Cocinas y Calaveras restaurateurs call their branch on boulevard Cahuenga Hollywood Market, which causes me some confusion.
It is located on Cahuenga near the entrance to Universal Studios. Which in my opinion makes it either Mercado Universal City or Mercado Studio City. The map in my head shows Hollywood begins south of Barham Boulevard. And since that branch of Mercado is north of Barham, it’s not in Hollywood.
Of course, in terms of marketing, Mercado Hollywood scans the best. The Hollywood Bowl wouldn’t be so iconic if it was called the Cahuenga Bowl.
But I’m quibbling, which is in my job description. What I won’t quibble over is my fondness for the cheerfully morbid icons of Dia de los Muertos in the restaurants of Jesse Gomez’s Cocinas y Calaveras group. You’ll find murals of happily smiling skulls at Yxta Cocina in downtown, Pasadena Market, in Manhattan Beach, Santa Monica and Hollywood / Cahuenga, but without a lot of traffic problems and inability to park.
The various Mercados all share a common DNA – which is their own DNA. Amid the countless other Mexican restaurants in town, it stands out – and not just because of the cheerful skulls that appear next to the kitchen, on restaurant coasters, and even on bathroom tiles. (For me, they say: “Enjoy … life is short …”)
This is a restaurant where the cauliflower is roasted with a chili morita and pineapple marinade, where the unique salad is built around kale and arugula, with queso fresco, candied pepitas, pears, dried strawberries, cotija-pesto breadcrumbs and agave-lime vinaigrette. Where the pork comes from Salmon Creek Farm in Twin Falls, Idaho. The list of beers includes Border Psycho La Perversa IPA from Tijuana. You want Cidral Mundet apple soda, they have it. The dishes used are from Heath Ceramics. The menu proudly tells us.
In terms of setup, Mercado has an outdoor patio out front on Cahuenga that doesn’t appear to be the place to sit unless you’re particularly worried about COVID. The most frequented destination is the bar – long and busy, with elbows sitting very close to each other. This is not a place to spend the evening if you are not fully immunized.
The dining room is in segments, one above the bar, another facing the bar, a third segment in a side room. They are more or less spacious and more busy than not. For a restaurant whose logo is a smiling skull, the place does not lie down on the job. No dead wood here. (For fans of the remarkable animated film “Coco”, it’s a bit like the movie comes to life!)
If you’re here to bend an elbow, there’s a lot of elbow bending to do. There are about ten mezcals and several dozen tequilas. There is a margarita made from fresh hibiscus, a nice touch, both tasty and aromatic. I love the touch that the cucumber gives to the Spicy Cucumber Margarita, a gin ingredient used in a tequila drink. There are bottled beers from Mexico, which is standard, and draft beer from Mexico, which is not. There’s the Mexican Coke and the Mexican Sprite, both made with real sugar – a big deal these days.
But above all, the fun of the Mercado sur Cahuenga – and Cocinas y Calaveras restaurants in general – is that they don’t feel like the same old folks. While there are many classic items on the menu, this is not a restaurant you go to for lead combination platters of enchiladas and tamales, with rice and beans, hot tortillas served in a container plastic on the side. If it’s enchiladas you want, you’ll get a remarkable take on that old Mexican restaurant workhorse – filled with free-range chicken pulled from Mary’s, flavored with a rich black Oaxacan mole, spread with queso fresco, of crema fresca, red onion and sesame seeds.
There is Lela’s Mexican rice on the side – rice that is definitely worth eating. For change.
If you want to get a feel for the quality of the chicken, get the pollo peppers in salsa de cuatro with, among other things, mashed potatoes on the side. Really good mashed potatoes, which was actually made from real potatoes and not some potato like substance. There’s the cebollita onion carne asada, just like it’s served in the fondas that surround Plaza de Garibaldi in Mexico City. Only better. Although I miss the competitive mariachis.
The menu is set up in such a way that appetizer meals can be perfectly satisfying – a combination of guacamole and choriqueso dip, skirt steak tacos, grilled fish tacos, pork tacos al. pastor.
And yes, there is guacamole, because you need guacamole. I have rarely had a Mexican meal without guacamole. Here it is accompanied by serrano peppers, coriander, tomatoes, red onions, salsa brava, spicy pepitas… and crisps that are really worth eating.
There’s also a brunch menu that features fantastic nachos carnitas, a monster breakfast burrito, chili verde with easier eggs, plus carnitas for a bit more. It’s a unique brunch at the Mercado, a Mexican restaurant with cuisine that even makes the face of death smile. Especially after a margie or three.
Merrill Shindler is an independent Los Angeles-based food critic. Send an email to [email protected].
- Evaluation: 3 stars
- Address: 3413 Cahuenga Boulevard West, Studio City / Hollywood
- Information: 323-512-2500, www.cocinasycalaveras.com
- Food: Modern Mexican with a bustling bar scene and decor built around skeletons and skulls – lots of them.
- When: Dinner, Tuesday to Sunday; Sunday brunch
- Details: Complete bar; reservations essential
- Prices: About $ 35 per person
- Suggested dishes: 8 starters ($ 13 – $ 24), 4 vegetable dishes ($ 8 – $ 10), 8 starters ($ 18 – $ 33), 5 sides ($ 1.50 – $ 5)
- Credit card: MC, V
- What do the stars mean: 4 (World class! Worth the trip from anywhere!), 3 (Very excellent, if not exceptional. Worth the trip from anywhere in Southern California.), 2 (A great place to go for a meal. Worth the trip from anywhere in the neighborhood.) 1 (If you’re hungry and it’s nearby, but don’t get stuck in traffic.) 0 (Honestly, not worth it. speak.)