Monday, June 11, 2012

Loteria Grill Opens on the Santa Monica Promenade

Westside fans of the Loteria Grill at the Farmers Market who lamented increasing their carbon footprint by driving into LA can now enjoy Loteria's freshly made Mexican food right here in Santa Monica in the old Gaucho Grill space.

Loteria Grill Santa Monica (1251 3rd Street Promenade, 310/393-2700) opened just after Mother's Day. The restaurant and full bar are open 7 days a week, Sunday-Thursday 11:00 AM to 11:00 PM and Friday-Saturday 11:00 AM to Midnight.
The menu features dishes appropriate for breakfast, lunch, bar snacks and dinner. One way to experience the restaurant is during Happy Hour, 3:00 PM to 6:00 PM, 7 days a week, with an extra hour until 7:00 PM at the bar.

Happy Hour means 1/2 off everything on the menu, except for the specialty tequilas.  You heard that right, everything on the menu. Not just a limited menu with mini-me sized dishes.

That means a large plate filled with 2 enchiladas (chicken, cheese, vegetable or shredded beef) with black beans and rice and a choice of one of four sauces (suizas, rojas, mole, pipian) will cost less than $6.50 and a classic margarita will only set you back $4.50.

Jimmy Shaw, owner/chef, has a terrific design sense. Setting up a Mexican fast food restaurant at the Farmers Market could have been nothing more than another stall in the maze of stalls. Shaw's graphic design in that confined space stamped Loteria Grill as smart, hip and stylish.

Opening Loteria Grill Hollywood, Shaw expanded his design sense. With a liquor license in Hollywood, he created an "L" shaped bar that became a signature feature of the restaurant. 

In the new space, Shaw was confronted by the realities of a difficult space. 

Gaucho Grill had its fans but the restaurant on the Third Street Promenade was famously dark and claustrophobic. Shaw's solution to that limitation was to knock down the front and back walls.

Feeling very much like cantinas I remember from visits to Mexico, the front of the Loteria Grill is completely open. With the bar filled and diners soaking up the sun as they eat and drink, the open-air front room is about as inviting as any restaurant could be.
When you walk to the back dining room, you pass brightly lit, three-dimensional loteria sculptures in a hallway. 

The open kitchen on the left is full of light and the busy activity of cooks and servers. On the right hand side, the wall is painted a dramatic, blood red. Gaucho Grill's claustrophobic back wall has been replaced by a wall of windows looking out to a carefully manicured hedge in what looks to be a park but is actually an alleyway.
The high-ceiled room has a light, airy feeling. On the day I visited for a late lunch of snacks and cocktails, the back alcove of the restaurant was filled with a birthday party of two dozen celebrants.
From what we tasted that day, I would recommend the Quesadillitas de Plaza, three fried turnovers stuffed with a delicious filling made with seasonal ingredients. This visit the filling choices were squash blossom, roasted poblano peppers and cheese and, my choice, huitlachoche corn fungus or "truffle." 
The masa crust was crisp and the huitlachoche filling was deeply satisfying, with the added flavors of the creamy guacamole and sour cream and the salsa's mild heat. 

Whenever I am in Mexico, the one dish I always have is a shrimp cocktail. Unlike the American version, what you get in Mexico is a generous amount of freshly steamed shrimp in a chilled tomato juice "soup" seasoned with chili powder, lime, raw onions, peeled cucumber, cilantro and avocado. 

You can eat the shrimp one by one with a spicy soup chaser or by placing a shrimp on a Saltine cracker with a piece of avocado and a chunk of onion. 
At Loteria, the cocktail (Coctel de Camaron) is served in a large goblet, filled to the brim with shrimp, avocados, cucumber and that delicious tomato soup. Saltines are fanned across the plate like a winning poker hand. 

To go with the shrimp, I had a shooter of chef Shaw's special tequila, the Loteria Double Barrel Herradura Reposado (no Happy Hour 1/2 off discount for this item) . The smokiness of the Heradura Reposado paired well with the sweet shrimp.
For anyone new to Loteria, I would recommend the Probaditas Sampler. A dozen mini tacos are topped with a tasting of the restaurant's best fillings and sauces. My favorite sauce is the mole poblano, with its subtle heat and deeply rich flavor.
To go with our margarita de jalapeƱo and tequila martini with mango, we had the Ceviche Uno, Dos, Tres. Perched on top of crispy corn tortillas, the ceviches ranged from red snapper with fresh tomato, tilapia and cilantro and shrimp with sweet mango and fiery chile habanero. 

Restaurant reviews are appropriately criticized for inflated or over-enthusiastic language, but I can honestly say, the cocktails and ceviches were a riot of delicious and satisfying textures and flavors. 
For a main course, you can't go wrong with enchiladas, especially when topped with the mole sauce. Although it isn't a main course, the sope with chicken or pork is also delicious. 

If you're a hungry meat eater, the flank steak with sides is very good. Carne Arrachera a La Parrilla comes nicely charred. A heavy steak knife accompanies the large piece of meat. 

The dish also comes with sides that include refried beans, spicy escabeche (pickled onions, carrots and yellow peppers), potatoes with poblano peppers, zucchini & roasted corn and a generous amount of caramelized onions resting underneath the steak and soaking up all its fragrant juices.
My favorite way to eat the steak is to tear off a piece of freshly made tortilla, smear on some refried beans, add a thin slice of steak, a few strands of caramelized onion and a bit of escabeche. I slide the flavorful packet into my mouth, chew, enjoy and do it again. It's a little time consuming, but this way I savor all those wonderful flavors in each and every bite.
For dessert there are daily specials, mostly of the rib-sticking kind (flourless chocolate, caramel or tres leeches cakes). I am told the tequila ice cream is good. That wasn't available so we had the Mexican sweet cheese ice cream (Helado Chongos), a thicker version of vanilla and very good.

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