Before I review Tempo Urban Kitchen, I have to start by saying my initial experience here when they open in 2014 is not a positive one. The restaurant has struggled with finding the right person to helm its kitchen, and the inconsistencies have kept me away — until now.
I hear on the grapevine that Chris Tzorin has joined Tempo Urban Kitchen and my mind is in a whirlwind. I’ll be the first to admit, rewind back five years and Chris Tzorin is not in my good books in Orange County. His pompous, arrogant demeanor turned me off, and it takes a few years before he makes good again. Chris has suffered trials and tribulations in his personal life, tragedies I do not wish on my worst enemy, let alone someone so young and with obvious talent. I witnessed a change in Chris when he returned to Savannah Chop House after a short stint at Tortilla Republic, revealing a humility I have not seen before, and a maturity in the food he served me.
His stint at Kutsi in Santa Ana is decent, but short. Then, I hear he has joined forces with restaurateur Jorge Cueva at Tempo, and my immediate thoughts are how long is this peripatetic chef going to stay, and if I should even bother visiting. However, my friends make the decision for me as they decide to drive out to Brea for dinner, and ask me along.
We arrive to a bustling restaurant to find both Jorge and Chris there. They are happy to see us even though I am still a little skeptical of what I’ll find. Our Tom Cruise-look-alike server Tyler is eager and extremely helpful in getting us some cocktails to start. The bar program is phenomenal. I won’t describe each of them in detail, but will point out that the bourbon drinks are outstanding – and I’m not a bourbon drinker whatsoever. Mama’s First Bourbon; Campfire Old Fashioned; Hickory Smoked Old Fashioned are all stellar. If you’re looking for something more festive, definitely seek out Miche Mango or the Gardez Margarita. Cocktails run between $10-$12.
A platter of Stuffed Oyster ($9) arrive first. It is smoking as it arrives.
The oysters are topped with shrimp ceviche, cucumber, red onion, and avocado. I see everyone enjoying them and I am told they are delicious.
Instead, I wait for Duo Ceviche ($10) which offers the shrimp ceviche, from the oysters, marinated in a spicy secret sauce. There is a nice heat on the finish. The second ceviche of marinated fish, octopus and shrimp comprises lime, ginger, red onions and cilantro. It is beautifully tart from the diced mangoes and tastes just like street-side ceviche in Baja!
A plate of Seared Tuna Sashimi ($14) is served with a side of tortilla chips, but these are not like any tortilla chips I’ve tasted before. The texture is rustic, like cornmeal, and is very light on the palate. Take a slice of tuna, plop it onto the chip, then add a little of the avocado, pickled onions and the savory lime vinaigrette. I especially love the crispy component on the plate – rice paper with seaweed chips.
If you’re into tacos, there are quite a few to choose from. The Korean Tacos ($11) are tasty, but Korean they’re not. The slow roasted pork belly is brushed with a chile-soy glaze, topped with red cabbage slaw, fresh mango and lime crema, creating a very delicious mouthful. Just don’t expect Korean tacos, that’s all.
Want to try something unique? Then definitely order the Short Rib Mole Tacos ($12). The meat is tender and infused with a chocolate Modern Times Coffee Roasty Stout sauce. The tortilla is made with Abuelita chocolate – yes you heard right! And the whole thing comes together with a drizzle of lime crema, and a combo of crispy and pickled vegetables. It is rather heavenly!
I can’t steer away from Grilled Octopus ($15) and although I can’t wrap my head around pomegranate at first, the plate is surprisingly cohesive. There are three different sauces: tomato, guacamole, pomegranate, all coming together in harmony. The pomegranate seeds add a hint of tartness and crunch to the mix. I am impressed by the thought put into this dish to use ingredients I don’t necessarily associate with Mexican cuisine. The texture of the octopus needs a little bit of work as it is a tad mushy on the thicker parts and chewy on the thin.
I almost say no to Bone Marrow ($15) because I’m tired of it. However, the presentation here is out of the box and innovative. The roasted bone marrow is topped with panko crusted shrimps, cabbage, chimichurri, and honey Sriracha. Flour tortillas are served alongside.
Scrape the bone marrow, accoutrements and all onto the tortilla and eat. The bone marrow adds unctuousness, but is elevated by the other components melding together to create complex flavor profiles in each mouthful. I like that they didn’t just roast the bone marrow and lazily popped it on a dish with toast points.
Jorge is opening several new locations in the coming months and has hired S. Pellegrino Young Chef Award Semi-Finalist 2015 Chef Salvador Carrillo, to helm his Anaheim Hills location and Chef Charlie Mendez for Ensenada, Baja, Mexico. Salvador, Charlie and Chris all partake in creating menu items and it shows. There is complexity and ingenuity on the plates. And if you’re able to move on from the tacos and appetizers, there are also some solid entrées to whet your appetite.
Seafood Rice ($16) is positively my favorite dish of the evening. There is saffron in the rice, but they don’t call it paella – I’m glad they don’t use that word casually, creating a host of preconceived notions about the dish before it even arrives at the table. The rice is perfectly executed with a generous amount of octopus, shrimp, abalone and salmon mixed in. It is a tad salty, but pairs well with the cocktails we are sipping on. I want a whole bowl of this for myself!
For those less adventurous, Lamb Shank ($26) is probably your best bet. It is fork-tender, albeit on the bland side for me. The lamb is stewed with red wine, and comes with roasted mushrooms, asparagus, and potatoes. Those who aren’t into heavy spices or robust seasonings – and I know you are out there — will definitely like this dish.
We all want to try Table Side Grill Carnitas ($35) but are not prepared for its stunning presentation. My photo does no justice at all. An entire grill arrives at the table with a slow cooked pork hind shank surrounded by roasted veggies, crispy onions, nopales (cactus), and the most addicting saffron rice with cilantro you’ll ever eat. The pork yields to the mere touch of your fork and falls apart with ease. Make little tacos with the orange juice-infused pork, pico de gallo and guacamole. Then squeeze some salsa verde on top – if they don’t bring it, ASK FOR IT! — before taking a bite. This hefty portion is a perfect entrée to share between two people if you do not order like we do.
We are all stuffed and completely satiated to say the least. Chef Chris assures me he intends to stay with Tempo Urban Kitchen, but only time will tell. However, I do feel a sense of comfort and belonging here and the camaraderie between him, Salvador, Charlie and Jorge feels genuine. I see him wandering around the dining room chatting to customers and am thrilled he has found a permanent home – at least for a while – and that he is happy. For someone who is not trained in Mexican cuisine, Chris Tzorin has come a long way. Our meal is thoughtful, with an elevated sense of flavors and preparation. I’m excited to see what he has in store for us in the next five years!
Tempo Urban Kitchen
1060 E Imperial Hwy
Brea, CA 92821