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Mendocino Farms: A Delicious Return

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Mendocino Farms New Location Marks a Sweet Homecoming for Founders Mario Del Pero and Ellen Chen

“The Mendocino Farms in El Segundo doesn’t look like anyone that we’ve ever done before.” This is from Mario Del Pero, talking about the newest location of his premium fast-casual eatery that opened earlier this month at The Point, the new outdoor shopping center at the corner of Rosecrans Avenue and Sepulveda Boulevard. 

“What we thought they’d appreciate is more of a Bohemian-chic kind of look,” says Del Pero, who designs each restaurant to reflect local tastes, and is particularly well-versed in the South Bay’s aesthetic sensibilities. The spacious, sunlit eatery may be his 11th restaurant, but it’s been one of his most personal openings to date, because it marks a return to the area where Del Pero cut his restaurant chops, joining the management team at legendary watering hole Baja Sharkeez by age 21. “I was there from 1993 to 1998,” recalls Del Pero. “I opened El Porto, before they started calling it North Manhattan Beach, and then I opened Hermosa Sharkeez.”

From there he launched his first independent dining venture, a health-conscious teriyaki joint in Manhattan Beach called Skew’s, before creating Mendocino Farms and opening his first restaurant in 2005 with business partner Ellen Chen.

“I actually married my business partner,” says Del Pero of Chen. “And from very early on, she and I were going, ‘What do we like about restaurants, and what do we not like about restaurants? How are we eating?’”

The duo designed a template for Mendocino Farms using themselves as prototypical core consumers and reflecting on their dining habits and preferences to fine-tune every detail of the eatery, from its industrial-meets-homespun decor— at the El Segundo location, for instance, local designer and Mira Costa graduate Susan Lennon has created installations made from reclaimed farmhouse windows— to the acutely au courant menu.

“About 11 years ago Ellen was pregnant with our first child, and we really noticed that we were eating differently,” says Del Pero, citing the then-nascent growth spurt of Whole Foods as a bellwether of society’s renewed focus on food ingredients and sourcing. It prompted them to “highlight better farms and better local artisans,” resulting in a menu, some of it seasonal, that twines hearty tastiness with health consciousness, with a focus on premium ingredients, many of them sourced from regional vendors like Drago Bakery (Culver City) and Coldwater Canyon Provisions (downtown Los Angeles).

Hit sandwiches, their core offering, include the Pork Belly Banh Mi, where caramelized Kurobuta Pork Belly is topped with crunchy pickled daikon and carrots and tucked into a toasted ciabatta. There are also salads galore, including a Kale Caesar with lemon-parmesan vinaigrette, and vegan options, like a savory dosa stuffed with coconut-curried cauliflower, braised jackfruit and baby spinach. While waiting for your order, you can sample selections from the seasonal roster of sides in the cold case (kudos to the watermelon-feta salad and the curried couscous) as well as beer and wine.

Then there’s the enormous kid-friendly factor. “As our kids were young, we were eating at upscale casual restaurants, but we were finding them very much not kid-friendly,” notes Del Pero, who made sure to install a dedicated kids corner at El Segundo and create a Calves Menu, where sandwiches are made with toasted quinoa wheat bread and served with sides of fresh seasonal fruit, grape tomatoes or apples.

Just a week after opening in El Segundo, it seems that Del Pero and Chen have hit a happy nerve in the neighborhood. A table of mothers chat over salads served in china, their babes asleep in their arms. On the spacious outdoor patio, solo diners work away on their Macs and a group of local high school boys gather around the foosball table.

With each successful location, Del Pero and Chen feel a happy satisfaction from their hard-earned efforts, but in this case, their emotions are peppered with another layer.

“We care for all of our stores equally and lovingly, but there’s something that’s so much deeper in the fact that both Ellen and I, in our 20s, grew up in the South Bay and love it so much,” says Del Pero. “The fact that I learned and fell in love with the restaurant business in that very neighborhood.”

“It’s very, very personal to finally get to open a location in a neighborhood with a community that we care so much about, and where so many of our friends live.”

Photography by Paul Jonason and courtesy of Mendocino Farms

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