Meet Darius Johnson of Bay La Soul.
Darius Johnson grew up in Palo Alto’s Ventura neighborhood, practically down the street from Antonio’s Nut House on California Avenue.
The longtime dive bar reopened on Monday after a months-long pandemic-forced closure, with Johnson leading the kitchen. Taqueria Azteca, which for three decades had served Nut House patrons, closed permanently due to the coronavirus.
Johnson, a self-taught chef, is now serving chicken wings, lumpia, tacos, burgers and other bar fare out of the Nut House. Alcohol can only be served with food under current local public health mandates. Socially distanced tables have been set up in the parking lot adjacent to the bar for outdoor dining, and bright yellow peanuts have been spray-painted in front of the entrance to remind people to stand 6 feet apart while in line.
The menu is a reflection of Johnson’s deep ties to Palo Alto. There’s handmade meat- and vegetable-filled lumpia because one of his best friends growing up was Filipino. He named his burger, which comes with pickles and remoulade he makes himself, after Michael Meyer, a local woodworker whose son he went to Ohlone Elementary School with.
Johnson, a Gunn High School graduate, got the gig at the Nut House through another hometown friend: Palo Alto native Lars Smith, co-owner of State of Mind Public House & Pizzeria in Los Altos. Smith was in talks with the Nut House owners to take over the kitchen but realized he didn’t have the time or staff to make it happen, he said, so he suggested they tap Johnson instead. Smith also grew up in the Ventura neighborhood and has known Johnson since he was about 5 years old. Johnson helped Smith open State of Mind in 2018.
Smith said they’re talking about teaming up for future burger or pizza pop-ups at the Nut House.
Johnson said he always loved cooking. As a teenager, he’d barbecue for his friends. His first cooking job was as a line cook at The Fish Market in Palo Alto.
He went on to cook at the now-closed Calafia Market in Palo Alto, the Palo Alto Elks Lodge, Sushi 88 in Mountain View, Mandarin Roots in Palo Alto and Alexander’s Steakhouse in Palo Alto. Before the pandemic, he was a kitchen manager at Facebook.
During the shutdown, Johnson had been serving tacos, Japanese curry, barbecue and other fare out of his mother’s house in Palo Alto through his catering company, Bay La Soul. He describes his cooking style as soul food, not in terms of Southern-style food but rather cooking with soul.
“I believe everybody has their own soul food,” he said.
Also on the menu are quesadilla tacos — two tortillas with a layer of melted cheese in between — and regular carne asada, pollo or black bean tacos. He plans to expand the menu as he settles in.
Johnson said his dream is to have his own restaurant, so the Nut House was an unexpected but welcome opportunity.
“It’s kind of weird it took a pandemic but I’m completely ecstatic about it and I’m grateful for the opportunity,” he said.
Bay La Soul is open at the Nut House (321 S. California Ave.) daily from noon to 9 p.m. The kitchen closes at 8 p.m. but will serve items like chips and salsa for the last hour.
The owners of the Nut House are still looking for a permanent home for the dive bar before the lease expires in December, including potentially a space down the street on California Avenue.
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