Chef Enrique Olvera, the quiet force behind LA’s Damian and Ditroit
Talk with Enrique Olvera is always an exercise in humility. With an acclaimed collection of restaurants that includes Pujol in Mexico City, Cosme in New York and Damien in Los Angeles, he’s one of Mexico’s most famous chefs, and yet you have to coax him into opening up about his work. In conversation, he’s frugal with his words and free from the usual flash and drama we’d expect in an age of culinary superstars.
Clearly, he saves his energy for the kitchen. Dining at an Olvera restaurant shakes up any preconceptions you had about Mexican cuisine, yet reminds you how delicious those flavors are. Her handmade tortillas use fancy blue heirloom corn and yet taste the Oaxacan countryside (Olvera guided me once through this part of Mexico with her detailed recommendations). Its mole has the complexity of a sauce that has roasted for a hundred years.
It was Olvera’s tacos that got me through the pandemic last year. After his restaurant DTLA Arts District Damien opened last October and then closed again for security reasons, he and his inventive chef, Jesús “Chuy” Cervantes (who cooked at Cosme’s and finds his true expression here), opened Ditroit in a concrete courtyard behind the restaurant. The tacos and other street food style dishes that came out the window – spit cut carnitas, fish flautas, cauliflower al pibil – were better than anything I’ve ever had in LA The experience briefly breathed a sense of delicious freedom in the life of confinement.
Damian takes everything a few levels higher. Inside architect Alonso de Garay’s brutalist-chic space in a former warehouse across from Bestia, the dishes are as moving and surprising as the surroundings. You can get Oaxaca tlayuda in many places around LA, but Damian’s version is a celebration of seasonal freshness, with zucchini blossoms sprinkled with queso fresco on a disc-sized shrimp shell. A whole grilled Zarandeado fish is served with tortillas, limes and onions, but also kimchi. We’re not far from Koreatown, after all. For dessert, there’s a blueberry tamal paired with flavors of burnt corn and vanilla. Think: Mexico City through the Hollywood Farmers Market.
I recently spoke to Olvera about his new businesses, his favorite restaurants in LA, and why he loves the LA food scene. As usual, he kept it concise and made me want more of his delicious food.
You have restaurants in Mexico City and elsewhere in Mexico, in New York and now in Los Angeles. How is LA different?
Enrique Olvera: I always say that our last opening is this sum of all the experiences that we have gathered from the other restaurants. So you can see some things of Cosme, you will see some things of Pujol. But we are in the Los Angeles context so we wanted a very quiet and relaxed restaurant. We are part of the arts district, so this has an influence on the aesthetics of the restaurant. The murals we have at the back are a nod to the beautiful murals that can be found in the area. It’s mostly about love of California and love of LA. You have so many different influences and most of it comes from products from the whole year and what’s available in the market, but also from people. I really love the laid back nature of people in LA and wanted to capture that.
Opening a restaurant during a pandemic could not have been easy.
Well restaurants are always a challenge, and this year and a half has been extremely difficult, but luckily we were able to adapt. Overall, we had a successful opening in Damian, although we had to open with limited capacity at the start. Chef Chuy did a fantastic job in a difficult time making this an exceptional experience, and we were even a little ahead of schedule: we were able to open Ditroit a bit faster than expected, and it worked out really well. worked.
Ah, Ditroït. The taqueria is so delicious. What is the idea behind this part of the restaurant?
The space showed us the possibility of being part of the neighborhood. We have this little alley, which was a great part of the project. I also think that the prices are much more democratic, so we can integrate a younger clientele, and people who live in the neighborhood, especially for lunch. It is also our first real taqueria. We have served tacos in restaurants before, but never exclusively like this one, and we are happy with the results.
LA has a lot of tacos. Yet these are somehow above and beyond.
I appreciate that. We pay the same attention to execution as in all of our restaurants, and once again, I thank Chef Chuy. Our tacos in Ditroit use the same ingredients as Damien: pork belly, vegetables, other meats. As with all taquerias, we also focus a lot on our salsa. In Mexico, they say the best taquerias are the ones with amazing salsas, so we’ve paid a lot of attention to that. And we try to give them a little touch by using ingredients that aren’t normally used in salas, like shiso and basil.
Where do you like to eat in Los Angeles?
There are so many places, top to bottom, that are delicious. This is what is so amazing about the LA food scene. You have the amazing food trucks and some really nice food cooked in the malls. Holbox, for example, is one of my favorite places to eat. Yucatan style mariscos, or seafood, in a small food court. At Damian, we are in front of Bestia and I really enjoy this kind of meal too. We are friends and they are a good neighbor. I loved MTN on Abbot Kinney which is closed now, but I’m going to Gjusta a lot for breakfast. I like to stay near the ocean and normally take a morning walk or run, and Gjusta is a great place to go after. I also like a lot L’antica Pizzeria da Michele at Hollywood. LA is a city of diners. People love to eat and I love the wide range of possibilities.
Tell me about it!
In fact, I’m a little hungry for some of these places right now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.