La Tostaderia’s Fernando Villagomez takes creative cues from his grandmother’s cooking

By Angela Matano

La Tostaderia’s seafood cocktail bowl features octopus, shrimp, oysters, celery, red onion, cucumber, avocado, tomato, cilantro, olive oil and sea salt

Mexican food, while sprinkled generously throughout Los Angeles, gets a little more sporadic west of the 405. With a few notable exceptions, Venice hasn’t exactly been L.A.’s go-to neighborhood for authentic south-of-the-border flavors — otherwise culinary hotspot Abbot Kinney Boulevard even less so.

La Tostaderia, which recently opened in the space that used to house 3 Square Café & Röckenwagner Bakery (sorry to see
you go!), to rectify the situation with a seafood-centric menu of Southwestern coastal Mexican cuisine.

Hailing from the Grand Central Market stand of the same name, La Tostaderia serves Michoacán-influenced dishes with traditional integrity and inventive flair. Executive Chef Fernando Villagomez relies on his heritage for inspiration, but also dreams up eminently Instagram-able unique creations.

One of the bright stars on the menu is the Patrona Burger, with a patty made of shrimp, Oaxaca cheese and crispy potato. Guy Fieri recently featured the burger on the Food Network show “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.”

So how did the Patrona Burger — cheesy and bursting with shrimp, but not nearly as heavy as Fieri’s usual fare — come to be?

“I made it up,” says Villagomez. “Shrimp burgers usually fall apart. I use all my culinary techniques to balance the flavors and make sure the potato has the right crispiness, like hash browns. The mango, avocado and radish give you freshness and sweetness, which cuts the greasiness.”

Of course a cervicheria wouldn’t be a cervicheria without ceviche, and La Tostaderia offers two versions: shrimp and fish. Both arrive on top of a crispy tostada, laden with seafood and studded with fresh veggies and herbs.

There’s also aguachile, a Sinaloan take on ceviche, for which raw shrimp is marinated in a charred habanero sauce and combined with radish, cucumber, red onion, lime and fresh cilantro.

For health-conscious Venetians, this high protein, low-calorie version of Mexican food will likely hit the spot. Of course, no fried tostadas for you guys.

La Tostaderia’s dishes are spicy, but not overly so. They burst with fresh ingredients and bright flavors.

A raft of tacos is yours with the sample platter. Octopus, shrimp and black cod come on tidy little tortillas, surrounded by colorful fixings. For the octopus that means ají sauce, ginger aioli, daikon sprouts and Thai basil.

The Patrona Burger tops a light and crisp shrimp and potato patty with Oaxaca cheese, mango, fresh veggies and chipotle alioli.

Although Villagomez attended French culinary school, he grew up cooking with his family in Michoacán and tries not to stray too far from the classics.

“The thing about Mexican food is you can change how it looks, but not how it tastes. It has to taste like your grandma’s,”
he says.

Family remains a consistent theme that runs through many aspects of La Tostaderia. The mermaid on the restaurant’s logo (and painted on the wall) refers to Villagomez’s ex-wife and mother of his 7-year-old son. He called her “la sirenita.”

Growing up in Michoacán, a region known for its chile relleno, Villagomez learned to cook watching both his mother and grandmother. Today, his son eats the same carnitas that Villagomez loved as a boy — and all sorts of other traditional foods, from beef head to nopales to shrimp ceviche.

Although life experience in the United States and at culinary school widened Villagomez’s perspective on food and cooking, his palate never drifts too far from home.

“I used to call my grandma and ask her how to do things. Even though I have a culinary degree, I still cook like she taught me,” he says. “I always think, ‘If I cook with my heart, it’s always going to be good.’”

Expanding west to Venice from the heart of downtown has been a bit of a change for the Tostaderia family, however. Compared to cramped spaces in Grand Central Market and all the surrounding hustle and bustle, there’s more space here.

“You can see daylight,” Villagomez says.

As for Venice’s upscale hipster crowds and ocean breezes?

“It’s a different environment. It’s a nice environment here.”

Locals may find La Tostaderia a welcome change from the chichi quinoa and kale that permeates the boulevard. Warm and casual, it works for a quick bite or a relaxed meal. Customers often bring their laptops and hang out — just like the way a locals’ joint in Venice ought to be.

La Tostaderia, 1121 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, (213) 624-2378