It’s been a bit of a wait, but Kennedy Town taqueria 11 Westside is finally open for business, four months after we first got word that Los Angeles’ “Taco King”, Esdras Ochoa, had bought a one-way ticket to Hong Kong. Those few months have been put to good use, we found out on our recent visit, as the space reveals itself to be a gorgeously outfitted venue that somehow combines a hip, industrial-style restaurant with an ornate, Grecian-inspired courtyard. Our first thought? This would make a great place to impress on a first date.
It’s a far cry from Salazar, Ochoa’s auto-body-shop-turned-restaurant in Los Angeles’ emerging Frogtown neighbourhood, on the east banks of the L.A. River. Making several of 2016’s “best of” lists, Salazar is a colourful and free-wheeling arrangement of rickety pastel chairs, a wooden-framed patio, gravel-pit-turned-bar and an assortment of desert succulents and palm trees. The Sonora-style spot is heralded for its atmosphere: the utopian ideal of a roadside taqueria given a full-on contemporary facelift to become one of L.A.’s favourite backyard barbecues. While 11 Westside’s sophisticated set-up is less prone to pounding mezcal shots and dancing under the stars (although there is an outdoor terrace boxed in by the neighbouring residential high-rises), the K-Town restaurant certainly isn’t lacking in atmosphere.
The fervent hype and anticipation surrounding 11 Westside is a product of two circumstances: the constant struggle of finding good, authentic Mexican food in Hong Kong, and the promising prospect of a chef hailing from L.A., the holy land for cheap tacos and new-wave Mexican food. Given this, we visited 11 Westside with the same question that’s on everyone’s mind: Is this finally the Mexican restaurant we’ve all been waiting for?
Located in The Hudson, a few minutes’ walk from Exit C of Kennedy Town MTR station, 11 Westside is accessed not through the main lobby, but by a flight of stairs located around the side of the building (if you can’t find it, just follow the scent of smoke and barbecue). A hostess stand framed with glowing lanterns is the first indication that this is a much more sophisticated affair than your typical taqueria. With reservations only allowed for parties of 6 or more, we’re told that we have to give the table promptly back within the hour, due to the restaurant being booked out already with large parties for the night.
Heading in through sliding glass doors, we’re met with a beautifully designed space: a long, glossy-topped communal table is the focal point of the room, seating up to 16 under three undulating, vintage chandeliers. It runs parallel to the bar counter, offering some of the best seats in the house where you can settle back in the cushy, gold-rimmed counter stools and observe the bartenders in action. On the opposite side, comfortable booths are laid out window-side for larger parties.
Further into the restaurant, the back dining room blurs the lines of indoor and outdoor space with two picnic bench tables topped with an assortment of greenery and mini lanterns. (Through another set of glass doors is the pool room, set to open later in the year.) The overall décor of exposed piping, concrete walls, sweeping glass windows and dim lighting would feel very much like a downtown New York restaurant if not for the bar design: The grand Roman arches framing Renaissance-inspired murals and overhanging foliage evoke an outdoor, courtyard-like vibe which fills the restaurant, pushing the vibe back into sunny West Coast territory.
Food and Drink
The menu is a concise one-pager (front and back), split into starters, appetisers, salads, tacos, entrees and desserts, with 2–3 dishes per section. Portions are small — bite-sized in fact — and despite our server’s well-meant concerns that ordering four appetisers and four tacos would be too much for two people, we end up slightly hungry still at the end of a rushed meal.
Our dinner starts with the Tableside Guac (HK$150), the East L.A. Seafood Taco (HK$65), Echo Park Sweet Corn (HK$68) and Ceviche Pacific (HK$135). As the name suggests, the guacamole is pounded at the table, two ripened avocados getting the full mortar and pestle treatment with onions, cilantro, chillies, tomatoes, salt and a squeeze of lime. It’s fresh, appropriately chunky and well-seasoned — but at HK$150, we can’t quite justify the price tag. Perhaps we’ll opt for the HK$50 chips and salsa next time.
Other appetisers seem to have the same skewed price-to-portion-size ratio, particularly the sweet corn, which is gone in about two seconds. This point aside, we do enjoy each dish. The ceviche is solid, with gleaming chunks of prawn and red snapper bathed in a citrus-laced marinade, invigorated with lime and chilli. Three half moons of sliced avocado are fanned over the top, adding a buttery texture to the dish; however, the corn tortilla chip on the side is disappointingly stale.
The East L.A. Seafood Taco is a fun concept in theory: a crisp, fried corn tortilla folded over shrimp, crab and potato mash, topped with a spicy tomato salsa. Under a heavy ladling of tomato sauce, the tortilla is soggy by the time we get around to it (we miss the memo and eat this dish last), though the puffy sides still boast a satisfying crunch. Although we can taste little of the shrimp and crab filling, the tomato sauce is wonderful, bearing a brightness and clarity that makes us want to scoop up every last bit.
