Chef Ludben Argueta shakes up the menu at Margo’s

By Audrey Cleo Yap

Savor summer with plentiful shrimp options at Margo’s
Photo courtesy of Margo;s

Margo’s 1534 Montana Ave., Santa Monica (310) 829-3990

It would seem that the best things about summer begin with the letter “s:” Sunsets. Spritzes. And, of course, seafood.

Montana Avenue hotspot Margo’s wants to be your destination for the last one.

Since taking over as executive chef at the end of 2018, Ludben Argueta has been shifting the contemporary American menu to include more ocean-based gems, like a hearty ahi tuna sandwich and shrimp ceviche — plump, poached black tiger shrimp over crispy wonton skins, mango-cilantro relish and ceviche “sauce” of lemon juice, tomato juice, fish sauce and Worcestershire sauce. A trio of mahi-mahi tacos comes complete with a side of house pickled escabeche and jalapeño tartare sauce, plated just so.

“It looks good on Instagram,” said Argueta with a laugh, during a packed lunchtime service one Friday afternoon.

Other menu re-vamps include swapping out a fried chicken sandwich for a grilled one, canceling the New York strip steak in favor of lamb chops and an Arugeta-fied version of the cheeseburger (Niman Ranch beef, bacon, heirloom tomatoes, spicy herb mayo).

“On Montana, you’re dealing with a particular Santa Monica clientele. They want to feel like they’re being healthy without necessarily being healthy,” said Chloe Scott, director of operations at On the Verge Hospitality, of which Margo’s is a part.

Adjusting sometimes means taking down the heat, like with the curry fish bowl — a spicier version can be found at sister restaurant Ashland Hill on Main Street, where Argueta also heads up the kitchen.

Doing double-duty as executive chef of two restaurants is not for the faint of heart; many chefs, like some parents, would probably adhere to the adage of, “One is enough.” Not for Argueta, though, whose first foray into the culinary world started in his native Guatemala.

At 11, he begged the bakery housed in the bottom floor of his family’s duplex to let him apprentice there, cleaning up and learning the trade. He eventually earned the nickname “jefecito” (“little boss” in Spanish) for his ability to learn quickly and manage the bakery’s books and payroll. He experimented with making cakes and pastries, putting his own spin on them with, he admits, varying degrees of success. Lots of trial, lots of error, especially since he had no formal training.

“Sometimes things didn’t work at all — but when it did, it did very well,” said Argueta, 31.

He and his family immigrated to the United States in 2011 to flee the increasing gang violence in the country. Argueta’s first job was at Sunny Spot in Venice, where he was asked to work the grill.

“I didn’t know what ‘grill’ meant,” Argueta recalled. “My English was terrible. I knew ‘Hi,’ ‘Hello.’ That’s all.”

Argueta hopped around various eateries and positions on the Westside before being scouted by Scott at the recommendation of Argueta’s twin brother, also a chef.

Nowadays, Scott and Argueta work as a team, collaborating and taste-testing. Argueta is toying with the idea of adding a swordfish dish and talks, somewhat dreamily, of a squid soup made with coconut cream. He still cooks for his family, too, who always seem to schedule gatherings, suspiciously, on his days off. He doesn’t mind.

“The best thing for me when I create something,” said Argueta, “is to gather the opinions of people around me. And then we make it together, you know?”