The taco is a perfect expression of time and place, varying in method and composition from region to region of not just Mexico but also Los Angeles, delicious in even mediocre incarnations, cheap enough for everybody to enjoy but violently flavored enough to feel a bit transgressive.
The great taco, no matter where you live, seems always to be the one you have to drive across town to taste. If you live in Maravilla and want the best al pastor, you're going to have to hop in the car and go to Leo's Taco Truck at La Brea Avenue and Venice Boulevard. If you crave the finest fried shrimp tacos and your house is in Pacoima, you are faced with a schlep to Mariscos Jalisco in Boyle Heights.
To eat a street taco is to join a brotherhood, a society of people joined by the street corner, the slightly illicit nature of their dinner and by the chile de arbol salsa dripping down their chins. People in Los Angeles like salads too, but you never hear anybody here talking about the salad lifestyle. It is no wonder that Kogi's Roy Choi, inventor of the Korean taco, wanted a way of imprinting his culture on the taco experience too.
But while many of us obsess about the idea of authenticity, of taqueros reproducing the exact flavor of the tacos they grew up with in Mexicali or Colima, the idea of the taco as a medium of culinary expression rather than of cultural expression is not a new one. In the 1980s, chef John Sedlar, then at St. Estèphe in Manhattan Beach, became famous for his radicchio tacos stuffed with crab. Ferran Adrià served something called a "Oaxacan taco" at El Bulli. (It seemed more like a spicy tea sandwich to me, but I was obviously missing something.) Alex Stupak uses the magic of molecular gastronomy to construct tacos at his Empellon in New York.
So it makes sense that Walter Manzke, a first-rate chef who expressed his mastery of modernist haute cuisine at Bastide and elevated Church & State into the most accomplished bistro in town, should also want to open a taco place of his own. As a San Diego kid, he grew up crossing the border to eat tacos, and there has always been a touch of the bawdy nose-to-tail taquería spirit even in his refined menus. He's the chef credited with introducing the fried pig's ear craze a few years ago.
And with Petty Cash, the new restaurant slapped into the freshly opened space that until recently housed Playa, Manzke finally has his taco joint, splashed with graffiti art, powered by a soundtrack of stadium rock, kitted out with tall communal tables and water poured from Corona quart bottles. It's like the L.A. version of an Ensenada cantina, except that there's sea urchin in the guacamole and the customers pull up to the valet station in late-model Lexus sedans.
There really is sea urchin in the guacamole, by the way, or at least in one version of it, called "bomb.com," that also includes a cone of chicharrones, puffy fried pigskins still crackling from the oil. Sea urchin and avocado don't have much to do with one another, really, but the lobes of roe do pretty much have the same texture as ripe avocado, and they express themselves in a mellow, marine aftertaste that lingers until you chase it with a swig of beer.
There are crunchy strips of those pig's ears scattered over the nachos, as well as a runny poached egg where you might expect the sour cream, and the savory churros, dusted with grated cheese instead of cinammon, are served with a dip of sweet corn and green mole where you would find the chocolate sauce if it were a dessert. Brussels sprouts, separated into leaves, deep-fried and served over a spicy cauliflower cream, are kind of like nachos too, with antioxidants instead of lard. He may be running a cantina, but Manzke is still a chef. Guillermo Campos Moreno, from the well-regarded Tijuana neo-taquería Tacos Kokopelli, brought on as a consultant, is a chef too.
A lot is made of the aguachile here, a spicy Pacific Coast ceviche popular in local mariscos restaurants and served here in a stone molcajete, a rough mortar traditionally used to grind chile sauces and guacamole. You pick three kinds of raw seafood for the aguachile, from a list that includes live Santa Barbara spot prawns, Kumamoto oysters, little Peruvian scallops and sliced hamachi — the price adds up fast — which are quick-marinated in a thin medium that may be less citric and less chile-intensive than you might prefer. You are served a bit of fish broth in a Mason jar to sip along with the seafood. You probably order another beer or a tequila, your choice.
And then come the tacos, sometimes all on a platter, sometimes coursed out as if they were on a tasting menu: fried potato tacos with cheese; chewy grilled octopus with charred chiles and crushed peanuts; poached duck gizzards; carne asada with beans; carnitas made with Cook Ranch pork, which is what all the cool kids are using at the moment. The truly cool kids will order the off-menu tacos with toasted crickets and the minty herb hoja santa. The hedonists will just order multiples of the tacos al pastor, made with crunchy nubs of marinated pork shoulder and pineapple cooked on a spit behind the bar and as much tequila as it takes to make it a party.
Petty Cash: Location, prices, details
Celebrated chef Walter Manzke takes a whack at the cult of the taco.
7360 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 933-5300, pettycashtaqueria.com
Snacks, $5-$14; ceviches, $12-$18 (more for aguachile en molcajete); tacos, $4-$5.
Open 6-11 p.m. Sundays to Wednesdays, 6 p.m. to midnight Thursdays to Saturdays. Full bar. Valet parking. No reservations accepted. Credit cards accepted.