Lotería pulled a sneaky stunt, opening in Santa Monica without telling a soul. But how could the fifth location of this Mexican chain not open on the fifth day of the fifth month of the year, which, as you of course know, was Cinco de Mayo?
The official first day was to be May 14, but Jimmy Shaw, founder and executive chef of the Lotería! Grill Restaurant Group, had his heart set on celebrating May 5. So he opened for a few hours with a short menu, then closed the doors to get ready for this week's grand opening.
The new Lotería takes over a space on the Third Street Promenade formerly occupied by a Gaucho Grill. The lotería theme is everywhere, in enormous panels in the cantina and the main dining room and in a wall of illuminated niches holding painted wooden lotería figures. Shaw commissioned a Oaxacan artist to make these. They're in the style of the whimsical Oaxacan folk art figures called alebrijes.
In case you didn't know, lotería is a Mexican game similar to bingo, played with cards identified by colorful images. It's popular with all ages, but some of the images are not exactly kid stuff, like the topless mermaid, La Sirena, that looms over the dining room in Santa Monica.
Have the kids look the other way, though, and they'll see nothing but greenery through a wall of glass at the far end of the room. That's an infinity hedge that Shaw and designer Richy Altuna came up with, putting some greenery on the Lotería side of the alley that runs behind the restaurant. The rest lines the back of the adjacent Milken Institute.
The glass wall was one way to get light into the restaurant, which is "twice as long and half the width of the Hollywood location," Shaw said. The front end takes care of itself. It's open to the Promenade.
A counter where you can eat looks into the open kitchen. The cantina is separated from this area by a hall that's a little like an amusement park fun house. The display of lotería figures on one side faces a mirrored wall on the other, so you see them twice, with yourself in the middle.
Shaw was all over the place during a trial run this weekend, coaching cooks and servers and gathering critiques. He kibbitzed as one young cook spread out shredded cheeses on a grill to form a crisp circle that, folded into a cone, is Lotería's chicharrón de queso, served with tortillas and salsa verde.
This is on the standard menu for all Loterías. What's new in Santa Monica is incorporating into the regular menu the most popular specials from other locations. These include halibut or sea bass in morita sauce, mahi mahi in chipotle sauce and arrachera (steak).
Shaw says opening restaurants is fun and that he likes the training process. Evaluating opening day on Monday afternoon, he said, "We had a busy lunch and not too many hiccups. That's what you want on a first day."
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Read more from Barbara Hansen at www.EatMx.com, www.tableconversation.com, @foodandwinegal and Facebook.