There may be no more satisfying way to eat in Los Angeles than to have Mexican food. It packs bold flavors, asserts a tradition, and connects the city’s disparate neighborhoods. In L.A., Mexican food is everywhere. That said, there may be no more awful way to eat here, either. Gloppy cheese product smothering caked refried beans, nachos drowning in sour cream, and cloyingly synthetic horchata aren’t just unappetizing, they’re the disheartening signs of an entire culture abandoned.
Finding clues as to which type of cooking you’re going to get can be tricky. Folksy hand-beaten tin frames on a wall or a stone mortar and pestle might be more genuine than the food at one place, while the full power of Mexican food can be captured by a cook standing over a steam table and a burner. My own test for quality is if the staff uses the Spanish diminutive –ito when talking about food. “Una sopita” is a good sign from a counter lady. Do you want cebollita in that? Of course, restaurants like Tito’s Tacos in West L.A. manage to be grammar neutral and ass kicking at the same time, so this isn’t a rule as much as an advisory. But in restaurants where the molten gunk forms a slick on the beans, nobody uses the diminutive; in those where they do, you can sit back and savor the sense that you’ve just eaten a home-cooked meal.
When Jimmy Shaw opened the original Lotería Grill in 2002, it immediately became one of the city’s better Mexican eateries. Located at a stand in the Farmers Market on 3rd Street, it was close enough to the ground to qualify as street food. The women making the tortillas gave it charm and warmth. The food was nuanced and focused. The festive colors of the exterior stood out amid the battered lime green chairs of the market; the food did, too. It seemed to reassert a basic truth: that in the most modest settings, we find the best Mexican cooking.
Shaw didn’t envision starting a restaurant. He’s a Mexico City native, and during the 15 years he spent working here in Spanish advertising, he began to yearn for the sort of establishments he enjoyed back home—restaurants that, like a good sushi bar, narrow the distance between customer and food. Then he learned of a vacancy at the Farmers Market, a venue with a pedestrian bustle that’s rare in L.A., and he decided to change careers. For all of the stand’s low-key appeal, it was inevitable that if this venture took, others would follow; the food was too good, and Shaw’s sense of mission was too strong.
The July unveiling of Lotería Grill on Hollywood Boulevard marked more than a second outpost; it suggested a stepping up. This is a restaurant, with the myriad challenges the term implies. Instead of being tucked away in a locale known for its down-home kitsch, the new Lotería is quayside on Hollywood Boulevard, between the clubby venues Geisha House and Mood. Shaw now has everything from jalapeño margaritas to an after-midnight crowd to fold into the mix. Essentially he is starting over. It is a gutsy move, one that will require the full force of Shaw’s talent for reading what a city wants. He isn’t making it easy for himself, though. If the first Lotería was a prototype, the second is not what it was a prototype for.
The restaurant occupies the spot that once housed Book City, a beloved secondhand bookstore that long provided a pocket of culture among the street’s Tshirt shops. The open terrace off ers a buzzy welcome, but it is the interior that proves most striking. With two potted ficus trees and high unadorned walls, the space is stark and modern. Blowups of the cards used in the game of lotería and the white and burnt sienna walls radiate an urbane feel. Flanked by two long counters, one that looks over the griddle and another that’s a tequila-stocked bar, the decor signals nothing of what we expect of Mexican restaurants. It isn’t an anthropology lesson masquerading as a restaurant; neither is it a place to get hammered during a happy hour that’s as drawn out as a Veracruz sunset.
Immigrant-owned restaurants in this country often serve as the economic bedrock of families. They employ relatives, provide stability. But Shaw has been lucky to launch his restaurants outside that framework. He didn’t come to America struggling; he studied international business at Penn. His paternal grandfather was a Scot who moved to Mexico to recover from injuries sustained in World War I (that explains the last name), and his other granddad came from the States to work in the oil business. Rather than look to scratch out a living, Shaw wanted to celebrate culinary tradition and perhaps nudge it forward—not with overwrought nuevo Latino concoctions but by remaining within the borders of authentic cuisine.
In the best Mexican food, seasonings build on one another. There is a constant interplay between the depth of flavor that comes with long cooking times and the brightness lent by herbs and the zing of chile heat. Shaw, who often works behind the counter in a short-sleeved chef’s jacket, is a master of this fundamental exchange. Many of the dishes are defined by the contrast of patient simmering and fresh salsas. The tacos allow the most unobstructed view of the culinary principle. The stewed chicken of the tinga de pollo, the tender carne deshebrada, the slow-cooked pork of the cochinita pibil—all have a lush, saturated quality. The final garnish, whether it be diced onion or cilantro, a dab of guacamole, or even a blast of habanero, unites the recipe and makes the preparation shine.
Intelligent and respectful, this approach is woven throughout the menu. An appetizer of raw jicama cubes dusted with chipotle and given a squeeze of lime recalls the fruit sold from pushcarts by sidewalk vendors around L.A. Breakfast chilaquiles—crisp tortillas sautéed in various salsas (tomatillo is my favorite) and crowned with an egg—have a life-affirming heft. The crust of the queso fundido is a sputtering invitation to dip chips. Diced zucchini tossed with roasted corn succotash are layered on a tostada. The chile relleno has a blackened intensity. I don’t mean to turn this into a laundry list, but at Lotería Grill, except for some lackluster flans for dessert, the dishes glow with quiet confidence.
Shaw doesn’t shy from serving specialties that are rarely seen. While the chicharrón en salsa verde—stewed pork rinds in a spicy toma tillo sauce—has a pleasant gaminess, the sopa seca de fideos is an unappetizing glob of cold, thin noodles. Every restaurateur is allowed an indulgence, and I suspect that if one customer in a thousand gets teary eyed about how his abuela made this classic, it will be enough for Shaw. But that single-mindedness can also come across as a little abstemious. No carne asada in any shape or form is served at Lotería. That’s hard to believe. Go into any Mexican restaurant, from Wilmington to Santa Monica, and a Spanish speaker need only say “una de asada” to order a taco. Rather than reject it as overexposed, oversimplified ranchero campfire food, why not try to figure out what makes the best versions work?
There are a few basic housekeeping details that Lotería still has to get right. The menu lets you put any filling in any masa. Not every combination works. A taquito filled with papas con rajas—mashed potatoes laced with poblano chile strips—is a thing of beauty. Those potatoes in a taco amount to serving mush on mush. Though the waitstaff is fine, each time cutlery is replaced it arrives wrapped in a napkin. Ending up with three napkins over the course of a dinner is hardly serious; nevertheless it reveals that the progress from market stand to Hollywood Boulevard restaurant has not been seamless.
That trajectory amounts to perhaps the most interesting story in L.A. dining right now. Shaw wants to be true to a culinary tradition and open to change. He wants to keep the smokiness and the char but tweak the context. With Lotería’s clean lines, red-aproned crew, and brilliant white kitchen, he is broadening the definition of a Mexican restaurant while sharpening the emotional pull of the food. The last time I sat at the bleached wood counter, watching the cooks garnish tacos and ladle pozole, I thought of my favorite Mexican spots and how Lotería fits among them. I recalled breakfast in the cool morning at La Luz del Dia on Olvera Street, the strip mall modesty of El Sazón Oaxaqueño. I pictured the old couples sharing enchiladas at Teresitas in East L.A. I remembered the lady at Romero’s who cuts the corn off the cob into my soup when the grind of L.A. is too much with me. “Una sopita,” she calls it, and I feel taken care of just by hearing her say it. Una sopita, I think, and I’ll be on the mend.
Photograph by Edmund Barr