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This chef cooked meals for laid off workers. Now, those recipes have turned into a Carlsbad restaurant.

Pollo Pozole Rojo is one of the build-your-own dishes on the menu at newly opened La Cocina Mesa in Carlsbad.
(Courtesy of Brook Larios)

A series of take-home family meals became the inspiration for the Gottesmans’ newest restaurant, La Cocina Mesa, which is Spanish for “the kitchen table.”

When the pandemic shut down Jennifer and Grant Gottesman’s three Carlsbad restaurants in March 2020, they were forced to furlough 140 workers.

To support their suddenly idled staff, the Gottesmans asked company executive chef Moises Hernandez and a small crew of kitchen workers to prepare free takeout meals twice a week for every employee. But instead of making dishes from the menus of the Gottesmans’ shuttered Black Rail Kitchen + Bar, Tin Leaf Kitchen and Beach Plum Kitchen restaurants, Hernandez’s team cooked the regional Mexican food that they grew up on.

Ceviche de camaron at La Cocina Mesa in Carlsbad.
(Courtesy of Brook Larios)

Those take-home family meals became the inspiration for the Gottesmans’ newest restaurant, La Cocina Mesa, which is Spanish for “the kitchen table.” Located in the former Daphne’s California Greek restaurant space near Black Rail in Carlsbad’s Plaza Paseo Real shopping center, the 3-month-old La Cocina Mesa specializes in serving fresh takes on homegrown Mexican cuisine.

La Cocina Mesa is a fast-casual concept, where diners order from a menu board at the front counter, and the meals are delivered to customers’ tables on china plates. Jennifer Gottesman said some customers have been confused by the concept, expecting the fast-food pricing of a quick-service taco shop. But everything is made from scratch at La Cocina Mesa including the tortillas, salsas and mole sauce, and many ingredients are either imported from Mexico or made locally by Mexican-American-owned businesses. That attention to detail is reflected in the moderate menu prices of $7 to $14 for most items. House-made agua frescas are served by day, and beer, wine and cocktails can be ordered in the late afternoons and evenings from the Black Rail bar.

La Cocina Mesa executive chef Moises Hernandez describes the dishes on the menu.
La Cocina Mesa executive chef Moises Hernandez describes the dishes on the menu at the new Carlsbad restaurant.
(Courtesy of Brook Larios)

Raised in Michoacan, Hernandez came to the U.S. with his parents and three brothers in the early 1990s. His father Salvador’s first local job was at Las Olas restaurant in Cardiff. Salvador’s sons followed him into the business. Hernandez spent 14 years at the Bridges Country Club in Rancho Santa Fe before joining the Gottesmans 10 years ago. Today, Hernandez’s father and his niece both work at La Cocina Mesa, and one of his brothers manages Pacific Coast Grill in Cardiff. Someday, the Hernandez family hopes to open their own restaurant. Here are some of the new restaurant’s best dishes:

Ceviche de camaron

This appetizer is a mix of ceviche and aguachile. Whole shrimp are marinated in aguachile-style lime juice and serrano chile broth and served with cucumbers, cilantro, watermelon radishes and red onions, with house-made tortilla chips sprinkled with Tajín, smoked paprika, cumin and coriander. It’s a fresh, tasty dish that’s big enough to be an entrée.

Empanadas

The masa for these house-made turnovers, which comes from the El Nopalito market in Encinitas, gives these savory pastries a crunchy crust. Filled with either beef barbacoa or shrimp, two are served with a consommé dipping sauce and fresh tomatillo salsa. I tried the barbacoa, which is a Hernandez family recipe. Chiles are toasted, cooked and blended, then used to marinate the beef for 24 hours before it’s slow-cooked for six to eight hours before baking it with cheese, veggies and spices into a pie. The pan drippings are used for the must-try consommé.

Chorizo and camarones queso at La Cocina Mesa.
(Courtesy of Brook Larios)

Chorizo and camarones queso

One of the most addictive items on the menu is this chips-and-dip appetizer. The chunky but melt-in-your-mouth dip is made from house-made chorizo sausage, shrimp, Manchego and Oaxacan cheeses and caramelized onions, which are served with house-made tortilla chips and rostizada (roasted) salsa.

Pollo pozole rojo

This traditional pozole soup is made with chicken, guajillo chiles, hominy and chicken broth and served Mexican-style with add-your-own mix-ins, including shredded cabbage, diced onions, radishes, dried herbs and blue corn tostadas.

Oaxacan pollo mole negro

The Hernandez family’s mild and not-too-sweet mole sauce recipe is made from guajillo and ancho chiles, Abuelito hot chocolate tablets and cinnamon sticks. It’s served over a juicy breast and thigh of chicken with marinated red onions, sesame and pumpkin seeds and served with sides of rice, beans and tortillas.

Postres

The made-in-house Kahlua-spiked flan and tres leches cakes are not to be missed. Gottesman said the flan is the best she’s ever had, and she’s had more than a few.

La Cocina Mesa

Hours: 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily

Where: 6981 El Camino Real, Suite 101, Carlsbad

Phone: (760) 203-5400

Online: lacocinamesa.com

Tres leches cake, foreground, and flan desserts at La Cocina Mesa in Carlsbad.


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