When a beloved 60-year-old neighborhood Mexican restaurant closes its doors, the standard reaction among locals is to irrationally hate on whatever opens in its place. But what if the thing that comes next is an honest revival of said establishment, a younger and fresher version of the original?
Such is the case with El Chavo, which reopened in early January as a modern pop-up collaboration between Ceviche Project chef Octavio Olivas, Scarpetta chef Freddy Vargas and Cocktail Academy founder Brandyn Tepper. In the six months before the building's new owner plans to tear down the landmark Spanish-style structure, Olivas, Vargas and Tepper are set on bringing new life to what was in some ways a very tired space.
“It was a little bit neglected in terms of the decor and cleaning.” explains Olivas, who arrives every night dressed sharply in a Cuban-style suit. He mentions having taken down dusty old pinatas and plastic garlic that had been dangling from the ceiling since what appeared to be the dawn of time. “We wanted to make it more relevant, younger for this area, a little bit more hip.”
“Hip” in this case doesn't necessarily equate to expensive. Beers are $3 during happy hour, while cocktails, "tinga" chicken wings and quesadillas go for $5 each. And “relevant” translates to a locally sourced ceviche bar that serves lime-tossed raw seafood in eye-catching vessels. By "younger" Olivas could be referring to the section of the complex that includes an enclosed outdoor area, which soon will house bocce ball courts for day drinkers.
Despite the playful vibe, the menu leans toward sophistication. Behind the bar, tequila gets infused with jalepeño, shaken with lime, celery and yellow chartreuse, then garnished with sea salt. The result is a spicy yet balanced tropical cocktail that's refreshing enough to immediately consider a second round. The Puesta de Sol mixes smokey mezcal with pineapple, lime, ginger, Aperol, bitters and soda. Take a sip and suddenly you’re on a beach in Tulum.
The fantasy continues when you look up from your drink to see Olivas standing inside a tiki hut tossing fresh yellowtail with crispy corn, jicama, carrots, pineapple and jalepeño. He serves his ceviche in a fresh young coconut, topped with bright purple borage flowers and a side of fried plantains. He hands you a spoon and reminds you to scoop the flesh from the coconut with every bite. Peruvian scallops come served in a half-shell topped with sea urchin, pomegranate, serrano chile, lava salt, tangerine and micro-cilantro.
Though the cocktails and ceviche might remind you of a tropical vacation, there is heartier fare, too. Smoked short-rib tacos aren’t the most tender in town, but the toothsome meat lends a street-taco edge when paired with arbol chili salsa and thinly sliced radish. Arroz con pato (duck with rice) consists of plump confit duck leg that falls off the bone onto a pile of rice topped with black beans, cherry tomatoes and pico de gallo.
For dessert, there are cinnamon-chile churros served with a side of Baja chocolate sauce, or ancho chile-dusted dona de chocolate (chocolate donuts) filled with molten dark chocolate that oozes into a pool of guava syrup.
Despite being home to the neighborhood's most ambitious Latin-inspired menu, the new El Chavo is still wrestling with its past.
“You’ve got people who’ve been coming here for 27 years that are reluctant to change, and they don’t like it,” Olivas says. "Some people, they see the menu that's not the same and they leave." But some changes have been met with enthusiasm. The black paper that for decades covered the windows looking out onto Sunset Boulevard has been taken down, allowing diners to watch the sunset. The back half of the restaurant has been painted a clean white juxtaposed against a pink neon "Ceviche Bar" sign. For a space that could well have been shuttered and demolished with little fanfare, the new proprietors of El Chavo are determined to wring the last bits of fun out of the historic restaurant.
When asked if there's any chance the pop-up will last longer than six months, when the building is scheduled for teardown, Olivas looks optimistic.
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“It depends on the landlord and what plans he has. An ideal scenario would be that we do so well that he decides, 'OK, you guys can take over.'"
El Chavo, 4441 Sunset Blvd., Los Feliz; (323) 664-0871, elchavorestaurant.com.