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Gilberto Cetina's Grilled Kanpachi Tostada

Three of Southern California’s top modern Mexican chefs faced off in our first-ever In the Sunset Kitchen culinary competition

Hugh Garvey  – October 18, 2019 | Updated October 21, 2019

Last night, high above Los Angeles on the rooftop of the exclusive h Club in Hollywood, three of Southern California’s top modern Mexican chefs faced off in our first-ever In the Sunset Kitchen culinary competition. Their challenge: create the ultimate modern fish taco. That’s no small feat in L.A., arguably the nation’s capital of taco innovation. But the talent was of the highest caliber, the food exceptional, the competition fierce, and the ever-evolving definition of what makes an amazing California-Mexican taco was further expanded. 

The competing chefs were members of the modern Mexican culinary elite: Wes Avila, James Beard award finalist, Michelin Bib Gourmand winner, and man behind DTLA’s Guerilla Tacos; Gilberto Cetina, chef-owner of perennial best-restaurant-list-topping Chichen Itza and Holbox; and Claudette Zepeda, two-time Top Chef contestant, James Beard Semifinalist Best Chef: West, and former head chef at El Jardin in San Diego. In addition to fish tacos, the chefs were challenged with creating a wildcard dish of their choosing. The chefs brought their organic handmade artisanal corn tortillas, their blazing flat-top griddles, and their A-games as an esteemed panel of judges tasted and cast their ballots.

Read on for a blow-by-blow account of the evening and the winner!

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h Club’s Chicharron on Rice Crisp appetizer

The h Club served killer appetizers, including octopus pibil on squid ink tacos, fried tamales with cilantro crema, and chicharron on rice crisps.

Wes Avila

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Wes Avila carted in his custom-painted plancha and served a grilled swordfish taco topped with uni butter, roasted corn, and pico de gallo. His wildcard dish was a smoked cauliflower taco with almonds, chile, persimmons, pistachios, onion, sumac, and chives. 

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Wes Avila’s Grilled Swordfish Taco with Uni Butter

Taco philosophy: “In California it’s all about heritage corn, seasonality, using the best local ingredients you can find, and presenting it in a simple way. For the cauliflower taco we marinate the cauliflower like meat, smoke it for four to six hours, top it with persimmons that just came in to season. We pickle them. Top it with pistachio, raw onion and then add Middle Eastern feel with the sumac. There are no rules.”

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Wes Avila’s Smoked Cauliflower Taco

Gilberto Cetina

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Gilberto Cetina griddled organic blue corn tortillas for his fish taco made with grilled Baja California omega blue kanpachi, cabbage, grape tomato pico de gallo, morita sauce, and avocado puree. His wildcard dish was a tostada topped with cherry wood smoked kanpachi collars and heads, arbol-peanut sauce, and Baja bay scallop ceviche.

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Gilberto Cetina’s Grilled Kanpachi Taco

Taco philosophy: “The anatomy of a taco is a reflection of a people, their preferences, customs, ingredients, their economy, and what’s available. Our tacos are built on the bounty and beauty of Southern California seafood and pay homage to the traditional recipes of where our food comes from but through a lens of L.A. ingredients and sensibility. For the tostada we use some Mexican ingredients but also use aged soy sauce because I love sushi!”

Claudette Zepeda

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Claudette Zepeda’s taco was topped with Baja striped sea bass, white butter ajillo sauce, caviar, and herbs. Her wildcard dish was a smoked squash tostada topped with pickled chayote and spicy pumpkin seed mole.

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Claudette Zepeda’s Striped Sea Bass Taco with Caviar

Taco Philosophy: “A California taco is the same thing as a Mexican taco: you can take creative freedom and take from anywhere. For me it’s about where I’ve been and where I’m going and how I can move the wheel forward. If I’m doing a taco the way they do in Ensenada then I’m not doing anything for the next generation of chefs. In my taco I use beurre blanc but also al ajillo. I move it forward by bringing in my past. But the king of this show is the tortilla and the salsa. Everything else are perks.”

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Claudette Zepeda’s Smoked Squash Tostada

Winners

The judges cast their ballots and the winners were:

Best Taco: Wes Avila’s grilled swordfish taco with uni butter, roasted corn, and pico de gallo

Best Wildcard: Claudette Zepeda’s smoked squash tostada with pickled chayote and spicy pumpkin seed mole.

Many thanks to all the chefs, judges, and the h Club for hosting!