“This almost feels like the Before Times,” my friend says to me as we sip tequila cocktails and dive into an order of guacamole and chips, which tastes, as guacamole almost always does when you’re drinking outdoors, magical. We are sitting on a plant-festooned roof downtown at Cha Cha Chá, a sprawling Mexican restaurant that opened in March. Sure, the waiters wear masks and face shields and there was a temperature check upon entry, but the servers also come bearing shots of mezcal, there were several stylish-and-slightly-annoyed people waiting at the hostess stand, and it’s kinda like it used to be.
Time is a surprising theme that pops up over and over at Cha Cha Chá: you’re reminded of childhood dishes, boozy nights of yore, and you’re compelled to wonder what the vaccine summer might hold.
Chef Alejandro Guzmán’s cooking is heavily inspired by recipes from his mother and the family taco joint in the Valley where he worked as a teen. “Every dish has an aspect of something she made at some point. She was my first teacher,” says Guzmán, who went on to become a beverage director at Sqirl and then got back in the kitchen at Le Comptoir.
Guzmán doesn’t want you to be acutely aware of the time that goes into his dishes, but it’s there in flavors that are magnified and clear. Carnitas taste just as they should because they’re first cooked in lard for hours, then quickly caramelized with an orange reduction. “When you add the citrus at the end, it’s super alive,” he says. Carrot flan is a small thrill, nodding to carrot cake but wholely its own dessert.
At full capacity, Cha Cha Chá will have seating for 300, the majority of it outside. Mexico City restaurateur Alejandro Marin had planned the place for years, and he ended up being prescient about what diners might want in 2021. “It’s allowing us all to come back to what we missed,” says Guzmán. “Not necessarily going back to normal, but the parts we like.”
Cha Cha Chá, 812 E. 3rd St., Arts District.
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