It’s not every day a restaurant serves you something as wonderful as hiramasa crudo, a delightfully rich yellowtail, coolly elegant and Eastern, sitting in a shallow pool of smoked gazpacho, zesty and Western. But this clever commingling of cuisines was featured at no everyday restaurant: It was the first Santa Barbara pop-up of the Los Angeles underground restaurant Paladar, started by friends at USC out of their own apartment. Front-of-the-house man Robert Kronfli and Chef Alex Chang would do two 30-person seatings a night, and, said Chang, “It was getting kind of crazy, and the kitchen was taking a beating. Plus we were living in the same place.”
While the Santa Barbara meal was a one-off event to help raise money for a documentary project about Paladar, people can track Chang’s whereabouts via Paladar’s Web site, paladarunderground.com—most recently he had been taking over the evenings at L.A.’s breakfast-only hotspot Jacks N Joe, and he’s also been working with the acclaimed Chef Josef Centeno at the Lazy Ox Canteen. But it’s been a long, self-taught road to get there for the kinesthesiology major and Santa Barbara High alum.
Chang’s mother is Mexican and his dad is Chinese, but he bristles at the term fusion for what he does. “That’s a PR interpretation of what I do,” he insisted. “I don’t want to be classified as pan-Asian—it’s just the tip of the iceberg. That doesn’t really pay homage to what Asian food is.” Chang says he couldn’t even boil water until he was 17, but a lifetime of travels helped shape the chef he’s become.
“I was a picky eater until I was 15, but then started to eat everything,” he recalled, explaining that he wanted to keep up with his well-traveled father. “When we moved to Santa Barbara, my dad said, ‘Santa Barbara is known for its sea urchin; we’ll have to have that.’ So I had it with him, and I almost threw up the first time, but I ate it. Both my parents exposed me to so much different food, different things.” Then heading off to college meant a further education for his sophisticated palate. “Moving to L.A. was another eye-opening experience,” he said. “I found my way through the city by going out and eating.”
Chang can certainly put his own good taste on the plate: Witness a sophisticated dish featuring surprisingly tender sliced beef heart, radish, radicchio, Grana Padano, and several drops of chimichurri. Get all those elements on one fork, and the flavors sing together, the textures complemented singularly. Here’s hoping he gets more chances to cook in Santa Barbara.
Follow Alex Chang at paladarunderground.com.