I'd been watching Zumaya's prepare for its opening for months while scooting down Melrose Avenue every day to and from work.
Through the window you could catch glimpses of chairs stacked, feet up, on tables one day, and down the next. Up, then down, indicating that people were sitting only some of the time, probably to test and taste.
The sign "Opening Soon," strung across its facade, remained forever, it seemed, like a trumpeting herald suspended in vertigo. How soon?
Well, now it is open, and I've been twice. For dinner and lunch. And if you are wondering why I did not give the place time to level off before reviewing it, don't worry. This place opened its doors to lights, camera, action. Or almost.
Except for cleaning up and an obligatory reupholstering job, the place was in move-in condition, thanks to its predecessor, the American Sampler restaurant, whose food probably surpassed anything Zumaya's could do in sophistication and elan, despite its untimely demise. I still dream about the Maryland chicken I had at the Sampler.
But I think Zumaya's will outlast its predecessor by a mile because the presences--mother and daughter--will make you want to return.
It may not exactly be the food that draws you, although on a scale of 1 to 10, Zumaya's rates a good 6 to 7.
Nor will it be the service, which, at these early stages of maturity, is understandably slow, plodding and a bit clumsy.
The hostesses, however, are warm and hospitable. The attractive daughter said she was a secretary at Universal Studios before venturing into the restaurant business with her mother, a caterer, whose maiden name, Zumaya, became the restaurant's namesake. "Zumaya is a small town in Spain where my mother's people came from, but we're American," she said.
"How was the beef?" asked Mom with a worried, furrowed brow.
"Tough," we said.
"Oh, God, I knew when I saw the high flame it meant trouble," she said. "We're still training our cooks, you know," she said, and offered a replacement, which we declined.
The food is Mexican although the logo says Latin, in keeping, I suppose, with the new trend toward things Latin. The food is basically traditional California-Mexican, familiar to Angelenos over the years. Nothing nouvelle to it at all, except perhaps for the few frills--contemporary menu style, charming pottery used for plates and service pieces and the salmon-pink satin bow ties worn by waiters (to match the decor). Nothing at all like the innovative, exciting stuff you see at other Latin/Mexican places up and down Melrose Avenue and beyond.
Which leads one to think that perhaps Mom and daughter are not precisely tuned in to the exciting culinary happenings elsewhere. Which is fine. Who needs to be jolted of your seat every time you eat out? Sometimes a nice, clean, friendly, familiar meal suits the palate and the mood just fine.
And that you will certainly get, in spades. For dinner, for instance (lunch has burritos and taquitos along with some of the dinner items), you can start with empanadas which I found OK, not sensational. The crust, I thought, could be more flavorful and tender. The plump chicken wings rolled in a spicy breading also had the look and reheated taste of a catered affair.
I tried the pollo caliente, which contained an excellent red hot chile sauce topped with nopales. The accompanying vegetable, squash (calabacitas on the menu), which is given as a choice with entrees, was superb.
Enchiladas rojas with its mild chile sauce and melted cheese topping was, like the other entrees, presented attractively with a molded glob of very good Spanish rice. The beans were fine, but needed more cooking--I think--and I'll bet they will be, the next time I visit.
The carne asada taco, double-wrapped with tortillas, is a good dish, if you get tender meat which, says the menu, is marinated in fresh lemon juice, soy sauce (a-ha), garlic and oregano and char-broiled over mesquite. It comes served with tiny pottery bowls filled with onion, sour cream and salsa to add on.
The salsa, by the way, which is complimentary with crudites (jicama, carrot and onion), is one of the best tasted.
The coffee, although quite good, contained cinnamon, which I, personally, would like to see exorcised from restaurant menus.
Zumaya's, 5722 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 464-0624. Open Monday through Thursday for lunch from 11:30 a.m . to 3 p.m.; dinner from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Open Friday for lunch and dinner from 5:30 p . m . to midnight; Saturday 5:30 p . m . to midnight. Closed Sunday. Cash only (working on credit card service). No reservations. Parking in rear and on street. Beer and wine available.