You’re not coming to newish pop-up Mangu for ambiance, or an exciting bar scene (there is none), but you are trekking to Venice to try a style of cuisine that seems to not exist elsewhere in Los Angeles. Benadicto Gell, a Dominican chef who has honed his skills working at farm-to-table restaurants like Joe’s, melds both influences into a short daily changing bight and flavorful, albeit pricey, menu.
A $27 piece of fish should be substantial enough to serve as an entrée. And while the Banana Leaf Rockfish is listed as such, along with the Dominican Braised Pork Chop, the meager portion would best serve as an appetizer. However, that’s not to say that the fish isn’t delicious, delicately wrapped in a green banana leaf and perfectly steamed so that its center is still translucent. Gell serves the fish with a bitter lemon sauce, whole green olives, and slices of seasonal sweet guava, which seem incongruous but somehow make tropical sense on the plate.
I can’t stop thinking about Gell’s mangu, a traditional Dominican dish similar to American mashed potatoes but made with plantains. Gell tops his mangu with deeply flavored, buttery pulled pork, slivers of pickled red onions, and two dollops of Greek yogurt with ground cumin. A squeeze of lime cuts through the pork’s richness and springs of fresh cilantro and oregano add brightness.
Benadicto Gell could be one of Los Angeles’ best kept secrets. His unique menu— a mix of heavy meat-centric Dominican dishes compounded with delicate nods to California’s seasonal bounty—most reminds me of that served at Animal, but with a Dominican spin. Once Mangu becomes a fully realized restaurant, and if chef Gell can get a handle on prices, plates are strong enough to entice a fashion editor to eat plantains.
What to eat: Although chef Gell’s seasonal Dominican menu changes daily based on farmers market availability, if you order but one plate, go with the Mangu, the restaurant’s namesake. It’s a powerfully flavorful, well-balanced mountain of shredded, slow-cooked pork piled atop roughly mashed plantains and pickled onions. Mix it all together, including the chilled cumin yogurt, the cilantro leaves, and that final squeeze of lime enhances the unctuousness of the meat.
Where to sit: Right now this isn’t a fancy operation, just a half dozen or so two tops in a space devoid of atmosphere. But, in the next few weeks or so Mangu will overtake the space indefinitely, so aesthetic updates to come.
What to drink: There’s always the option to BYO, or order off the restaurant’s very shot list of beer and wine. Red Strip, Dos Equis – beers of warm weather – in addition to a couple reds and white by glass or bottle.
Conversation piece: Chef Gell actually kicked off the Mangu pop-up at Capri restaurant on Abbot Kinney last summer. Before that he worked with chefs Kris Tominaga and Brian Dunsmoor at their popular Wolf in Sheep’s clothing pop-up. If you were a fan of their food back then, it’s likely you will enjoy Gell’s just as much now.