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Restaurants: Más Malo in downtown Los Angeles

The chewy chips at Más Malo will ruin your appetite if you're not careful. Eat one and the blind flirtation of grease and salt on your tongue will cause you to reach for another, and then another. And before you know it you will become a mindless hand-to-basket-to-mouth machine, dipping these intentionally crunchless, deep-fried curiosities into the pillowy depths of the restaurant's housemade guacamole and through the fiery landscape of its five-part salsa flight.

That's warning No. 1. Warning No. 2: The cocktails, agave-laced tributes to punk rock aesthetics, will quickly put you down for the count, so stick with two — three, at most. The best is the Angelina, made with tequila and hibiscus juice — it slices through the heat in any given dish, serving as both savior and palate cleanser.

But to carp about the over-the-top nature of the cuisine at Más Malo is beside the point. To dine there is to take an oath of rock 'n' roll devotion. It's not always pretty, but it's a scene worth exploring. Co-owned by Jeff Ellermeyer and Mitchell Frank — the dons of Echo Park indie rock altars the Echo, the Echoplex and El Prado — Más Malo is the sequel to Malo taquería in Silver Lake.

It takes a certain ironic chutzpah to name a restaurant "bad," and even more to call it "more bad." And the restaurant, which specializes in an unsubtle version of Mexican cuisine, revels in straddling the line between the two. The word bad, in this case, is intended the way it was by Michael Jackson.

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Located in an old jewelry store that dates to the downtown-glam year of 1923, Más Malo is large and lofty, with arched ceilings, original pastoral murals, a tequila tasting vault, lots of wood tables, a cozy upstairs bar and a subterranean cantina with swinging rope chairs and a secret entrance.

The main dining room is large and echoes with charged conversation. So much so that you will hear the screenwriter next to you talk about his most recent studio defeat, the nearby cubicle monkey describe the latest torture inflicted upon him by his boss and the many Pabst-swilling hipsters jaw about where they might have left their guitars the night before.

Más Malo comes at an auspicious time for the Malo brand. Having been open since 2003, the original Malo — next door to the legendary Elliott Smith wall — has gained a cult following that renders its bar tables all but inaccessible on weekend nights. Its acolytes come for tequila and the restaurant's specialty: ground beef-and-pickle tacos. These crunchy wonders have made the leap to Más Malo and now are available even with soy beef.

The veggie option is a nod to the aforementioned hipsters who default vegan and won't wear antiperspirant because they are afraid it will cause armpit cancer but liberally smoke American Spirit yellows. It's a charming hypocrisy, kind of like the veggie beef-and-pickle taco itself, which might as well just be beef. With a shell shellacked with a familiar addictive grease, the meat version of the famed taco drips with juicy goodness and resonates with the crisp crunch of tart pickles and the soundless goo of melted cheese.

Chef Robert Luna, who also cooked at Steven Arroyo's Cobras & Matadors, says he's making food inspired by what he grew up eating in East L.A. The idea conjures an image of a family in a state of constant indulgence. Because that's what the food at Más Malo is — a decadent, festive indulgence. One that you simply shouldn't partake in every day, unless, of course, you know how to order, and you forgo — no matter how much they call out to your sodden belly — the fiendish chewy chips.

A savvy way to start light is by ordering the spinach, avocado and shrimp salad, and although the plates are not specifically designated as such, it's a good idea to share. But just getting a salad at Más Malo would be like ordering the fruit cup at McDonald's. Don't bother going if you're counting calories. Next, try a bowl of the vegan menudo — another stunning contradiction that won't fill you up. The broth is light and mildly spiced and the intestines made of harmless tofu.

Perhaps the tastiest main course is the al pastor, which is made with pork cooked until tender in barbecue sauce and pineapple, and which tastes fresh off a street-side food cart. On the menu the carnitas promise to be marinated with Coca-Cola and orange juice, an arresting flavor combination that came through to good effect years ago at Malo but is somehow lost in the hustle at Más Malo. Still, if you wrap the meat in a fresh corn tortilla and douse it with the restaurant's flavorful burnt habanero and crème salsa, it makes for a pleasing mouthful.

Boyle Heights Picnic is a messy night out, with a quarter chicken smothered in savory mole poblano served alongside a mound of chunky Mexican potato salad that is as light as hand-whipped mashed potatoes and just as addictive. If you're sharing with a date, try this dish along with the Ensenada bacon-wrapped shrimp, which do not come too many to a plate and taste of earthy garlic and spicy chipotle.

Be careful with your expectations if you order the lobster Diablo. Let the name guide you. This dish is a devil if you've got lobster dipped in butter on the brain. Rock lobster tails are sautéed with garlic, red chiles, lime and white wine, but the sauce is not for dipping, instead it's liberally poured on top of the lobster meat overwhelming its delicate, buttery flavor. Which is fine if you're expecting it and if you like heat, because the sauce is particularly piquant.

Another good way to go is to share a variety of tacos. The eggplant-and-potato hard tacos and the grilled soft fish tacos satisfy, as do the braised chicken and grilled carne asada, which also comes as a hearty main course.

If you're a tequila drinker, don't miss out on a tasting in the private tequila vault. This shrine to agave is at the back of the restaurant and is stocked with nearly 250 types of tequila and about 30 mescals. The vault tenders know their stuff when it comes to the liquor and can guide you from Milagro Single Barrel Select to Doña Carlota. They also have the history and flavor profiles of each bottle down pat.

After dinner, swing downstairs to the cantina, which has been developing a rollicking scene of its own. Who knows, you just might meet a group of party people who will take you to a rock show at the Echo. It's 11 p.m. and your night is just beginning. How very Más Malo.

Más Malo: 515 W. 7th St., Los Angeles (between Olive Street and Grand Avenue), (213) 985-4332. masmalo.restaurant.com.

PRICES: Soups, salads and tortas, $7 to $14; tacos, $6 to $12; entrees, $4.50 to $5.99; entrees, $14 to $60.

DETAILS: Open for lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday; and for brunch and dinner 9 a.m. to midnight Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday. All major cards. Valet and street parking.

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

S. Irene Virbila is on vacation

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