Let's be honest: It's hard to get behind a purveyor of fancy tacos. This seeming contradiction goes against so many of tacos' sacred truths — that they are cheap; that the best of them generally is made in modest circumstances; that there rarely, if ever, has been a taco that benefited from a voguish setting or hipster soundtrack. If your taco epiphanies happened anywhere other than on the street, or in a shack somewhere, you're having the wrong epiphanies. Or so the accepted wisdom goes.
In L.A., this is even more true, given the wealth of accessible, varied, cheap tacos on sale across the city. Thankfully, the scourge of fancy tacos has been less prevalent here than in other parts of the country, where people love fancy tacos. We know better because we can afford to know better.
So what to make of Petty Cash, the undeniably upscale new taqueria in West Hollywood? Helmed by chef Walter Manzke and restaurateur Bill Chait, Petty Cash takes the city's most iconic food and turns it relentlessly trendy. It takes tacos and pairs them with $13 cocktails, takes graffiti and commandeers it as high-design restaurant art, takes guacamole and covers it in the most faddish ingredient possible — uni — and then gives it an obnoxiously cutesy moniker (thebomb.com). If you worship at the church of street food, you ought to hate this place.
Yet it's hard to argue with that guacamole-and-uni combination, hard to argue with this colorful, boisterous room, and damn hard to argue with Petty Cash's mezcal old-fashioned, a cocktail that pairs uncommonly well with tacos, and which you certainly won't find on any street corner anytime soon.
The truth is that Petty Cash works. It works partly because of its components, and partly in spite of them.
In many ways this is a side project for Manzke, a chef better known for high-end, French-influenced cooking. At Patina, at Bastide, and then as chef at Church and State, Manzke has proven himself over and over as one of the city's major talents. His coming restaurant, Republique, in the old Campanile space (also in partnership with Chait), is likely to trade in more of what we might expect from his pedigree.
As for Chait, he was looking to fill the space left empty when Playa, John Sedlar's playful Latin restaurant, closed in March. Petty Cash came together quickly, but it's obvious quite a bit of care was taken to calibrate its style and menu.
The food is a mix of traditional recipes/combinations and Manzke's originality, as well as food inspired by his San Diego childhood. Manzke paints the place as an homage to the Mexican cooks he's worked with over the years, and the food they've brought into his life. Tijuana chef Guillermo Oso Campos was brought in to consult on the menu, and food writer Bill Esparza also has been instrumental, curating the restaurant's mezcal program and lending advice and expertise. For all its trendiness, Petty Cash has a lot of thoughtful underpinnings, and that thoughtfulness raises it above any other fancy taco joint I can think of.
So yes, there's sea urchin in the guacamole, which also comes with a cone of chicharrones, which arrives at the table still crackling. The uni and avocado have an odd textural effect on one another, like rubbing velvet against itself, but the lush, briny aftertaste of the urchin is somewhat miraculous.
Tacos cost as much as $6.50. How you feel about that will depend very much on how coddled you want your tacos to be, because these suckers are made with a ton of care. Tortillas are handmade and grilled to order by people who know how — Manzke has hired local Mexican women "who have been taught by their mothers and grandmothers." The resulting tortillas are small, sweet and lightly musky. Each taco filling has its own, thoughtfully calibrated accompaniments; tacos arrive at the table like diminutive sculptures wrought from pig (or cow, or sea creature), masa and bright toppings. The charcoal-grilled octopus, for example, comes bathed in chile de arbol and topped with peanuts, jack cheese and avocado.
In the quality of ingredients and level of ambition, many of these tacos are sufficiently different from their street counterparts that comparisons are a little pointless. If one is better than the other, it's generally for wildly incongruous reasons.
The Baja fish taco may be the one exception. Made with beer-battered mahimahi, it comes with the traditional pico de gallo and shredded cabbage, and is very, very good. Is it as good as the celebrated versions sold a few miles away from street kitchens, which cost half as much? No, it's not. But looking at it that way may be a waste of time. It certainly feels that way when you're biting into a woodsy, smoky grilled maitake mushroom taco with baby spinach and pepitas, a wonder unto itself, and wholly different from anything in town.
Much has been made of Manzke's pig's ear nachos, which come with a soft egg in the center. The result is texturally interesting: the crisp, chewy strips of pig ears against the viscosity of the egg and the crunch of the chips. It didn't hold my interest past a few bites, but I can see the appeal.
More stunning is the ceviche negro, a take on ceviche that's both ballsy and brilliant. White sea bass is saturated in squid ink, with enough peach to give it a light sweetness. Chile de arbol is added for kick, and peanuts for crunch. Like much on the menu, the dish was inspired by similar dishes Manzke has eaten in Tijuana and Baja. He has, he says, tried to stay true to the traditions and soul of Mexico.
The menu's centerpiece, both literally and figuratively, is the aguachile en molcajete, which takes the traditional "chili-water" raw seafood preparation and gives it an almost ludicrously upscale spin in the form of luxury seafood ingredients. Presented in the Mexican stone mortar called a molcajete and bathed in house-made Clamato and wild Sonoran chiles, the seafood choices include clams, octopus, sea urchin and live Santa Barbara prawns. You choose three ingredients, or "the whole F'n ocean," which will cost you a breathtaking $65 (the three-ingredient version costs $23 to $38, depending upon your choices). It's a treat of royal proportions to have seafood this superior served in this manner. Yet the decadence of the thing is a little silly, and I'm not convinced either Peruvian bay scallops or fresh shelled oysters are best served in this manner.
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The mostly tequila- and mezcal-based cocktail list is as varied as it is successful. Drinks guru Julian Cox presents outrageous concoctions like the Brixton — gin, poblano sorbet, habanero, lime and flaming green chartreuse — alongside simple twists on classics, like the aforementioned (and delightful) Oaxacan old-fashioned. There's a short, smart beer selection, and house wine — white, red or sparkling.
Devising upscale street food is a transformation rife with sticky issues: economic, cultural, emotional, maybe even racial. In the end, the only way to judge a restaurant is to ask how well it's doing what it's trying to do. Petty Cash is aiming for a middle ground, somewhere between tradition and creativity, with all the trappings and fun of an of-the-moment Hollywood restaurant. In that regard, the place has succeeded mightily. And if that sounds like sacrilege to you, well, you're in luck. Because there are plenty of less fraught tacos to be had elsewhere.
PETTY CASH TAQUERIA | Three stars | 7360 Beverly Blvd. | (323) 933-5300 | pettycashtaqueria.com | Mon.-Wed., 6-11 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 6 p.m.-mid.; Sun., 6-10 p.m. | Tacos, appetizers, salads & ceviches $5-$17 | Walk-in only (reservations taken for parties of 8 or more; prix fixe menu required for large party reservations) | Full bar | Valet and street parking