Authentic Appeal

Chef Anne Conness’ traditional Rancho Redondo fare shines at Sausal in El Segundo.

I don’t typically read restaurant reviews, even though I write them on occasion. I prefer to form my own opinion and am particularly distrustful of sites like Yelp, where every diner is a sudden and self-appointed food critic. That said, I do voraciously read Amazon product reviews before I’d ever dream of purchasing something. What gives?

When you’re evaluating a restaurant, you’re evaluating a team. It’s not a product … it’s a suite of services, and you need to experience it in person to judge it. At El Segundo’s Sausal, there is much to compliment, particularly Chef Anne Conness’ inspired cooking. Unfortunately, the complementary services don’t match the caliber of her food. 

I turned to Yelp for the first time for some crowd-sourced affirmation. Was it a fluke to wait 20 minutes to be greeted by our server? Was it just me or did it then truly take nearly 35 minutes to get water and two cocktails delivered? 

We were nearly an hour into time at the table and had not yet had an opportunity to order food. This was on a slow Sunday night at 5:30 p.m. How many people did we flag down for water refills before one hapless busboy finally took pity and hydrated us? 

Simply put, the restaurant is very inefficiently managed. The bar is understaffed and is incredibly slow on cocktail preparation. The table service is disinterested at best, neglectful at worst. It was disappointing. On this point, there seems to be a consensus both online and offline. 

But on to Anne’s food here, which she describes as an homage to the old Rancho Sausal Redondo (“Round Willow Ranch”) that dominated the South Bay in frontier times. It’s a culinary map of Mexico-meets-Spain, with Throwback Thursday touches like beef and goat birria. This deeply satisfying stew, served with some excellent tortillas, made me yearn for a serape, a campfire and a comrade named Pancho instead of, well, Adrian. 

Any authentic Mexican joint better give a go at mole, and Anne’s red mole braised lamb was good, good, good  … warm, complex and even better when I ate the leftovers for lunch the following day. More modern menu touches like the spiced cauliflower huarache appeal to contemporary diners, as I don’t think the old Sausal ranchers would think much of vegetarian “sandals.” 

A trio of excellent salsas accompanies the break-apart tortilla chips, which we ate like savages when they finally arrived. Nods to the Baja side of things include a mixed ceviche of Mexican white shrimp, calamari and unidentified fish, as well as beer-battered crispy fish tacos.  

A word on tacos: At Sausal, they’re really quite good. One could have a lovely and substantially more strategic meal on these alone at the bar, ideally with faster drink and food delivery times. My kids loved the grilled chicken adobo duo, and the beef brisket barbacoa were out of this world. 

Pair tacos with a sipping flight of some very good tequilas, mezcals and magueys—sangrita chaser included—and pass on the weird stuff like “L.A. Pink” (gin, lemon, strawberry) or the bourbon-spiked eggnog. Sausal has two nice exclusive microbrews and some great stuff on tap too.  

Wines adhere to the “if it comes from a Spanish-speaking country, we’ll try it.” Hence the Mexican nebbiolo and the Patagonian pinot. It’s a decent effort, even if some of the wines are underwhelming. 

Anne Conness is a talented chef who cooks with authenticity and heart. In order for Sausal to have the success her talent merits, they need to rethink the dining room sequence of service. Someone needs to be in charge, and the entire staff needs to be reinvigorated and retrained

Our server was apathetic about the food and seemed vaguely annoyed we were there. Food of this caliber deserves a staff that’s excited to sell it and serve it. With the rise of better restaurants all over the South Bay, it’s no longer OK to skimp on service. λ

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