A Northwest Passage [restaurant review]
America's northwest has a culinary embassy in Hermosa.
I am a big fan of American regional cuisines, and have been enthusiastic whenever a new outpost of our culinary heritage surfaced. Those featuring the American South have often been successful, while most offering food of the Midwest and Northeast have fizzled. The local population of expats was too small, and locals who delight in foods of the Orient and South America were curiously slow to embrace items from closer to home.
I didn’t mention restaurants featuring food from the Pacific Northwest because until recently it was an untried experiment. You might expect to find a Seattle or Portland themed restaurant somewhere around here, but instead the one that opened earlier this year celebrates dining in Montana.
That’s not a misprint. Montana has a population that numbers about a quarter of the city of Los Angeles, and now has a culinary embassy at the Hermosa Beach cafe called Outpost 406. (In case you’re wondering about the name, 406 is the prefix for every phone number in the state.) The space that used to be Big Mike’s and the Hermosa Pub has been redecorated to look rustic, but they kept a few popular items from the old place on the menu. In fact they kept chef Mauricio, which leads one to wonder if he was included in the terms of the lease.
Most offerings feature cooking of the kind you find at hunting lodges, around campfires, and at Midwestern tables. There are a few modern touches like the hummus that comes with the roasted vegetables and the balsamic vinegar on the Brussels sprouts, but the core items are mostly unadorned and unfussy American favorites. The portions and prices are both modest, so a party of four can fill up a table with small plates and try most of the menu at one sitting.
For three people we ordered starters of wings, seasoned Yukon Gold fries, and grilled veggies with hummus, to be followed by rainbow trout fritters, baked mac and cheese, and roasted Brussels sprouts. The wings are offered with either barbecue or buffalo sauce, and they’re not bad but not mind-blowing either. The buffalo sauce was medium-spicy, the barbecue sauce on the sweet side, and the wings themselves properly fried. The fried potatoes were about the same – they get points for using fresh cut potatoes, but the seasoning was a distant whisper of spice. I saw some buffalo burger sliders headed for another table and wished we had ordered that instead of either of these.
The grilled vegetables were better, a few thick spears of asparagus along with sweet potato and zucchini and a healthy portion of thick hummus. There was enough hummus that we used the leftover carrot sticks that garnished the wings and a couple of French fries to get the last of it. Everything was served on enameled metal plates that evoked the experience of camping, a nice idea but one that made it inevitable that hot items like the fries cooled off very quickly.
When I heard that Outpost 406 was serving Montana cuisine, I expected a focus on steaks, elk, and venison, all of which graced a lot of menus when I visited the state. They do offer a flank steak but not the members of the deer family, presumably because those would force a price point well above what is charged here. Bison is offered in sliders and chili, and I tried a sample of the latter. It was very mild and tasted more of tomato than cumin or chili, which is exactly how they make it in Montana. If you like to taste the meat this is the chili for you, but if your idea of chili is more reminiscent of Texas or New Mexico be aware that this is different.
The highlight of the meal was the trout fritters, crisp discs similar to crab cakes but with the distinctive flavor of freshwater fish delicately accented with herbs. They were served with a lightly tangy remoulade sauce instead of the mayonnaise or ketchup I’d expect to see in Montana, but that delicate mustard sauce made it even better by my reckoning. My first impulse on trying one was to order more, but I restrained myself because there were more items yet to sample.
One of these was the baked mac and cheese with mushrooms, which was somewhat different that we expected. It was at least fifty percent mozzarella by weight with very little of the fusilli pasta, and if you like to eat melted cheese you’ve hit the jackpot. I would have preferred a bit more mushroom and a lot more pasta. I was much happier with the Brussels sprouts, which had been halved and caramelized in a pan with shallots, a little bacon, garlic and a dash of balsamic. It’s not an item that reminds me of Montana, but I’d eat it any day.
Montana does produce wines, some of them good, but they’re hard to find in California and not served here. Instead they offer the state’s most famous liquid export, Moose Drool brown ale, which is a must-try if you like mild dark beers with hints of chocolate and coffee. Follow that with a German dunkelweizen, as I did, and you’ll experience a fuller, spicier version of the same. Cider drinkers should make a beeline for the organic scrumpy from Michigan, which has raisiny overtones and is remarkably complex. The beer list is good and pints are moderately priced, making this a destination for those who enjoy exploring all things ale.
For dessert we split an order of fry bread beignets with wild huckleberries and maple syrup, which were a good idea but at least on the day we dined there were not well executed. Fry bread and New Orleans beignets both involve dough that is fried briefly at high heat so that they puff up and become crisp and light. Unfortunately the ones we were served were soft and dense, and no tasty glaze could remedy that problem. I enjoy both fry bread and beignets and they’re rare locally, but these didn’t hit the mark.
Overall Outpost 406 is an interesting novelty that has potential. I’d like to see some of the game meats and bison that isn’t ground into burgers, at least as occasional specials, and perhaps sunchokes, the native vegetable that is most associated with the region. There are some good things here, and it will be interesting to see whether they can deepen their identity and enhance the reputation of a little-known American culinary region.
Outpost 406 is at 1314 Hermosa Avenue in Hermosa Beach. Open noon-11 p.m. Mo-Fr, 10 a.m. – 11 p.m. Sa-Su. Street parking, wheelchair access good, noise level moderate. Beer and wine served, few vegetarian options. Phone 424-392-1237, menu at outpost406.com. ER
by Richard Foss