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Dining

Chefs converge on MTO Café for brilliant Mexican pop-up dinner

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Chef Jose Avila of Fleur at Mandalay Bay roasted a whole pig to create his cochinita pibil entree for the “El Chapo’s Cantina” pop-up dinner at MTO Café.

I was somewhere between a beautiful snapper ceviche, decked out with bits of passion fruit, avocado, crispy plantain and crunchy radish, and an over-the-top-decadent, porchetta-like version of cochinita pibil when I remembered how powerful pop-up dinners can be.

El Chapo’s Cantina Sunday Night Supper Series at MTO Café

This particular event, the second from new Downtown breakfast and lunch spot MTO Café in its ambitious Sunday Night Supper Series, features an impressive array of guest chefs teaming up to create a customizable themed menu. Each prepares an appetizer and entree, allowing guests to mix and match the dishes that sound most delicious. It’s a chance to try creative cuisine straight from the imagination of a cook unencumbered by the shackles of his or her usual gig, and it’s a great boost for our burgeoning local food scene.

The April 27 dinner, a colorful Mexican feast, was dubbed “El Chapo’s Cantina.” MTO’s kitchen boss Johnny Church and his right-hand man, Eduardo “Lalo” Saavedra, hosted Jose “Lupe” Avila from Fleur at Mandalay Bay, Chris Palmeri and Christian Dolias from Naked City Pizza Shop and Desnudo Tacos, dessert specialist Heidi Koval from RM Seafood and Rx Boiler Room, and Vegas veteran and former Michael Mina chef James Trees.

It was nearly impossible to choose just two dishes and a dessert from the list of intriguing offerings, but we decided to divide and conquer, ordering one dish from each chef or team of chefs and paying a few bucks extra to sample all three of Koval’s desserts. (The dinner price was $60 per person.) Extra sweets are always a good idea. The traditional caramel flan, tres leche cake and rich Mexican hot chocolate brownie were individually and collectively fantastic.

Chef James Trees' snapper ceviche was a standout appetizer at MTO Café's Mexican-themed Sunday Night Supper Series event on April 27.

Our chosen appetizers were awe-inspiring. Church and Saavedra’s queso fundido, served with fresh-made flour tortillas, layered pork belly chorizo and roasted poblano peppers with slightly salty asadero cheese, so good we’re campaigning for a permanent spot on MTO’s brunch menu. Equally brilliant was Trees’ ceviche, as gorgeous looking and tasting as any plate of food you’ll find anywhere in Las Vegas.

Avila’s cochinita pibil, a great slab of roasted pork—buttery skin and all—was served with pickled red onions and cheesy fingerling potatoes. Palmeri and Dolias constructed an equally rich beef short rib dish glazed in ancho chile barbecue sauce over a crispy potato pancake. We were beyond satisfied with our choices, although I wish I had stomach space to sample Trees' goat tostada and the home team’s tequila lobster tacos.

The MTO dinner series is scheduled to continue every month with a new lineup of chefs and a new culinary theme. I highly recommend you spend an upcoming Sunday evening Downtown, absorbing all the wonderful flavors this great idea brings to the table.

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Brock Radke is Las Vegas Weekly's food editor and author of the Strip-focused column The Incidental Tourist. He has written ...

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