Cha Cha Cha, 656 N. Virgil (at Melrose), Los Angeles, (213) 664-7723. Open for lunch, Monday-Saturday; open for dinner nightly. Valet parking. No liquor. "We accept American Express and American cash." Lunch or dinner for two, $20-$40. It's another night at Cha Cha Cha. People who are shocked to find themselves in this part of town are crowding through the door, looking around the baby blue room at the homage to Carmen Miranda on one wall, the banana painting on the other and saying to one another, "Don't you just love it?" They are congratulating each other (and themselves) for having discovered the hottest place in L.A. before it was ruined, snapping their fingers to the music, looking around to see who's here. "Isn't that Leon Redbone?" says one. Another looks up and says, "Oh, there's what's his name, you know, the one from 'Lou Grant.' " And all this before they even taste the food.
"Growing up in Colombia," says owner Mario Tamayo, "dinners were always like little parties. I wanted to re-create that." Has he ever! There is an electricity at Cha Cha Cha, a current that zaps you as you walk through the door. The room is charged with fun; the blahs are banished. Is everybody happy? You bet they are.
And when the food comes they get even happier. "I realized," says Tamayo, "that while we had places like Versailles and El Colmao here in L.A., they were Old World. The food was not visual, fresh, beautifully presented. I wanted to serve dishes that were not just Latin food for Latin people." And so when he looked around for a partner, he found Toribio Prado, former chef at the Ivy. Together they have created a menu that is part Cuban, part Colombian, part Puerto Rican, part Mexican--with a little bit of Cajun thrown in. What all this adds up to is something rather wonderful.
It took exactly one bite of the first dish to make my friends start begging me not to review the restaurant until they had eaten their way through the entire menu. "I've never tasted anything quite like this," said one, as she tried to identify the ingredients in something called "sopas de pollo" (a misprint, admits Tamayo; it should read sopes ) . Little cornmeal cups held cubes of chicken, black beans, minced tomatoes, cilantro, onions, sauteed peppers. The flavors were fresh and distinct. She took another bite, started counting the seats in the small room and said, "Once this place gets reviewed, we'll never be able to get in again. And I want to taste everything."
Tasting everything, the dishes just get better and better. Once you have noticed how small the shrimp cocktail is (two big shrimps cut in half, served on a half avocado and garnished with cilantro, onions and chiles), you also become aware that it is a dish you could easily eat a great deal of. The Latin pizza is remarkable for its beauty; it comes covered with a veritable cornucopia of snow peas, tomatoes, peppers, onions . . . you can't help thinking what a lovely hat it would make. But it is also wonderful to eat, a bit like hot salad on a crust. The fine thin crust shows up again on the empanada (beef or chicken), a prosperous-looking turnover filled with meat and cheese and lots of vegetables and looking for all the world like a Latin calzone.
"You just don't expect food that looks like this on the wrong end of Melrose," said another friend as a salad of tomatoes and basil was set before her. The bright red tomatoes were set into a cup of dark pink radicchio, the basil sprinkled about like confetti. The green salad was dotted with a whole gardenful of greens and with each bite there was a different herbal shock.
My friends all liked the restaurant so well they wanted to keep it for themselves; they began searching for mean things to say. "The service is so slow," said one. It is slow, and no wonder. The waiter is busy entertaining the crowd. "The last place I worked," he told us one night, "the employee manual instructed us to tell people who asked if there was a dress code that they could wear anything they wanted to as long as it was fashionable ." When he is not telling jokes, he is very busy giving a performance that explains every dish on the menu.