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Samosa Empanadas and Other Burmese-Mexican Flavors Are Drawing in Crowds to This Beachside Santa Monica Cantina

12:57 PM PST on February 21, 2020

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]omatoes, cilantro, mint, beans, rice, cumin, and chiles are the building blocks of the staple dishes of Mexico. At the same time, these powerful elements play their own unique roles in and among the flavor bomb curries, noodle soups, and braises of Southeast Asia.

Bridging the vast cultural and culinary distances between these regions is the current obsession of 33-year-old Saw Naing, executive chef at Tallula's in Santa Monica.

Naing first stepped up to the Chef de Cuisine position from sous chef only a few months after the restaurant's 2017 opening. After an initial stab at serving the kind of upscale, family-style Mexican eats one would expect a certain species of well-heeled Westsider to go gaga for didn't exactly live up to every expectation.

Like most of Los Angeles, chef Saw is obsessed with Mexican food. After moving to the States in 2007, he studied at the side of his Mexican stepfather for years and took a job at Tallula's to hone that craft. But the Myanmar native's most potent food memories stretch back to the intense Northern Indian curries his grandmother made when he was growing up in Rangoon.

Samosa empanadas, photo: Lindsey Huttrer

It was just a matter of time before he started fusing Indian and Burmese flavors into the framework of Tallula's Mexican menu. His first victory was a platter of chicken fajitas in a tandoori masala marinade that took off with diners, gaining chef/partner Jeremy Fox's encouragement to keep exploring these intersections of spice and heat.

The flavors in Mexican food remind me of what I grew up with, Naing says. The spices, the herbs, the rice, the beans. Even before I cooked Mexican food, I was eating these things. And the more I started using the ingredients, the more I realized they can work together.

The result is a Mexican restaurant that is evolving through a Southeast Asian prism. A restaurant that is no longer as Mexican as it may be Burmese and Indian, straddling a similar balance board as Mexico City's insanely popular Masala y Maiz, where esquites mingle with coconut milk, ginger, and turmeric, and the tostadas served with your aguachile are actually black pepper papadum.

Tallula's menu currently reads like a well-plotted mishmash of Mexican dishes bearing Southeast Asian striations alongside straight-up Burmese recipes that play well with their culinary compañeros.

Crispy Burmese tofu with spicy tamarind sauce and sesame

Like his Jenga board of stacked tofu fritters that bear the unmistakable essence of masa and come with a metal cup of spicy, sweet and sour tamarind sauce that would be familiar to any veteran of Mexican candies.

Their fillings are forged from a soft alloy of pureed chickpeas, tofu, garlic, turmeric and surplus tortilla chips, fried into ideal golden cuboids.

Grilled pumpkin with curried yogurt

Another vegan delight—it's Santa Monica after all—comes in split wedges of grilled pumpkin spread across the plate like a spotted orange starfish in death throes, with a meaty flavor that could sate even rabid carnivores. They are showered with fresh mint, cilantro, red onion, and dill, and served with charred broccolini and a cup of bright yellow yogurt that coats the palate in a cardamom afterglow. The charred pumpkin's flavor reminiscent of the camoteros found all over Mexico who hawks roasted plantains, sweet potato, and pumpkin.

Albondigas with rice noodles and coconut-curry sauce

Khow suey-inspired albondigas of grass-fed beef and pork wade in a coconut curry, fiery from a sprinkling of Kashmiri chile, and served beside a tidy bale of rice noodles blanketed in more fresh herbs. The flavors of ginger, black mustard and chili oil shoot down any hint of red sauce meatballs-and-spaghetti, despite some resemblance in format.

Naturally, for a Mexican restaurant chef rocking a taco tat on his left hand, there are tacos. Served on tortillas handmade from blue heirloom corn masa from Masienda.

There are tacos with potato masala and a mint-tomatillo chutney. Sadly, we're not clever enough to pinpoint the perfect masa/masala portmanteau we know must be waiting in the wings.

Grass-fed curried beef tacos with potato, golden raisins and Serrano chiles

There are also tacos with red chile-glazed shrimp and Serrano aioli, tacos with chicken verde, and tacos with curried beef that comes across like a hybrid of barbacoa and Indonesian rendang, and a picadillo-like sweet-and-spicy rally between its golden raisins, white onion, cilantro, potato, and fresh Serrano slices.

The grand finale is found in Naing's baked whole sea bass, the skin rubbed red with a sticky candied glaze of chile cascabel we could eat on its own.

Baked, chile-rubbed whole sea bass with three sauces and blue corn tortillas

The dish arrives with a plastic basket of tortillas, an acidic citrus salad, and the same stacked metal tiffin one sees speeding in all directions to every office and construction site across India. The same kind chef Saw took to school for lunch every day back in Burma.

Unpacked, you'll find takes on the ubiquitous trio of sauces that accompany nearly every Indian meal: viscid tamarind, mint-tomatillo chutney, and a hot jalapeño sauce.

An enduring restaurant is rarely ever a shelf-stable organism so much as a fleet-footed metamorphic.

While the menu still has its requisite guacamole starter, churros, a menu of intriguing pechugas, raicillas, and sotoles, and whooping crowds of post-collegiate whites, the margarita is now the "Masala Margarita" and the kid's menu carries curried beef quesadillas.

Chef Saw Naing, credit: Hedley & Bennet

This steady progression into Burmese-Indian-Mexican fusion is not only conquering the restaurant's menu, altering it into a brand-new beast, it is also seducing the owners and audience alike, introducing them to new cuisines through the persuasive snare of Mexican food.

People do ask, 'What is that, masala at a Mexican restaurant?' Naing says. But once they hear my story and learn where I come from, it all makes sense.

Tallula's ~ 118 Entrada Dr., Santa Monica, CA 90402 ~ (310) 526-0027

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