A semi-wrecked downtown neighborhood: What a great place for an artists' hangout! You didn't think artists seek beauty, did you? No way. Loneliness and desolation, symbolizing the need to create and communicate, that's the ticket. And if that works out to a neighborhood which is next to the last place on earth where ordinary people would look for a restaurant after dark, well, a little privacy is not to be sneezed at either.
Cocola, located at the scarcely famous corner of San Pedro and Boyd, is partly owned by Angus Chamberlain, son of the well-known artist John Chamberlain, whose metal sculpture behind the bar elegantly suggests all the cars on the Harbor Freeway compacted together. It draws an energetic, talkative Bohemian crowd who cluster around the bar till closing time.
It's fun, but restaurant-wise, a flourishing bar tends to mean a slighted kitchen, and Bohemian restaurants do not have the most distinguished tradition to start with. The ones I've known over the years ran to half-baked eclecticism, when they didn't specialize in carrot cake, brownies and stuff with sprouts.
Cocola, however, is better than the tradition. Of course it can't hurt to be just a couple of blocks from the downtown produce markets--the mushrooms in particular always seem remarkably fresh--but there are also some unusual and good ideas here. The roast chicken has an elusive apple-like sweet flavor that might be some exotic sort of soy. One day the pasta was thick fettuccine with a simple, inspired sauce of sweet cream and raw chunks of red and yellow bell pepper, full of fresh aromas and a refreshing bittersweetness.
Mostly, though, the menu features surprisingly conventional American food. Meat is grilled rather plain, for instance. Such foreign touches as exist are the tacos--great grilled chicken tacos, pretty good lobster tacos--and unusually good corn chips (the salsa, though, is as watery as tomato juice). And the grilled lamb chops, flavored with garlic and rosemary, might be considered a bit Greek.
One of the best things here is the all-American fries, the kind you despair of finding at a restaurant: fresh, just browned, full of potato flavor. The ribs are also a home-style version, not even pretending to be barbecued, just baked until soft and tender and served with a mildly hot sauce sweetened with honey. Indeed, the American sweet tooth is well catered to. The "5 Alarm Chili," which in fact is nowhere near hot enough to send alarms, reflects a chili-making subculture that always has at least one representative at any sizable chili contest. It's a meaty, soupy concoction of braised beef cut small and, like the barbecue sauce, rather sweet.
On the other hand, Cocola can screw up a national specialty like the hamburger. Even if you hold with the idea of a cake-textured bun that falls apart when you touch it, it's hard to justify a burger that came with a dried-out slice of red onion and a frazzled-looking slice of tomato of the same vintage as the onion.
At dessert time, the selection is rather narrow, but there's a good chocolate-chocolate cake; for once it doesn't boast of being midnight, blackout or death by chocolate; it's just a good old-fashioned American devil's food cake. The cheesecake, mounted on a graham crust, is said to be flavored with Irish whiskey, but I suggest the effect they want is Irish coffee; it tastes like espresso with Irish in it, a sort of candy on a graham crust. And being so near the Produce Market, they can get good fresh fruit for the fruit tray dessert that is always sliced just before serving.
Now if they could only guarantee to do the same with the onion and tomato that come with the hamburger.
Cocola, 410 Boyd St., L.A. (213) 680-0756. Open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday, for dinner Tuesday through Sunday; Sunday brunch. Full bar. Parking in lot. American Express accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $10 to $45.