Review: At Frogtown’s Salazar, Jonathan Gold finds a Sonora barbecue joint, steakhouse and evolving tortillas
Pork chop “Beeler Farm” at Salazar restaurant.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Salazar restaurant is located in the L.A. River adjacent community known as Frogtown.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Pollo asado taco, right, at Salazar restaurant.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Rebecca Ortega makes tortillas.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Chef Esdras Ochoa’s version of esquites, a side dish of street corn, at Salazar.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
At the table Daniel Rhine, holding his 2-year-old son, Oliver, and Kate Rhine of South Pasadena enjoy dinner at Salazar.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Gem Caesar salad.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Sous chef Javier Morales, 31, grilling in the kitchen at Salazar.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Steak on the grill at Salazar restaurant.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
The verde drink has cucumber, green apple, lime, cilantro, celery gin, pear brandy and fino sherry.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
The story of Salazar begins with a tortilla. Or at least I think it begins with a tortilla, because it might also begin with an old auto body shop tricked out into a restaurant, a grill that creaked into being when a gas line couldn’t quite be permitted, or a laissez-faire outdoor arrangement of tables, chairs and desert plants that resembles the Texas “Mad Max”-style trailer-centered joints you find in South Austin more than it does pretty much anything in Los Angeles.
The view, such as it is, is out over the industrial buildings and browning palm trees of Elysian Valley, an area also known as Frogtown for a noisy wave of amphibians that erupted from the neighboring Los Angeles River in 1954. (You will explore quite a bit of Frogtown on the half-mile walk to the restaurant from where you will eventually park your car. Wave hi to the Elysian supper club. I hear it’s quite good.) There is a gravel lot on the lower level that is usually crowded with people waiting for a table to open up, unless they’re just drinking margaritas – in which case: cool.
Some of these people have brought their dogs. The dogs talk to one another while their owners contemplate maybe trying a michelada. Up the hill, inside the kitchen, chef Esdras Ochoa works inside what resembles a smoke-filled aquarium, flipping steaks and chops on a crank-operated Santa Maria-style grill. Behind him, tortillas are being made.
You may know Ochoa from Mexicali Taco & Co., which he nurtured from the greasy table he manned late nights down on Beaudry Avenue into a well-regarded taqueria near Dodger Stadium. (Mexicali Taco & Co. is a mainstay on The Times’ 101 Best Restaurants list.) That restaurant is known for its quesadillas and garlicky cheese-stuffed vampiros, and also for its well-made salsas, but mostly for its grilled-meat tacos made with flour tortillas, in the style associated with Mexicali.
Mexicali Taco & Co. brings up its flour tortillas several times a week from Mexicali. If you come from a region where flour tortillas are the standard – Texas, Sonora, Arizona – a well-made flour tortilla is like oxygen, an element without which life itself is impossible. While the supremacy of corn tortillas is grudgingly acknowledged, there is something of a flour-tortilla renaissance in town at the moment, led by Loqui, Sonoratown, Burritos La Palma and La Azteca, among other places. A friend who grew up eating the tortillas from St. Mary’s in Tucson is still dismayed by the state of flour tortillas in Los Angeles, but she does make frequent road trips from the Westside out to El Monte for the goods.
At Salazar, Ochoa is experimenting with his own tortillas. In the restaurant’s first months, sometimes the tortillas have been stretchy and thin in the Sonora style, sometimes thicker and nearly as flaky as croissants. One hot evening they were a little pasty, as if they had been insufficiently hydrated. One evening the flavor was perfect, but the consistency was slightly leathery. The chemistry and mechanics of tortillas is as complicated as that of bread.
Ochoa’s carne asada? Simpler, actually: marinated with soy and lots of garlic, grilled over blazing hot mesquite, chopped and stuffed into a flour tortilla. If you’ve ordered guacamole, add a dab of that, maybe a drizzle of the grilled tomatillo salsa and you’re good – smoky meat, a hint of nuttiness from the flour, a subtle jab of chile. The marinated pork al pastor is sweet, slightly charred, with a bit of burnt pineapple; the grilled chicken is full-flavored if a bit dry, like something a favorite uncle may have cooked up in his backyard, if the uncle happened to have grown up in East L.A. The grilled vegetable tacos are served on corn tortillas instead, but hey, why not – eggplant, zucchini, peppers.
You can have a taco or two as an appetizer. You can supplement them with a cocktail of cold, wild-caught shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico arranged around the rim of a martini glass, or a Little Gem Caesar salad blasted with anchovy, or an arrangement of cold, grilled beets. The side dishes are kind of great: gooey potato purée with small, plump sausages floating in it like strawberries in oatmeal; chilled, fire-blackened corn kernels tossed with chiles, cream and herbs; beans cooked with all manner of pig products.
Or you may be inclined to treat Salazar as a steakhouse that leans toward strong flavors; organic, sustainable meat; taco-friendly pre-slicing; and flour tortillas. The pork chop is marinated with chile and pineapple in the manner of al pastor before it hits the grill, but the juiciness and sweet char are a step or two above. (Make sure to snag the meaty bone when nobody else is looking.) The flatiron steak comes out as a luxe version of the carne asada. Ochoa’s moist but perhaps under-seasoned version of the marinated, grilled fish called pescado zarandeado, perhaps made with trout, won’t tempt you to forgo regular visits to Inglewood’s Coni’Seafood, where that dish is a specialty, but it is good enough for a hot summer night, a sweaty bottle of beer, and the happy murmuring of friends.
You are going to want to try a Paloma cocktail, the Mexico City standard made with grapefruit and tequila, which is keener and more refreshing than other versions in town. The corn flan is sweet yet sharply salted, garnished with a handful of popcorn: delicious. And I can’t wait to see what Ochoa’s tortillas are going to be like in a year.
The chef behind Mexicali Taco & Co. opens a Sonora barbecue restaurant in an old mechanic’s shop.
Location: 2490 Fletcher Drive, Los Angeles, salazarla.com. No phone.
Prices: Tacos $3.75; appetizers $10-$12; grilled meats $21-$42; side dishes $6-$8; desserts $8-$9.
Details: Open Tues.-Thurs., 5 p.m. to midnight; Fri., 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Sat., 10 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sun., 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Difficult street parking only.
Recommended dishes: Tacos; Gem Caesar; frijoles charro; flan.
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