I’m occasionally literal-minded, so my first thought when I heard about a South Bay establishment called Nomad Eatery was that it was a food truck. That would be the most nomadic style of dining possible in an urban landscape, though it’s not one of my favorites because they usually lack comfortable seating and a place to wash up after dining. This presumably doesn’t concern genuine nomads, who are used to spartan circumstances, but I’m a fan of creature comforts.
In reality Nomad Eatery is a reimagined version of the previous restaurant in this space on Rosecrans, Jackson’s Food and Drink. Jackson’s had a menu that was interesting but lacked focus, a global mix that included sashimi, mac and cheese, steaks, braised short ribs, and other trendy items. Anybody could find something to eat there, but it was more an expression of contemporary ideas than a place with a personal stamp.
Chef-owner Scott Cooper had some time to think about what would draw diners to this space during the pandemic, and even before the neighboring Arclight Cinema closed, he had detertmined that a new menu and rebranding was in order. He decided to make the restaurant an homage to backpacking trips he took in past years around the Mediterranean and in Asia. The steaks and Americana are gone in favor of a menu with nods to the Pacific Rim but deeper dives into Arabic, Italian, and Southeast Asian food. These are sometimes made in the traditional manner, but more often incorporate contemporary ideas.
The menu is divided into starters, hand-helds, skewers, pastas, sides, large items, and pateras, that last item being, as everyone knows, a type of bowl used in ancient Rome. Excuse me, that’s an exaggeration – nobody knows that but archaeologists, pottery experts, and people who have read this menu. Pateras are fairly standard bowls with shallow sides, and they’re capacious enough to hold a substantial meal. None of the things served in pateras here would have been familiar to the Romans, with the possible exception of a seafood stew with fennel, though the turmeric and curry in the broth would have been a new experience for them.
I haven’t tried that stew but did enjoy another that has an ingredient the Romans love – fermented fish sauce. This is now obscure in Europe but is the base for many Thai items such as green papaya salad. The traditional papaya salad is heavily laced with chillies, but the version here is mild and emphasizes the fruit’s cucumber-like flavor paired with peanuts, lime juice, grilled shrimp, and bacon. A garnish of fresh purple basil and mint adds aromatics and crunch to finish the dish nicely.
Another patera is a different reimagining of a Chinese-American favorite – sweet and sour pork. Two things that make Cooper’s version distinctive: the sauce uses fresh pineapple juice as a base rather than the usual sugary canned stuff, and the pork is roasted and sliced rather than deep-fried. It lacks the crisp cornstarch crust of the meat in the traditional version, but has a much more interesting flavor.
Some fresh de-seeded serrano chillies add their sharpness to the dish, which is altogether more interesting than the usual. Another Chinese-American item that gets a reassessment is the coconut shrimp, a tiki bar invention that is often a freezer-to-fryer dish. Here they’re made in-house and served with a house-made mango-peach chutney, which like the sweet and sour sauce uses fresh ingredients for an elevated experience.
The Middle Eastern influence shows up in roasted vegetables with yoghurt and tomato sauce, which is a fairly faithful rendition of a Greek and Turkish dish except that the traditional version uses eggplant and this one substitutes butternut squash. Squash is sweeter than eggplant so the flavor balance is a bit different, and the toasted cashews that Cooper adds lend a bit of extra texture and nuttiness.
That part of the world is the birthplace of hummus, which Cooper makes creamy and fairly standard except for the topping of toasted garbanzo beans. It arrives with flatbread that is baked to order and arrives crisp and steaming, which makes it much more enjoyable.
I’m not sure who invented the Tuscan kale salad, an item that leaped to popularity about 15 years ago, but the version served here has a Middle Eastern influence thanks to chopped dates and almonds. The slightly bitter vegetable and the sweet dates work nicely with the lemon vinaigrette, which echoes the dressings on tabbouli and other salads from the region.
Fans of the previous restaurant will be happy to know that a few items have remained on the menu, among them the popular esquites (hot corn salad) topped with roasted salmon. The corn salad is flanked with pinto beans, and along with the fresh salsa atop the fish contributes to a distinct Southwestern feel. It’s an outlier on the current menu, but a delightful one.
Among the other mains we tried a lamb pita wrap, vegetarian kofta plate, roasted broccoli and tomato pasta, and an eye-catching crispy whole branzino that is served over a pickled daikon and carrot salad.
The fish comes out whole so people may appreciate its beauty and then goes back to the kitchen so an expert can de-bone it, unless you prefer to do that job yourself. We were happy to let somebody else do the work so we could enjoy all the fish with no chance of sending meat flying. Chef Cooper sensibly lets the flavor of the fish stay front and center, though a dipping sauce is provided for those who like to add a hit of sweet, sour, and spice.
The roasted broccoli and tomato pasta is another example of the chef knowing when to just let simple flavors speak for themselves. It’s a simple Italian dish that’s impossible to improve upon when made with good ingredients and subtly seasoned – a little shallot and garlic, a dash of pepper and dusting of parmesan.
We tried the kebabs two ways, as a sandwich and as part of a plate with baba ganoush, tabbouleh, sauces, and flatbread, and while the wrap was very good, we preferred the plate with its grilled vegetables and multiple dipping sauces. Surprisingly, while the grilled lamb was quite good, we preferred the house-made vegan kebab. I wish that Nomad Eatery offered a combination plate with small portions of both so more people could taste these side by side, because it would be an enlightening experience.
Nomad has an extensive bar and people who know how to use it, and many cocktails use housemade syrups and other components. There are only six original drinks on the menu, and I hope they expand the menu to let the talented bartenders stretch their already formidable skills.
Three desserts are offered, and we tried two: a flourless chocolate souffle and an eccentric version of tiramisu that included crushed almond biscotti and a soaking of rum as well as the usual marsala wine. The souffle was nicely made but the tiramisu was hands down better, and we’ll try the coconut rice pudding on the next trip.
Prices at Nomad Eatery are very fair, with main courses from $14 to $29 and portions generous. This is remarkable given the caliber of the cooking and high standard of service, and should make this side street in a business park a destination for locals who appreciate chef-driven dining.
Nomad Eatery is at 2041 Rosecrans #190 in El Segundo. Open daily except Mon. Tue., Thurs., and Sun 4:30 9 p.m. Fri. and Sat. until 10 p.m. Free parking lot. Full bar. Reservations recommended. (310) 606-5500. Nomadeatery.com. ER