or selling hotdogs on Rodeo Drive.
11 Westside is slated to open by July 2017.
11 Westside, 1/F The Hudson, 11 Davis Street, Kennedy Town, Hong Kong
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