Our favourite of the three appetisers is the baby corn, which has been roasted to a surprising sweetness and slathered with an addictive homemade mayo. The corn is blanketed under generous shavings of Oaxaca cheese, the semi-hard Mexican queso lending a sharp tang and slightly smoky aroma to the dish.
Chef Ochoa is best known for his tacos, and this is where 11 Westside truly shines. It starts with the freshly made tortillas, which are undeniably fantastic, pressed in-house every day on a tortilla press chef Ochoa hauled all the way from Los Angeles. Stretchy and pounded just thin enough, the tortillas are marked with small pockets of brown from being pressed on the comal yet for the most part are just-barely-cooked, yielding that soft and supple texture and fragrant nutty aroma that differentiates fresh-made tortillas from the store-bought kind.
They come loaded with four equally delicious fillings: Al Pastor, Carne Asada, Pollo Asado and Caulifornia Veggie. At HK$50 a piece, you should get them all, and then perhaps go back for a second round. The Carne Asada is our favourite, with juicy, fat-marbled meat marinated in a Mexican-style ponzu sauce and caramelised on the grill. The Al Pastor comes in a close second: the sweetness in the slightly charred, roasted pork is reinforced by fresh pineapple chunks, with an earthy undercurrent of mildly spicy achiote.
The Pollo Asado is less interesting (as is usually the case with chicken), but succeeds in drawing the same juicy, smoke-infused flavour from the grill, zapped with a bit of garlic and citrus. The Caulifornia Veggie, far from being a dietary compromise, is amongst the most flavourful of the four, the milder main ingredient compensated for by a bright and fiery adobo sauce that’s intensely flavoured by roasted tomatoes and chipotle. All four tacos are finished off with avocado for creaminess, salsa molcajete for crunch and acidity, and coriander/cilantro for an herbaceous bite.
There are two entrêes on the menu that can be attacked with a larger group: the USDA Hangar Prime Steak (HK$298) served with grilled veggies and tortillas, and the Hermosa Fish (HK$258), a red snapper fillet rubbed with ancho chillies and charred lemon. For dessert, there are two options: churros and corn flan. We try the latter and love the contrast of salty and sweet, the wobbly flan arriving with a ring of spiced popcorn, candied pistachio and homemade whipped cream.
You could while away the hours nibbling on tacos while exploring the drinks menu, a solid collection of spirits including whiskeys, rum, gin, vodka, and of course, tequilas and mezcals. Cocktails are well-built and pack a punch (HK$130 each), from the Naked & Famous, made with mezcal, aperol, yellow chartreuse and lime; to the Left Hand, a play on a Negroni with bourbon replacing gin, and topped off with mole bitters.
Conversations — and complaints — about the deplorable state of Mexican food in Hong Kong often start and end with grumbles over inflated prices for a cuisine that’s historically been considered as cheaper than most. If that’s the stick by which you measure any newcomers to the playing field, well, 11 Westside doesn’t do much to alleviate the situation. Yes, you’ll still pay HK$50 for a taco (almost double the price of its West Coast equivalent), and yes, it’ll still be gone in two bites (one if you’re famished).
Given Hong Kong’s absurd rent prices, we understand the need for inflated prices, but there are other ways for a restaurant to show generosity without hurting their bottom line. Officially opened about a week ago, 11 Westside is still finding its footing when it comes to the balancing act of hospitality. Case in point: Right before being unceremoniously kicked out by an inflexible hostess promptly at 8pm, our server — who turned out to be the pastry chef, Karyu Kawamura — swooped in to save the day, offering a complimentary dessert and pleading to let us stay an extra five minutes just to try it. His enthusiasm for the food was infectious, and our interaction with Kawamura — and briefly with chef Ochoa — showed signs of a passionate and enthusiastic team (from the kitchen staff, at least), exuding the type of heartwarming hospitality that will make you want to love the food regardless and feel welcome to return in the future.
Other considerations aside, no one in Hong Kong is paying as much care and attention to Mexican cuisine in the way that Ochoa is, and that in itself makes 11 Westside one of the most exciting new openings of the year. Hong Kong’s isolated geography, our high rents, fast turnover and 90% reliance on imported foods mean the hard truth is that we have to pay a premium to sustain our global culinary melting pot. Until someone finds a way to circumvent those factors, we’ll gladly take 11 Westside as our go-to spot for experiencing the smoke- and grill-heavy Sonoran-style of Mexican food the way it’s supposed to be. And with 11 Westside’s stylish interiors and trendy set-up, it’s safe to say we won’t be the only ones showing up at the doors.
Opening Hours: Tues–Sun, 6:30–11pm
Recommended Dishes: Carne asada, al pastor, pollo asado and cauliflower veggie tacos; East L.A. seafood taco; ceviche; housemade corn flan.
Price: Dinner ranging from HK$400–$700 per person
Noise Level: Loud; communal dining
Service: Friendly and attentive
11 Westside, 1/F, The Hudson, 11 Davis Street, Kennedy Town, Hong Kong, +852 3996 7754