But all is not what it seems: Lazar was also overseeing three simultaneous catering jobs as owner of Foundation 10 Creative Group. In other words, getting her food out to the people.
She cares deeply about what she’s feeding people. Beyond the execution of the dishes, Lazar is in charge of sourcing the ingredients from local farms, keeping everything within 100 miles of the restaurant. Maintaining freshness and nutrient integrity of proteins and produce makes a true difference in her dishes, and she does not compromise in the quality of her farm sources.
Lazar is most intrigued by home cooking, something cooks and chefs crave to eat themselves. Small, particular tweaks that their grandmothers might do to make dishes their own can make all the difference, and she loves the realness and care in that.
The realness carries over to Lazar’s menus. At her popular brunch establishment Cheeky’s, the menu can change weekly. At Chi Chi Palm Springs, the menu is more consistent, but the dishes on offer always account for the seasonality of ingredients. It’s understood that certain boxes need to be checked to get a popular draw from what’s in demand (see: cauliflower and kale), but that’s just the gateway to introduce people to food that’s more loving than trendy.
It’s not necessarily easy to translate her worldly, multi-cultural background to Palm Springs’ patrons and visitors, but the restaurants still try to instill a sense of international experience in the food. Lazar is half Chinese and grew up spending her summers in San Francisco. Her older brother attended boarding school in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where she visited him. Rich in diverse communities and far from lacking in prideful street food vendors, you just don’t get that in Palm Springs, where Lazar was born and raised.
However, Lazar doesn’t struggle with “authenticity” in her restaurants. She just wants delicious, home-style scratch cooking that her cooks would make for themselves. Whether that has Latin or Asian influence or is a traditional dish is not the heart of the matter. An example of this would be the Yerba Mate Salad at Chi Chi Palm Springs. It’s a chopped salad featuring Amazonian mate as a caffeine source. Immediately upon reading the description, I knew it seemed familiar. After partaking and discussing, it was confirmed that the dish was a Latin take inspired by the Tea Leaf Salad at Burma Superstar in San Francisco, one of my personal favorites. Lazar’s dish also features kale, apple, fennel, tomato, seeds and nuts.
The star dish at Chi Chi is the Cochinita Pibil. A traditional Yucatan dish, the banana leaf roasted pork is tender, and the citrus-marinated onions are amazingly flavorful. I don’t usually do this, but I was getting down on the onions all by themselves for several bites in a row multiple times. This isn’t exactly a wellness dish, but it’s such good, hearty comfort food. You get more pork than you can fit into the provided blue corn tortillas, but that’s a good issue to have — and the staff lets you know it’s not a problem for them to provide additional tortillas, avocados or onions. In Tulum, the pork is roasted overnight underground, wrapped in foil and handed off to local workers in the morning. For diners at Chi Chi Palm Springs, this dish is available during dinner.
Since everything is done according to what’s in season, the menus are subject to change. I was hoping for the grilled octopus and chorizo skewers, but they weren’t available. Instead, I tried the Charred Octopus Salad. Served with potato, chayote, frisee, green beans, ginger and lime, the octopus was properly cooked so as to not have a rubbery feel, as can happen with cooks who are less experienced in cooking the delicious invertebrate. It is worth noting that Lazar was not in the back of the house during my meal at Chi Chi, but she knew who was in the kitchen and that the right person made the octopus dish, according to experience.
For dessert, I had the Mil Hijas, puff pastry with cinnamon-sprinkled layers and caramel and chocolate in between, with vanilla ice cream on top. There were fruit purees on the dish as a garnish, but I could have done without them as their tartness wasn’t especially cooperative with the cinnamon and caramel.
All in all, you won’t be disappointed with a meal at Chi Chi Palm Springs, but there are not enough outstanding dishes on the menu to compel you to venture out two hours from Los Angeles to Palm Springs just to check it out. The quality is there, but it is not particularly unique from what might already be on offer in your own city. But if you’re already in town or planning a trip to Palm Springs, then make a stop at Chi Chi.
Note: The meal at Chi Chi and a stay at the Avalon Hotel were hosted.