When the smoky, coal-roasted whole branzino I ordered at Chaak arrived at my table, I knew it wasn’t going to need any sauce or even a drop of lemon. A brick-red achiote spice paste spackled the specimen from head to tail. And as soon as I took a sample, it confirmed what my nose and eyes already suspected: This fish, especially its charred, spice-covered skin, had flavor in spades—salty, spicy, peppery, with shades of Seville orange, the citrus of choice in Yucatecan cuisine. It didn’t much matter that it was served on a banana leaf with a dark salsa on the side and wilted sweet peppers and onions beneath; the fish didn’t need any of it.
And then there was the texture of the meat, which collapsed into an avalanche of white fluff when I nudged it lightly with my fork. The flesh was so wobbly and delicate, it was like Jell-O. I knew immediately the fork was the wrong utensil for it, so I switched to a spoon to scoop it up.
I’ve never encountered fish as perfectly cooked as this. But it wasn’t what impressed me most. As I kept digging out more meat to wrap inside thick-as-a-mousepad corn tortillas, I realized I’d reached the other side of the branzino without striking a single bone. The entire carcass, to my surprise, was completely boneless.
Delighted, I waved over our server to ask if the chefs deboned it before or after cooking.
“Before,” he told me proudly. “We did all the work for you because who likes spitting out bones when eating a fish?”
I should’ve expected nothing less of a kitchen led by Gabbi Patrick, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. Chaak Kitchen is the follow-up to her original restaurant, Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen in Orange, which she and her husband, Ed, opened to great acclaim and success in 2006. I still remember the stunning mole I tasted there more than a decade ago. It had the depth and complexity that takes not only a good recipe, but also a lot of time and saintly patience to execute. But deboning this whole roasted fish was dedication beyond what I expected.
More than with the food at Gabbi’s, Patrick’s goal at Chaak is to feature the unalloyed regional cuisine of her birthplace, the Yucatan Peninsula. There are no rice-and-beans combo plates, no obligatory free chips with salsa, no sizzling plates of fajitas.
Instead of guacamole, she offers sikil pak, a traditional Yucatecan dip made from ground pumpkin seeds. A lot of the flavors and methods Patrick employs date back to the ancient Mayans, but other Yucatecan dishes, such as panuchos and salbutes (lightly fried puffy tortilla discs), are relatively modern.
She tops one of her panuchos—flying-saucer-shaped, stuffed tortillas bulging where they’re filled with black-bean paste—with conchinita pibil, pork shoulder slow-cooked for 11 hours in red oak smoke. It comes out so soft and yielding it turns into pudding in your mouth. The conchinita pibil panucho is merely a tease; a huge portion of it is featured as a main course as well as the chicken version called pollo pibil.
And since the Yucatan Peninsula is surrounded by water on all sides, there’s ceviche. Patrick serves hers in a style indicative of the region, featuring more cooked seafood than raw. The best is the ceviche campeche, in which coins of octopus as tender as turkey breast are tossed with chunks of acid-firmed seabream, avocados for creaminess and a bracing leche de tigre, the ceviche’s citrusy run-off.
Patrick’s menu isn’t a slave to tradition, though; there are some nods to recent restaurant trends, including roasted bone marrow, whole grilled cauliflower, and esquites, grilled corn embellished with pecorino and even more bone marrow. The most interesting vegetable dish is the chayote frito, which highlights the charms of an ingredient that gets short shrift in other Mexican restaurants. She deep-fries the pieces in a cocoon of lacy tempura batter, then plates it with an avocado aioli dipping sauce. It’s wonderful, even if a few morsels tend to be fibrous.
These days, you’re more likely to find Gabbi and Ed at Chaak than at their first restaurant, which is now on autopilot. She expedites and taste tests the food in the kitchen while Ed manages the dining room. It’s been barely a month since the opening, but everything is already running like clockwork.
At Chaak’s restored-brick structure on Old Town Tustin’s main drag, sunlight pours in from a glass ceiling, the bar is always packed, and a reservation has to be booked weeks in advance. Unlike Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen, which is wedged between two antique stores, Chaak stands alone—and I mean that both literally and figuratively.
Chaak Kitchen, 215 El Camino Real, Tustin, (657) 699-3019; chaakkitchen.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. Appetizers and small plates, $8-$15; entrées, $24-$95. Full bar.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.