Beneath the din at Loreto is a calm fostered by the dining room’s palette of sandy browns and pale blues. The desert earth tones set the vibe straightaway. Its building, in a former warehouse in the Elysian Valley neighborhood that locals call Frogtown, is the color of red clay. The effect deepens as the sun sets. With no other tall structures nearby, the sky above the restaurant looks deceptively vast. One might believe there is nothing else around for miles.
Its menu, though, plunges diners right into the sea: aguachile negro; tostadas lacquered with tuna, scallops and rock shrimp; prawn tacos and Nayarit-inspired zarandeados; and a persuasive, over-the-top take on torta ahogada filled with lobster. Los Angeles has lots of options for myriad styles of mariscos — only beginning with Gilberto Cetina’s Holbox, The Times’ 2023 Restaurant of the Year — and the cooking overseen at Loreto by executive chef Francisco “Paco” Moran has a place in our landscape. It feels urbane, the kind of Mexican seafood cuisine, threaded with pan-regional inspiration and global-minded ingredients, that makes sense in a high-design environment. The kind you’ll be eating alongside a paloma splashed with sotol or a syrah from the Valle de Guadalupe.
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I’m just as interested, though, in how the restaurant reveals the broader evolving philosophy of the restaurant’s lead partner, Alejandro Marin. Like the town for which Loreto is named, a place on the western coast of Mexico where tropical desert abuts the Gulf of California, his restaurants, with increasing sophistication, express agreeable contradictions, and illustrate some ways that major world cities absorb regional influences into their ever-shifting culinary identities.
Marin is partners with Javier Hernandez Pons and Jorge Salim in the Mexico City-based Grupo Palmares. They’ve found success there with a knack for creating restaurants that sell themselves first with stunning settings.
Marin was born in San Diego and grew up in Mexico City, taking frequent return trips to Southern California to visit family. Late last decade, he moved to Los Angeles to establish the U.S. location of the group’s Terraza Cha Cha Chá, a rooftop bar in the capital city’s Tabacalera neighborhood with a perfectly framed view of the domed Monumento a la Revolución. While settling in, he met Mexico City native Octavio Olivas, and the group became an investor in Olivas’ tiny Silver Lake charmer, Ceviche Project.
It took three years for Marin to land on an L.A. space with a suitably enthralling vista. He finally found it on the second floor of an Arts District building near the knotty intersection of East 3rd Street and Traction Avenue. German architectural designer Lena Kohl, who is now Marin’s wife, filled the patio with lush vegetation and strung lights. While LA Cha Cha Chá doesn’t peer down from high heavens, the genius of the positioning is in its relationship to other buildings; the view incorporates both looming structures nearby and also a clear shot of the downtown skyline in the distance. The effect is densely, appealingly urban.
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The open-air restaurant sprang to life in March 2021, at a moment when plenty of us were looking for places to eat outside. Booking a reservation at LA Cha Cha Chá — with its tropical drinks and its laid-back menu, now also directed by Paco Moran, of tacos, salads and broadly pleasing mains (carnitas, skate wing, New York strip) — is considerably easier two years later, but among the city’s glut of glittery rooftop hangouts, this cityscape remains among the most hypnotizing.
Seafood-focused menu aside, Loreto embodies far more earthiness. Kohl designed its space as well, and the project on the whole feels more personal, more grounded. Both Los Angeles and Mexico City have dining ecosystems too vast to pigeonhole; flashy glamour will always be part of them.
But the leap between LA Cha Cha Chá and Loreto has been especially pronounced. I asked Marin in an interview what he saw in the difference between the Mexican-food cultures of L.A. and Mexico City and how his perspective has shifted since living here.
“Being the capital, Mexico City is the most cosmopolitan, it’s where everything is happening. Because you find people from all over Mexico in the city, you find cuisines from all over Mexico in the city,” he said. “L.A. is similar that way, and there are more layers.”
Marin sees in Los Angeles the presence of traditions that represent the geographic extremes of Mexico, but also a seat of innovations. “You have cooking that so clearly reflects the many communities. But Mexican chefs are exposed to so many cultures here that they can also push boundaries, and both approaches are valuable. So we decided at Loreto: Let’s be playful and spicy and acidic, and throw in some Japanese influence and some Thai influence.”
The grafting is largely subtle, which I appreciate. It works most effectively in a dish that combines scallop ceviche and green papaya salad, in which Thai and chiltepin chiles crisscross flames. Tostadas dip into Japanese flavors: One is overlaid with sliced, blowtorched tuna spiked with soy and yuzu vinaigrette; another slips wasabi into the aioli that slicks scallops, uni and fennel. Make space on the table for a straightforward tostada mixta glossed with garlicky salsa negra.
My least favorite items on the dinner menu tend to incorporate seafood encased in nearly leather batter; on recent visits, they included fried rock shrimp on the “Bang Bang!” tostada and a bowed prawn folded into a taco busy with pineapple, mango and bacon-morita aioli.
I love the flamboyant torta stuffed with lobster meat, avocado, lettuce and confit tomato; a server will set down the plate and drown the bread in sauce that channels lobster bisque. The staff also will drop off filmy plastic gloves to wear while handling the delicious mess, but I’m happy enough to wrestle it barehanded.
If there are two or more of you, I’ll nudge you to share the pescado zarandeado. A branzino (or other fish; it can change daily) arrives butterflied, grilled and painted with red chile sauce tinged with Dijon and mayo; a spread of tortillas, avocado, salsas, beans and rice surrounds the centerpiece. The fish’s flavors and textures vary from sweet to smoky, crackly to lush. Speaking strictly on a pleasure scale, it falls in inspiration somewhere between the famous pescado zarandeado at Coni’Seafood in Inglewood, made with snook, and the even more famous pescado a la talla at Contramar in Mexico City. It is also Loreto’s marquee feat.
Loreto has an outdoor lunchtime addendum called Za Za Zá; the setup draws easy comparison to the Ditroit taqueria in the Arts District that operates during the day behind Damian, run by Mexico City’s Grupo Enrique Olvera. I’d say Za Za Zá is a significantly more relaxed situation. Order at a side window from a condensed menu — ceviches and a couple of other cooling seafood options, a yellowtail tostada, a torta that often features calamari and chorizo, a few other cheese- and chile-zapped snacks — and find somewhere to sit. A cool, shaded grove of trees most appeals to me, though there are tables with umbrellas on the restaurant’s patio.
The quiet garden backdrop is another departure for Marin, though, like LA Cha Cha Chá, the atmosphere encourages lingering. With a limey, Clamato-laced michelada and a goblet full of sharp aguachile negro on a sunny afternoon in Frogtown, my thoughts may turn to visiting Mexico City. I’m very sure, though, that I can be nowhere else but Los Angeles.
Loreto/Mariscos Za Za Zá
1991 Blake Ave., Los Angeles, loreto.la
Prices: Aguachiles and ceviches $16-$23, tostadas $13-$27, botanas $13-$42, family-style zarandeados $51-$75
Details: Loreto (dinner only) 5-9:45 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5-9 p.m. Sunday-Monday. Za Za Zá (lunch only) noon-3 p.m. Wednesday-Monday. Full bar. Street parking and dinnertime valet parking.
Recommended dishes: Loreto: aguachile negro, tostada mixta, torta ahogada with lobster, pescado zarandeado. Za Za Zá: yellowtail tostada, “mi gringa del mar” quesadilla
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