Photos by Ben Brown.

AltaMed Food and Wine Festival Showcases Grandeur Latin Flavor

The AltaMed Food & Wine Festival, known as ‘California’s prime Hispanic food and wine festival,’ celebrated with a weekend of south of the border flavor and fine wine that spanned across both LA and Orange County. The LA festival, held in downtown’s iconic LA Live, was a sight to see and be seen. 

The otherwise-packed streets adjacent to the Staples Center and Microsoft Theater closed to traffic in order to make way for a seemingly endless path of tents doling out bottomless tastes and pours. The city lights shined down on a jovial crowd, with live music from the Spanish Harlem Orchestra igniting the mood. 

The festival’s ‘East LA meets Napa’ theme was true to its word, with a smattering of Angelino culinary icons cooking up classic renditions and novel twists on Central and South American favorites. Likewise, an array of wineries ensured that a perfect pairing was always close by. Margaritas and sangrias were free flowing as well. 

With a largely Latino focus, it’s safe to say there were no shortage of tacos at AltaMed. From King Taco’s signature al pastor to Maestro’s pork belly tacos, the festival had just about anything that could go into a squid ink, hatch green chile or just plain ol’ corn tortilla. Tostadas from El Portal and Zapien’s Salsa Grill and Taqueria added to the mix, as did Chago’s tortas. 

Pez Cantina went all in with a red argentine shrimp a la diablo with scallion slaw, dried shrimp and chili oil. Equally, Honduras’ Kitchen paid homage to its homeland favorites, such as baleadas with refried beans, cream and cheese and San Pedro sula; or ground beef in fried plantains. La Fonda’s chicken mole and La Huasteca’s tamales, ceviche and chile en nogada were just a few more of the festival’s worldly items. 

For a fun play on Latin fusion, Yamashiro and Bike Brewery each served up some great poke wonton nachos. The Chicken Koop’s (extremely) hot chicken easily matched any chile pepper of the evening, and Otium’s meatballs were melt-in-your-mouth. But of all the places to take the cake for most extravagant dish, the award goes to Sysco—yes, the food supplier—who wowed patrons with lobster claws covered in caviar and edible gold leaf. 

Desserts were in full force and naturally picked up steam as the evening drew on. Sweet Flour’s tres leches cake, panna cotta and assorted cookies and Gourmeletas hand-dipped ice cream pops were among the festival’s sweet indulgences. Porto’s Bakery certainly came to play as well, with towers of oh-so-good pastries to be had. 

Festival proceeds benefit AltaMed, a full-service medical provider to more than 300,000 people in Los Angeles and Orange County. Founded in 1969, AltaMed was established as a free clinic and remains committed to providing “quality care without exception.” 96 cents of every dollar raised go directly to AltaMed patient care. For more information on the AltaMed Food & Wine Festival, visit AltaMedFoodWine.org.

Pikoh: Peruvian Fusion with LA Fashion

Pikoh, pronounced in the same manner as the Pico Blvd. on which it resides, transports patrons into a whole new type of ambiance. A living divider of hanging plants separate the bar from the main dining room, with another arboretum of sorts just past the entryway. Servers and bartenders hustle frantically across the otherwise minimalist interior and cute front patio, beautifully crafted dishes and cocktails in hand.

Pikoh’s small plates are ‘inspired by the melting pot that is Los Angeles’ and absolutely embody the ‘sharing’ trend that’s ravaged the contemporary dining scene—namely in dishes offering but a few bites per person. Chef Partner Ricardo Zarate, known as a ‘godfather of Peruvian Cuisine,’ has expanded his culinary range at Pikoh to include a myriad of dishes that reflect more Italian, Asian and Mediterranean influence than anything else. This is aptly demonstrated in his vegetable risotto, a decadent, creamy indulgence covered in a snowfall of delicately shaved Parmesan. 

Zarate’s salmon miso shines with a gochujang miso that gives this perfectly-cooked fish an addictive, oh-so-buttery finish, and ventures a step further into Peruvian territory with the addition of red and white quinoa alongside. But Zarate’s roots truly shine in his lomo saltado, a Peruvian staple, with tender hanger steak that soaks up a slightly sweet but boldly earthy spice profile, with rich onions, tomatoes, fries and seasoned rice. 

Pikoh’s cocktail program is equally exotic and worldly, with entire sections devoted to reinventing gin and tonics, old fashioneds, spritzers and rum punches respectively. Then there’s the core cocktails, such as the buck bunny, which combines gin, carrot juice, lemon, honey and ginger into something strangely enticing and curiously smooth.

Dessert keeps with Pikoh’s melting pot theme with specialties such as panna cotta and tres leches cake sporting equally precise execution and subtle novelty in their own right. But it’s the pavlova, a rarely attempted Russian meringue, finished in this case with stone fruit compote and avocado mousse, that takes the cake for the finish. For more information, visit PikohLA.com.

Celestino Melds Homey Comfort with Timeless Elegance in Pasadena

Celestino Ristorante and Bar, like much of the historic Pasadena neighborhood where it resides, is as iconic as it is ageless. For more than 20 years, locals have made Celestino their second home while fortunate travelers become quickly acquainted with the restaurant’s never-ending hustle and bustle and thick-accented servers taking them in like family. Owner Calogero Drago turns out seasonal Italian cuisine with deep flavor and decadent character to boot. But it’s the ambiance that perfectly garnishes a Celestino meal, whether it be in the old-style Italian dining room or fairytale-like patio.

Pasta is unquestionably mandatory at Celestino, where centuries-old favorites mix and mingle with just a few new-age and seasonal touchups, delivering all the rustic, nostalgic and authentic appeal you’re looking for with some excitement thrown in to remind you that Drago keeps a finger on the pulse of progressive cooking. Take the tortelloni di zucci al burro e salvia, or thick tortelloni pasta stuffed with pumpkin and cream, bathed in a decadent butter and sage sauce. How about the risotto al nero di sepia alla veneziana, or risotto blackened with squid ink and melded into a smattering of baby scallops and calamari. Close your eyes and you can picture cobblestone streets, winding canals or Tuscan countryside, whichever suits your fancy.

Celestino’s seasonal menu happened to feature mushrooms and truffles, with an extensive lineup of spectacular creations that took each ingredient to new heights. Drago’s mushroom-stuffed gnocchi, topped with shaved black truffle and finished with a rich cheese sauce, may be among the best gnocchi dishes in Los Angeles. Heavenly pappardelle and porcini mushroom soup were just a few more favorites.

Of course Celestino holds strong on its carne e pesci, or meat and seafood dishes as well. Ossobuco is a no-brainer at an Italian fine dining establishment, and Celestino’s take embodies all the timeless characteristics of fall-off-the-bone veal and delightful saffron risotto. Pair it with a wine off Celestino’s many Italian selections [their pours are incredible], or perhaps a classic oh-so-strong martini.

Any Italian mother would mock you for skipping out on dessert here, where the panna cotta and the vanilla pistachio torte will replace any stomach capacity you may have had left with yet another tasteful memory. For more information visit CelestinoPasadena.com.