Derek Dietz, the one-man show behind Bocadillo, has a fine-dining background, but you wouldn't know it from walking into his restaurant. Potted plants, in various stages of dying, sit in front windows where curtains should be. Cookbooks and records spill out of banged-up wooden shelves. Fossils from the collection of his grandfather, a noted marine geologist, rest in cases designed for baked goods. With Picasso's "Don Quixote" prints on the wall and Miró and Dalí collages under glass tabletops, I felt like I had stumbled into an artist's bachelor pad — until the server arrived and poured the potato-and-leek soup. Tableside. It was a touch I hadn't expected, not in this kind of environment, not in a place billed as a snack lounge.
See also: A Closer Look at Bocadillo
The smooth white soup tumbled out of the thermos and splashed over the shredded cheddar, bacon lardons and chives in the bottom of the bowl. I caught an earthy whiff and reached for my spoon. It wasn't easy to get a full bite; the server had given us teaspoons, not soup spoons. But once I did, one taste was enough to confirm that while you can take the kid out of fine dining, you can't take fine dining out of the kid.
4044 Tejon Street
Hours: noon-10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
Potato-and-leek soup $8
Mexican pork soup $10
Winter salad $7
Buffalo empanadellas $10
Lamb vindaloo $14
Southwest chicken egg rolls $10
Cheesesteak egg rolls $10
Philly bocadillo $9
Rich with cream and full of that distilled potato flavor found only in organic, seasonal produce, the soup was a shot of pure, wintery goodness. It was also a manifesto of sorts for this 25-year-old cook, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and spent time at the Four Seasons restaurant in his home town of Philadelphia. "If I didn't have those potatoes, I would have to do a different soup," he says of the Red Wagon Organic Farm spuds. And with that simple statement, Dietz sums up his approach to Bocadillo's menu, which changes on a whim based on what's in season and what he feels like cooking.
As a term, "farm-to-table" is as overused as "selfie." But Dietz is a straight-talking guy who will no doubt continue to cook this way even after the trend pendulum swings to something else. Not only can he rattle off the names of his farmers and ranchers, but he calls them "buddy." He gets his beef and pork from "a buddy in Brighton," eggs from "my buddy Cliff." Some produce is even more local than that: Micro-greens, another vestige of his five-star days, sprout in the kitchen, in clear view of the bar. But the miniature mustard greens, arugula and amaranth are key ingredients, not accessories to finish off an artistic presentation. "I want to create nice and tasty dishes that are easy to put out," he says. "I don't have garde-manger guys putting ten things on a plate."
Dietz originally launched Bocadillo in 2012 as a sandwich shop ("bocadillo" is Spanish slang for sandwich or snack) in a quiet corner of Sunnyside, then closed the restaurant for a year because of a family emergency. Last summer, he got a liquor license and reopened it for dinner. I look forward to seeing what he can do with summer's seasonality; at this time of year, winter's root vegetables make an already heavy menu even heavier. While that menu is ever-changing, on my visits, many of the dozen or so dishes involved cheese, cream and/or the fryer. That delicious, potato-based soup was made with heavy cream. Butternut squash was diced in cheesy, sticky orzo risotto. French fries and cheese curds were smothered in gravy for a Canadian poutine. The heaviness didn't seem to bother the other folks in the place — mostly men, many eating pizza and drinking beer at the small bar. But one night a friend and I scoured the menu, looking for lighter options to balance the buffalo empanadellas and Southwest chicken egg rolls before us.
Ever a fan of stuffed dough pockets, I had expected to love the empanadellas. But the ground-meat filling was bland, and the plain yogurt dipping sauce didn't perk it up much. So we focused instead on the egg rolls, with chicken confit, cumin, cilantro and corn tucked inside. In another form, as sliders or on a plate with greens and crusty bread, that filling could easily have counted as dinner — but there was a limit to how much fried food we could take. The lone light option, a winter salad with butternut squash, cherries and goat cheese, arrived as we were scraping the last of the chicken confit out of the crisp egg-roll shells. Like the soup, the salad was a highlight, a testimony to the tastiness of local greens, with plenty of toppings and the right amount of balsamic vinaigrette.
The lamb vindaloo that followed was another disappointment, though — good in concept but short on flavor, without the vinegar and chiles of its Indian namesake. The hearty Mexican pork soup on another night also lacked punch but was still satisfying, since it was loaded with tender pork, chorizo and beans. Both dishes were supposed to have stronger personalities, Dietz says, but he remembers "fishing out" too much thyme and oregano that had spilled into the soup, which then had to be thinned with chicken stock. The lamb, too, was "supposed to have more heat."
In other kitchens, a trained chef would have started both dishes over. But Bocadillo runs more like a home than a professional kitchen, and rather than being a weakness, that's part of its charm. Here, potatoes aren't put through a ricer to remove lumps, and vegetables aren't blanched separately to preserve their shape and texture before being added to soup. "If something comes out chunky, we just call it 'country-style,'" explains Dietz. "We couldn't even serve that at the Four Seasons."
But now he can, because he isn't after the Four Seasons crowd at Bocadillo. "We don't have too stuck-up of an ambience," he says. "If you've got a baby crying or you're not dressed up, that's okay." The snack-style menu is supposed to make the experience of going out to dinner — something his regulars don't do often at other places, he says — less intimidating.
Some people might still be intimidated by pintxos, the dollar-a-piece, Spanish-style bar snacks that Dietz puts out during happy hour: sometimes housemade chorizo with creminis and white-wine cream sauce, sometimes chicken cordon bleu bites. But there's nothing intimidating about the Philly bocadillo. Made with chopped sirloin, onions, housemade Cheez Whiz and no peppers, this immensely lovable sandwich is a snapshot of Dietz's youth, and a mainstay at lunch he added last fall. At dinner the same filling often appears in egg-roll form, but it's better when it doesn't have to compete with the deep-fried shell.
In keeping with his philosophy, Dietz's food is best when he keeps it simple. And in this era of six-figure design budgets and polished restaurant groups, his designed-on-a-shoestring eatery stands out as a place run by a man who may not know how to decorate, but definitely knows how to cook.
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