View more photos of these dishes in the Loteria slideshow.
It is easy enough to find chicharrones de pollo in Los Angeles, bits of chicken fried until they resemble the emblematic fried pigskin. Chicharrones of fish, rabbit and squid are fairly common too. It’s understandable — everything wants to be fried pork. But it wasn’t until I visited Lotería Grill, the handsome new Mexican restaurant in Hollywood’s nightclub district, that I got my first taste of chicharron de queso, a Mexico City-style dish of grated cheese sizzled on a flattop until it becomes a mass as broad and as thin as a proper Indian dosa, glossy as a phonograph record and as crunchy as a chicharron.
At Lotería the chicharron de queso is creased into the shape of a folded manila envelope while it is still pliable and it is rushed to the table before it stiffens completely. The obvious antecedent of the dish is frico, the northern-Italian cheese crisp traditionally made with Montasio cheese from Friuli, but chicharron de queso is a homelier snack. You know the bits stuck to the pan after you’ve made a grilled-cheese sandwich? It’s like that, only maybe a little less burnt, and you don’t have to chisel it off the griddle with a spatula.
You tear off a scrap, crumble it into orange shards, and pile them onto a hot, freshly made tortilla, finally completing the taco with a spoonful of guacamole and a few drops of smoky salsa. Frico usually comes across as an elegant hors d’oeuvre, something to nibble with a glass of Prosecco. Chicharron de queso is more primal, a guilty, over-the-sink pleasure turned into public ritual, ideally consummated with a shot or two of tequila, mescal — or a michelada, a concoction of fresh lime juice, ice cubes and frosty-cold beer that is a specialty at Lotería. (The micheladas are great, nothing like the canned micheladas you find next to the energy drinks at interstate gas stations, especially not like the canned micheladas made with Clamato.) If you’re a thrill-seeker, you can try the variation of michelada popular in Mexico City, seasoned with umami-rich dashes of Tapatio hot sauce, worcestershire and Maggi seasoning in addition to the lime juice, a combination that smells a bit like a barnyard but has a shimmering depth of flavor you would never expect from a marriage of commercial condiments.
In just the last few months, the number of sleek, date-night Mexican restaurants has almost doubled in Los Angeles, but the Lotería Grill seems as if it has been in its space forever, a spare, modern dining room levered into a storefront between the Geisha House and Mood, a soaring space decorated with a vast display of tequila bottles and replicas of game cards from the Mexican gambling game lotería. The restaurant has a huge tequila selection and a first-rate nopales salad, a rotating selection of aguas frescas (try the cucumber), great chilaquiles and huevos rancheros at breakfast, and an array of soups, enchiladas and stewed meats. Chef Jimmy Shaw may look more like the proprietor of an Irish bar than like a Mexican-restaurant czar, but despite his name and ruddy presence he is a born-and-bred chilango, Mexico City native, and he is a longtime student of Mexican-food doyenne Diana Kennedy, whose books on regional Mexican cooking are still the best available in English.
Shaw’s original Lotería in the Farmers Market on Third at Fairfax was the hippest Mexican restaurant in town since it opened several years ago, but I was never a huge fan. My favorite trucks, stands and birria wagons sell rustic, regional, highly flavored snacks that all but kick you in the chest with char, grease and heat. The Lotería stall, correct as it is, represents the polite side of Mexican cooking, tacos and sopes based not on fried pork or grilled beef but on carefully made meat stews and concoctions like zucchini with corn or potatoes with roasted chiles. Since the week that it opened, that Lotería has been a place where you take out-of-town visitors who may not quite be up to the ruder pleasures of the Mercadito or the Grand Central Market, the counter where you end up with your great-aunt when you just can’t face another half-stack at DuPar’s.
And to be honest, the cooking at the Hollywood Lotería may be least compelling where it coincides with the basic Farmers Market roster of antojitos — the tortillas are first-rate, the chile salsas are novel and fresh, and the provenance of the meat is far better than you’d find anywhere on East Olympic, but for the most part the tacos and the sopes don’t quite sing. Whatever might be the taquero’s equivalent of Chinese wok hay, the breath of fire that fades quickly as dawn’s last dream, the energy doesn’t always make it out to the table. (The best of the tacos tend to be the ones stuffed with cool grilled cactus and crumbled cheese or mushrooms flavored with the pungent Mexican herb epazote, things meant to be served at room temperature to begin with.) Tacos of chicken tinga, cochinita pibil and bouncy little albondigas never stand a chance — although one day’s special of lengua, stewed cow’s tongue splashed with green sauce, was one of the best tacos I’ve ever tasted.
Still, while there is overlap between the menus, there is a level of refinement in the cooking in Hollywood that is lacking at the Farmers Market stand, and definitely more pleasure — a luscious snapper Veracruzana, a nicely funky bowl of pozole, a plate of enchiladas in tomatillo salsa that can make you question what you might have seen in enchiladas across town. Lotería Grill is one of the few restaurants in the city to prepare the “dry soup” called fideo, a staple of Mexican home cooking, thin noodles browned in oil and then simmered like paella until they absorb all the tomato-laden broth, and the platter-size queso fundido transcends its origin as a simple plate of melted cheese. The soft, slow-cooked carnitas in a smoky, sharp sauce made with chile morita, a smoked jalapeño pepper that is the more aggressive little brother of the chipotle, is somehow sweeter, more luscious served as a dinner platter than as the filling of a taco, although I’m sure the two come from the same pot. And if you’re going to eat eggs, try the version of huevos rancheros, sluiced with the morita salsa and served on hot fried tortillas.
Desserts are skippable at even the best Mexican restaurants, but Shaw’s Mexican-style ice creams are extraordinary, and you would be foolish not to try the example studded with the sweet, curdled-milk cheese known as chongos. It’s delicious, it’s unique, and after your third tequila, the word “chongos” seems like the funniest thing in the world.
Open Sun.-Wed., 9 a.m.-mid.; Thurs.-Sat., 9 a.m.-3 a.m. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $24-$50. Recommended dishes: chicharron de queso; sopa seca de fideos; carnitas en salsa morita; helado de chongo.