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Tasting Menu: Mas Malo

A sequel to the Silver Lake eatery offers bright salsas and straightforward Mexican fare in a noisy setting.

January 21, 2011|S. Irene Virbila, Los Angeles Times Restaurant Critic
  • Coca-Cola marinated carnitas drowned in arbol chile at Mas Malo in downtown Los Angeles.
Coca-Cola marinated carnitas drowned in arbol chile at Mas Malo in downtown… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

When friends and I walked into the new Mas Malo last weekend, we weren't prepared for the gorgeousness — or the sheer size — of the space. The marble floor and ornate cream-colored ceiling with its curlicues in relief seemed to stretch the length of a football field, with a staircase and a mezzanine at the far end (with its own bar). Burnished hardwood lined the walls.

"Is this, was this...," one of my guests searched for the word, "Rex?" — referring to the late great Rex, which was set in a glamorous old haberdashery on Olive Street. No, it isn't. But it turns out the address was once a fancy jewelry store in the '20s.

A host leads us to our table near the bar, where people are four deep trying to get a drink and other people seem to know the drill and head directly downstairs to the canteen furnished with basket chairs and more than 300 tequilas and a couple of dozen mescals.

Our server has to bend low to hear and be heard. Poor guy: He must be hoarse by the end of the night because this, I am quite sure, is the loudest restaurant in L.A. "It's the tequila," my guest volunteers. "When people drink tequila, they get loud." Oh, maybe that's why that table of six all had their phones out: They were texting one another across the table. I finish my organic Margarita made with agave nectar and lime juice, the least-sweet margarita in house, according to our waiter. Another?

As for Mas Malo's menu, it's affordable and familiar, especially so if you frequent the original Malo in Silver Lake. Flavors in a flight of five salsas are clean and bright. But couldn't the kitchen manage freshly fried chips instead of these ordinary ones? Chef Robert Luna gives his Tijuana Caesar a twist with pepitas, jalapenos and crumbled cotija cheese: nice. He turns carne asada into a salad too. For the truly hungry, there are large-scale tortas (sandwiches), including goat barbacoa and carnitas marinated in Coca-Cola. (It helps to tenderize the meat.) Pollo Yucateca, grilled chicken marinated in achiote and citrus, is one of the lighter main course choices, along with the smoky Oaxacan shrimp in a chile and cream sauce. Soon the table is littered in the warm tortillas' aluminum foil wrappers.

The kitchen gets the straightforward Mexican fare out, I have to say. But the noise is so intense, it shuts down your senses, making it hard to enjoy the food. As it gets later (on weekends Mas Malo stays open till midnight), more and more people file in hoping to make the scene, a delirious downtown L.A. melting pot.

Night time in the big city.

irene.virbila@latimes.com

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