Executive chef Ysaac Ramirez throws down in the kitchen.
PHOTO COURTESY DRIFT PALM SPRINGS
Whatever you do, don’t ask for a basket of chips and salsa when you sit for dinner at Maleza. Sure, it’s a Mexican restaurant, but diners won’t find basic burritos or quesadillas at this recently opened Baja-inspired hot spot. With balanced flavors and striking plating, executive chef Ysaac Ramirez is determined to prove once and for all that Mexican cuisine can be as fine as anything from Europe.
“People come in and expect chips and gauc,” Ramirez says, kicked back on one of the chic white couches in the Maleza dining room during a break before dinner service. “We have that during the day, but not at night when it’s more elevated Latin cuisine. Occasionally, people will ask for chips, but I’m like, ‘No, no, no. We’re offering something special and unique here.’ ”
Maleza is among several new Palm Springs restaurants expanding the scope of south-of-the-border cuisine. Low Desert, Reforma, Hoja Blanca, and the Jalisco-style sister restaurants Tac/Quila and Clandestino unapologetically showcase the delicious regionality of Mexican food and drink.
Mahi served with lime crema slaw and avocado salsa on a flour tortilla.
PHOTO BY PHYLLIS LANGLEY, COURTESY DRIFT PALM SPRINGS
Originally developed in partnership with Jorge Espindola and Cesar Pita of the Cabo-based hospitality group Roots and Roads, Maleza’s menu has slowly evolved since the restaurant debuted last spring at Drift Palm Springs, a boutique 30-unit hotel on South Indian Canyon Drive. Standouts from Ramirez include a North Carolina rainbow trout kissed with white molé and a red shrimp aguachile adorned with colorful beets and kumquats.
“The menu is ever evolving,” Ramirez says. “We’re keeping the Baja roots but tapping into other parts of Latin America. I’m drawing on my Southern roots as well — but not too much. I don’t want to go too far down that route with Maleza. I’m sneaking it in where I can.”
When he was a teenager, Ramirez’s family moved from Southern California to Memphis, where he attended L’École Culinaire. He spent much of his early years working under lauded Southern chefs Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman, serving in various roles at their restaurants The Gray Canary, Hog & Hominy, Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, and Josephine Estelle at Ace Hotel New Orleans.
Four years ago, Ramirez relocated to the Coachella Valley to become the executive chef at King’s Highway at the Ace Hotel & Swim Club in Palm Springs. In a sense, it was a homecoming for Ramirez, who originally hails from Rancho Cucamonga. Once in the desert, he quickly garnered attention for overhauling the diner-centric menu at King’s Highway by adding inventive dishes imbued with Southern and Latin flair, such as a pambazo-style sandwich stuffed with al pastor, and barbecue shrimp and grits.
In 2021, Ramirez ascended to new heights (literally) when he accepted a position as executive chef at 4 Saints, the posh rooftop restaurant at the seven-story Kimpton Rowan Palm Springs, where he oversaw the hotel’s culinary operation that also includes Juniper Table and High Bar. Diners raved about his showstopping cornbread: a sorghum cake topped with pecans, butter, and chives surrounded by salty slivers of crispy chicken skin.
Oysters with horseradish, jalapeño mignonette, and lemon.
PHOTO BY MOLLIE KIMBERLING, COURTESY DRIFT PALM SPRINGS
When Drift owners TMC Hospitality offered Ramirez the chance to open Maleza, he saw it as a dream-fulfilling opportunity on multiple levels. First, he’d been interested in working more with seafood. The eatery’s coastal focus meant fresh fish would always be a priority. Second, he wanted to use his culinary talents to explore his Latin heritage. Ramirez’s mother and father are of German and Mexican descent, respectively.
“I grew up around it, but it wasn’t something that was necessarily part of my career,” the 43-year-old bearded and tattooed chef says. “I’ve been learning more about the ingredients and playing with the flavors. It hasn’t been hard. It’s been enjoyable. And having an excuse to take trips to Mexico has been awesome.”
During a recent excursion to Southern Mexico, Ramirez realized he could use Oaxacan cheese in stracciatella, a creamy dessert dish he’d become familiar with while cooking Italian food in Tennessee. He’s already planned another trip to Baja in hopes of finding inspiration for new seafood dishes.
“The challenge out in the desert is that people don’t think you can have seafood,” Ramirez says. “But you can have aguachile, ceviche, and fish, as long as you’re sourcing it from incredible sources. That’s part of my job, calling all these vendors and telling them what I want — and that I need it on a consistent basis.”
The education about the multidimensionality of Mexico’s gastronomic scene extends to the bar, which features 160 different agave-based spirits, many of which aren’t available anywhere else in the Coachella Valley. Besides tequila and mezcal, there are hard-to-find offerings like pox (distilled from a mix of corn, wheat, and sugar cane) and charanda (a rum-like spirit hailing from Michoacán).
“It feels like we’re teaching guests something new each day,” says food and beverage manager Nick Turner. “When they don’t know what they want, it’s our job to show them there are really good wines from Mexico. It’s been the biggest and most rewarding challenge. You might not like this mezcal, but we have 80 other ones.”
Smooth concrete finishes and simple furnishings lend a minimalist air to the Drift hotel and its poolside restaurant, Maleza.
PHOTO BY ERIN FEINBLATT, COURTESY DRIFT PALM SPRINGS
The culinary team recently began partnering with distillers of mezcal and other spirits for multicourse pairing dinners hosted on Wednesday evenings. The one-off menus have allowed Ramirez’s inventiveness to shine. During one of the dinners last summer, he snuck in his Southern savvy and employed a few of his favorite ingredients. The result was surprisingly delectable.
“For one of the mezcal dinners, I put grits on the menu,” Ramirez says. “We cooked masa in pork fat and incorporated that into the grits. I was like, ‘I don’t know if this is going to work, but I’m going to take a chance and see where it goes.’ It was like eating a creamy tortilla.”
The space itself inspires creativity in the Maleza team. An outdoor patio overlooks the pool, while the dining room features eye-catching touches like cylindrical forest green chairs by Los Angeles–based studio Waka Waka, minimalist art by Sean W. Spellman, and the best table in the house: a curvaceous seating area connected to an adobe-style fireplace.
Maleza's patio area.
PHOTO BY ERIN FEINBLATT, COURTESY DRIFT PALM SPRINGS
Realized by o2 Architecture and design house Folklor, the property fuses midcentury-modern, Spanish colonial, and Moorish elements into easy-breezy vignettes that are unfussy yet unmistakable. Drift Palm Springs general manager Paul Patino, who grew up in Palm Springs, says it’s important for the hotel to draw visitors and locals.
“We know this community like the back of our hand,” says Patino, who previously worked at Saguaro Palm Springs and Ace Hotel & Swim Club as well as Cuyama Buckhorn in Santa Barbara County. “We’ve grown up in this community, and this community has grown up with us. It’s a lot easier to give back when we all want the same experience.”