You know Cha Cha Cha? That cute, converted house restaurant standing at the beaten-down track around the Hollywood intersection where Virgil Avenue meets Melrose Avenue. The one the paparazzi gave 10 stars? Try to get a table at Cha Cha Cha at 10:30 p.m. You'll see.
Well, Cafe Mambo is the little sister that just opened down the block on Heliotrope Drive with the backing, blessing and bravado of customers who are loyal to Cha Cha Cha.
It, too, is a cute, converted house, and before we go on, I'll have to tell you that Cafe Mambo is open only for breakfast and lunch, and takes the spillover from Cha Cha Cha private party business during evenings. Worst of all, you may not get in. The place seats only 45.
Anyway, Cafe Mambo will have you mamboing to a tune you may not have ever heard but you'll find it exciting, if you are into Latin/Caribbean-style California nouvelle. This is abstract stuff. Improv. And you'll either like it or not. It's like looking at art.
I like it. In fact, I like it so much I wish other young restaurateurs would take a look at it to see how something as simple and inexpensively slapped together could fly.
What you'll find is imagination and a lot of careful detailing. There's not a hair out of place at Mambo any more than than there is at Cha Cha Cha, thanks to the meticulous eye of co-owner Mario Tamayo, a former hairdresser-artist who brings incredible charm and whimsy to the places he decorates. There is art by Allee Willis, the Detroit songwriter who did the Pointer Sisters' hit, "Neutron Dance" and has been dubbed priest of nuclear art. It's a cheerful little place, awash with pure bright sunlight each time we've been. Clean as a whistle, too. Walls are yellow and aqua, the plants are well-manicured, the napkins (paper) are bright yellow.
Tamayo's partner, Toribio Prado, a native of Michoacan on Mexico's east coast, is the presence at Mambo and brings honesty and imagination to the cooking.
Prado, by the way, was executive chef at the Ivy, a Westside hangout for the rich and famous with prices to match, before hitching up with Tamayo. Prado works days at Mambo and nights at Cha Cha Cha. Prado's wife, Elvira, takes over for lunch at Cha Cha Cha. A killer schedule but they're young. What Prado does at his Cafe Mambo is very much what he does at Cha Cha Cha--food that is rich with Mama's superb fresh cooking still ringing in his head, and a feel for what sells. And, for the value, cheap--cheaper even than Cha Cha Cha, which is already cheap. "There aren't too many places where you can have something for lunch under $10 and have something really good," he said. And he ain't kiddin'.
For breakfast one day I had Mambo Passion, a fruit bowl-soup with beautiful fresh, expensive fruit and berries swimming in a passion fruit base. I wanted to try the hot cakes and omelets and the huevos chorizos (scrambled eggs with chorizo and refried black beans) but settled for the Chilaquiles, which are eggs scrambled with tortillas and salsa and served with sausage, sour cream and a coarse-textured guacamole that brimmed with freshness.
I wanted to try the entire lunch menu, from salad to sandwich--and almost did. I missed a few things, such as the bouillabaisse, carbonara pasta , the ternera (thinly sliced veal) and Cajun kebabs, but did get to try a wonderful empanada appetizer with an unusually crispy cornmeal crust and potato and beef filling. I also had the fried eggplant wrapped around melted mozzarella and tomatoes. That was nice, too.
In the salad department--a real bargain considering the expensive ingredients, such as arugula, radicchio and excellent quality foods--there was a chunky curried chicken on the half shell (cantaloupe). However, I liked the seasoning better in the Mambo salad, which combines several salads (chunky chicken-grapes-walnut salad and a chunky tuna salad) on the plate with beets and arugula. Good dressing.
Among the lunch entrees I had chuletitas-- they're thin pork chops sauteed with coriander and served with sweet potatoes and smothered squash.
Prado likes sauces, and his dishes abound with all kinds, which, while exceptionally tasty, may be difficult to identify without help from the menu or the waiters. The waiters seem to be up on things and are even willing to ask the chef, who is willing to answer.
The honey and mustard chicken was sauteed with mustard seeds and cumin. The pork chops were marinated in oregano, basil and cilantro, the rice contained saffron.
Elegant gourmet sandwiches anyone? You'll get it when you order turkey pesto, a huge crisp toasted sandwich filled with sliced turkey, roasted sweet red peppers and pesto sauce, of all things. A beautiful lobster sandwich contained homemade garlicky mayonnaise. I didn't try the hamburger but I will. I will.
Cafe Mambo, 707 Heliotrope Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 663-5800. Closed Tuesdays; open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and weekends from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. American Express, Carte Blanche, Diner's Club accepted for now; more later. Minimum of $6 per person; automatic gratuity of 15% with parties of six or more only. Parking in back; street parking . Full meals from $5 to $10.