Cardboard cutouts of bunnies, decorated eggs, flowers and crosses dangle thickly from the ceiling of La Parrilla, reminding diners that Easter is on the way.
La Parrilla has long been a favorite spot for traditional Mexican food. Now, the crowds and cheer have returned to this cozy Boyle Heights restaurant, which reopened last fall after a kitchen fire closed it for months.
The timing is particularly good, because during the weeks of Lent La Parrilla serves Mexican Lenten dishes that are not available the rest of the year. And don't think deprivation: These are lush vegetarian and seafood dishes that don't contain any meat.
One of these is molcajete Mary Carmen, named for the owner, Mary Carmen Salas. A molcajete is a stone mortar that can double as a bowl. In this case, it holds a generous catch of seafood -- lobster, calamari, scallops and shrimp, as well as soft white panela cheese. Grilled nopal cactus lines the molcajete, and grilled green onions sit jauntily on top.
The mild guajillo chile salsa used on the molcajete goes beautifully with seafood, particularly calamari. La Parrilla ought to serve squid with this sauce all year.
Parrillada de mariscos (grilled seafood assortment) offers a greater variety of ingredients than the molcajete: cherrystone clams, mussels, a fish filet, crab, scallops, shrimp and a whole lobster, along with potato slices that are so sweet and tender they hold their own with all the seafood. Everything arrives, fully cooked, on a grill box with enough live coals inside to keep it hot. There's no salsa, just melted butter on the grill and lemon wedges on the side.
These dishes aren't on the printed menu, so a little warning about their prices: The molcajete is $39.95, and the parrillada de mariscos is $59.95. Each serves two generously.
Another Lenten item is red snapper criolla, marinated with lemon juice and garlic and sauteed with red bell peppers. It's a dish from Acapulco, chef Juanita Pano's hometown.
Tortitas de camaron, fritters of pungent dried shrimp, are traditional all over Mexico at this season. They soak in a bowl of ancho chile salsa.
In a shrimp "sandwich" called huarachito Tizoc, shrimp are enclosed in nopal slices covered with tomatillo salsa and melted Jack cheese. (During the rest of the year, La Parrilla offers a meat-filled huarachito, and meat molcajetes and parrilladas, for that matter.)
The must-have Lenten dessert is capirotada. Salas' sister, Maria Peraza, makes it for the restaurant each Friday until Easter. It's a sort of bread pudding, so moist that the bread almost dissolves. Along with mixed dried fruit, it contains peanuts, bananas, Jack cheese and cinnamon.
Excellent rice, beans and tortillas come with entrees. The charro beans, a house specialty, are whole beans in their broth with a trace of bacon and chorizo. The refried beans, in contrast, are cooked in vegetable oil, so they're meatless.
The tortillas are handmade to order with masa from a tortilleria down the street. It's a show as women shape the dough, press it with a wooden tortilla press and bake the tortillas right in the middle of the restaurant. The tortillas come to the table steaming hot in a pretty cloth napkin.
Next to the tortilla station is a cart quaint enough for a children's party. Rods painted in Easter pastels support the shelves and top. One shelf holds a bowl of Haas avocados destined for guacamole, mashed to order in a molcajete. It's like the guacamole you get way down in Mexico -- buttery soft, not chilled. Folded in a warm tortilla, it's so irresistible you could easily spoil your dinner.
Charmingly old-fashioned, the restaurant's walls are covered with memorabilia, plaques and little craft items from Mexico. Day and night, itinerant musicians wander in off the street, ready to serenade for a price. This makes La Parrilla, which opened in 1978, a terrific place to celebrate a birthday. One night brought two renditions of "Las Mananitas," the Mexican birthday song. The second was especially lively because the group added a rhythm section -- one of the cooks came out to beat time on the bottom of a saucepan.*
Location: 2126 Cesar E. Chavez Ave., Boyle Heights, (323) 262-3434.
Price: Appetizers $5.95 to $6.95, main dishes $6.95 to $31.95 (to $59.95 for Lenten dishes).
Best dishes: Molcajete Mary Carmen, parrillada de mariscos, huarachito Tizoc, guacamole, capirotada (Lent only).
Details: Open daily 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Beer and wine. Parking lot behind the restaurant. Major credit cards.