I hadn’t even finished my margarita — ordered in the twilight of happy hour to bide time until the dinner menu became available (and a pleasant surprise, with a full two ounces of tequila, far more than typical happy-hour versions) — when the unusual dish arrived. Ultra-crisp french fries were heaped in an unruly stack on a large cast-iron skillet, errant spuds taunting gravity as they refused to tumble. Saucy orange zigzags and scallions added color, as did green florets that grew increasingly visible as we pulled out fries Jenga-style, causing the pile to shift. Some fries we ate solo, savoring their salty crispness; some we dragged through the umami-rich glaze hidden in the darkness at the bottom; still others we speared on a fork with mushrooms and broccoli. The result was an electric echo of textures and flavors: salty fries mirroring the salty soy glaze, crunchy layers of fried patatas and crisp-tender broccoli, oniony refrains from scallions and chives.
Playful without venturing out of bounds, the dish was well designed, highly craveable and also emblematic of the six-month-old Señor Bear. Chef/owner Max MacKissock and executive chef/owner Blake Edmunds, the duo that made the now-defunct Squeaky Bean into a legend, have worked on numerous projects together, but this new restaurant is the purest distillation of their intelligence and adventurousness. In fact, Señor Bear is housed in the same heavily windowed sliver in LoHi where the original Bean got its start, but it's larger, lighter and more festive than the early Bean, thanks to sparkling Peruvian mirrors, the soft glow of the long central bar, and an expanded kitchen created for interim tenant Jezebel's.
But Edmunds urges you to range further. “Given the way our menu constantly changes, I’m hoping that people will identify us as having Latin food, not just Mexican,” he says. If you look at Señor Bear in this light, you’ll catch glimpses of lomo saltado, a classic Peruvian stir-fry combining beef and french fries, in that “unusual” stack of stir-fried broccoli and fries. It’s not an obvious jump from here to there, but it's an easy leap if you’re familiar with the broader Latin repertoire and remember the Squeaky Bean, where MacKissock and Edmunds turned vegetables into brilliant stars. The chive crepes aren’t normally part of saltado, but they're a nod to Peru, too; the chefs got the idea from corn crepes they ate at an Amazonian restaurant in Lima on a two-week research trip last spring and thought the two would go well together. And they would have, if the crepes hadn’t gummed together in the lidded serving dish. When we tried to get them out, they ripped into small, sticky pieces.
During my visits, people at the tables around me — mostly couples in jackets and winter hats (ah, the downside to all those windows), and a few solo diners who’d stayed at the bar past happy hour — seemed to be taking the servers’ advice, playing it safe with queso fundido and the pollo bronco. Don’t do it, people: Even when an element like the crepes could be better, you’re still richly rewarded for taking risks along with the chefs. Which is why, if it’s still on the menu, you should order the roasted winter squash with mole negro, no matter that it’s not yet the showstopper it has the potential to be. Edmunds furthered his understanding of the complex sauce in Oaxaca, re-creating it here with smoky pasilla de Oaxaca chiles. The plate is refreshingly original: crescents of earthy winter squash tumbling toward a creamy burrata centerpiece, with a seasoned, seedy crunch on top. If only the dense ebony sauce — as pungent as black-bean paste — were dabbed, not slathered, on the plate, the elements would work brilliantly together.
Not all kitchens could pull off this high-risk/high-reward approach. But Señor Bear’s attention to balance – in salt, acid and texture — provides a safety net; even when one element disappoints, it doesn’t pull down the rest of the show. And when every element is executed flawlessly, you end up with something as simple, and as glorious, as albacore ceviche. Rosy cubes of sushi-quality albacore appear opaque, given the miraculous transformation when citrus “cooks” (or, technically, denatures) raw fish. Pickled jalapeños add heat. A tall aji-chile puff, with the snap of a shrimp chip, adds crackle. Most surprising of all — what my server might have called "unusual" — are slender strips of marinated romaine that lie in a wet heap by the fish. Reminiscent of both seaweed and Caesar salad, the lettuce is yet one more example of the kitchen’s playful touch with vegetables.
Too many restaurants let up when it comes to dessert, but not Señor Bear, where all sweets are offered in half and full portions — yet another gesture, like strong margaritas and a spacious patio, that makes this restaurant so welcome. You could play it safe and order the churros, which are dusted with lime and vanilla sugar, and you certainly wouldn’t be disappointed. But if you’ve learned anything during a meal here, it's that the kitchen rewards those willing to take a chance. So if you order the churros, pair them with the hoja santa suave, a generous swirl of soft-serve that draws its mild anise flavor from herbs infused overnight into the base. Finished with cocoa-chile cookies, salted peanuts and goat’s-milk caramel that gets chewier the longer it sits on the cold ice cream, the dish, like the saltado, is another emblem of Señor Bear at its best: playful, creative, and — when you look closely — rooted in Latin tradition.
Unusual, maybe, but only in the best sense of the word.
3301 Tejon Street
Hours: 3 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 3 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Select menu items
Happy hour mini-queso $2.50
Happy hour margarita $5
Brócoli saltado $22
Albacore ceviche $17
Mole negro $17
El pollo bronco $24/$44
Hoja santa suave $3/$8