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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Mexican Standards With a Little More at Poquito Mas

When some of my Hollywood friends remarked recently that they drove to the Valley “oh, two, three, even four times a week” to eat at Poquito Mas, I naturally was very interested--and peeved.

“What is this?” I demanded. “I’ve been reviewing restaurants in the Valley for almost a year now, and you never ever mentioned this place to me.”

Amy hemmed and hawed. “Well, it’s just a taco shack,” she said, “nothing fancy--we had no idea you’d be interested.”

“I like tacos,” I said. “Who wouldn’t want to know where to get a good taco?”

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“Well, the tacos are good there,” Benjamin said. “And you can’t beat the hours--open till midnight or 1, seven days a week. . . . If you really think you want to, you can come with us Thursday night.”

I could tell that they were nervous, that they weren’t so sure I’d like such a modest place. I soon discovered, however, that while Poquito Mas is indeed a Mexican fast-food joint, it’s also a little more, or rather, un poquito mas , than that.

I had a feeling it would be. Nobody drives the Cahuenga Pass for a mediocre taco.

Poquito Mas is in a small mini-shopping center right on Cahuenga Boulevard and Regal Place. There’s a nice little outdoor patio--not terrifically nice, mind you, but nicer than most fast-food eating areas. There are red-and-white striped oilcloths on the tables and plastic palm-style thatching on the umbrellas. The view is of the shopping center’s cramped little parking lot and a freeway entrance, but there’s also the painted facade of an Italian village on the walls of Miceli’s restaurant across the street for atmosphere. Lively Mexican music comes from a speaker, the sun feels good, and, well, it’s really quite amusing to observe human animals in big cars jockeying for smaller-than-normal parking places.

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There are also a few tables inside and a long counter where one can sit eye to eye with various photographs of celebrities, including O.J. Simpson, heavy metal bands I’ve never heard of and the eternally lying Isuzu man, who inscribed his portrait with, “The food here stinks.”

Boy, is he lying. And regardless of what Benjamin says about the good, long hours or the especially cheerful service, the biggest reason for going to Poquito Mas is the food, which is very fresh and lean and deliciously prepared. Tacos, burritos, tostadas and quesadillas come with carne asada (char-broiled steak), pollo (chicken breast), carnitas (pork) or in vegetarian versions. They’re ample, a meal in themselves.

The chicken is juicy, the asada on the medium-rare side, the beans creamy. And while the carnitas are cooked appropriately long, nothing is cooked to death. The quesadillas were non-greasy and topped with absolutely delicious guacamole; our favorite was the juicy, meaty steak-and-mushroom quesadilla. Burritos are available plain or mojado , which means it comes topped with a sauce and melted cheese. I preferred plain burritos for strictly practical reasons: It’s impossible to pick up the “mojado” with one’s hands, and it’s equally impossible to tear into one wielding only a plastic fork (Poquito Mas doesn’t furnish knives.)

A salsa bar is set up so customers can spice to individual tastes. The various salsas go from mild to hot, right to left; they’re all tasty and freshly prepared. My favorite was a scorchingly hot, green tomatillo sauce.

But my favorite item is, hands- down, the shrimp taco “San Felipe,” two mini-tacos of very fresh, just-grilled and chopped shrimp, which come with wedges of lime and, for an extra 60 cents, dollops of that excellent guacamole.

I also endorse the flan, which is perfectly caramelized, topped with cinnamon and otherwise as smooth and jiggly and sweet as flan should be.

The only dish that does not recommend itself highly is the tostada. The flour tortillas are preshaped and fried and while they look quite attractive as salad bowls, they lend an old-oil taste to the contents within.

Tostadas notwithstanding, I must confess that I am now an ardent member of the Poquito Mas crowd of studio workers, actors, neighborhood types, Cahuenga strip pedestrians, teen-agers, firefighters (complete with truck) and just about anybody else who has somehow discovered this good, bright food, and knowing it’s available virtually at any waking hour, can’t manage to stay away.

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Poquito Mas, 3701 Cahuenga Blvd. West No. 1, (818) 760-TACO. Open 10 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday, till 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Cash only. No alcoholic beverages. Dinner for two, food only, $4-$10.

Recommended dishes: Quesadillas with steak and mushrooms, $3.25; shrimp taco “San Felipe,” $2.75; burritos, $3.85-$4.25; neighborhood famous tortilla soup, $1.10 small, $1.50 large; flan, 95 cents.


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