There was a lot of speculation about what would become of the space formerly known as Playa on Beverly Boulevard when the restaurant closed earlier in March. About a week and a half ago, restaurant partners Bill Chait and chef Walter Manzke -- with assists from food blogger Bill Esparza and chef Guillermo "Oso" Campos Moreno of Tacos Kokopelli in Baja -- began introducing Petty Cash Taqueria to select invitees. Last night, an email blast announced that the restaurant will open to walk-ins (and walk-ins only) tonight at 6 p.m.
The quick notice befits what has been a whirlwind process from the beginning. Manzke (Bastide, Church & State, the forthcoming Republique) was in the Philippines while plans for the taqueria were being finalized, overseeing a second restaurant opening there. "Right after I got back, we started installing the furniture, testing some recipes, and put everything -- the paint, the tables, the menu -- together in two weeks. It was so quick," Manzke said.
The taqueria may have been put together in a few short weeks, but for Manzke a seed for a restaurant like this started to form a while ago. He just didn't know at the time it would be for Petty Cash. "After I left Church & State, I worked for Rich Melman in Chicago. He helped me out with the concept as well. We had discussed a lot about it."
Manzke's ideas were revisited during a recent chat with Chait, who was asking him about the possibilities for the shuttered Playa. During the conversation, it became clear that his concept would be a good fit. Already busy with the opening of Republique and projects in the Philippines, Manzke nevertheless took the offer to be chef and partner in the new venture.
"I wanted to do a Mexican restaurant that is a little different from most. In the '80s, when I was growing up, Tijuana used to be a lot friendlier. When you were 19, you went down there and everybody watched out for each other. So there's a huge inspiration from that," says Manzke, who grew up in San Diego and developed an appreciation for Mexican food.
"Also with what's happening in Mexico now, it's just starting to get recognized, because everybody has been so afraid to go down there for so long. Mexican restaurants and younger people there are edgy and creative. The idea was to do something inspired by East L.A. and what's happening in Mexico now with the younger generation."
Esparza puts it this way: "We're of a similar age, so we remember the old Tijuana when all the college students and cholos used to go and get drunk on the Avenida Revolucion. It was [Manzke's] idea to bring that '80s Tijuana club music. We have 2 Live Crew on our sound system. You're not going to see that with Daniel Boulud."
Esparza has helped Manzke locate everything from ingredients to talent, including wild Sonoran chiltepin chiles, used in the aguachile en molcajete, and one of the best tortilla makers in L.A., a woman in Boyle Heights.
"If you're going to do fresh-to-order tortillas, you'll need someone who is fast and efficient and can consistently make the same sized tortilla. You don't want your orders to come with an oversized tortilla. This isn't something you can teach your line cooks to do. It's a repetition that starts from the youth. These women have been doing this since they were 8 or 9 years old," Esparza says.
It was Esparza who introduced Manzke to Oso, who in turn has become a key consultant at the restaurant. "Oso has a small trailer down in Tijuana. He's a young chef. He's very interested in L.A. and people in general. His style is influenced by his travels, which works very well for him. He takes influences from the outside and makes tacos out of it," Manzke says.
While Julian Cox developed the cocktail menu, Esparza curated a collection of agave-based spirits. "I've got a small tequila list right now. I'm more interested in being able to talk about them with people and recommend agave spirits like the way somebody recommends wine."
"We have a mezcal from Durango, which is just on the border of Chihuahua. It's a Northern mezcal. It's only 3,000 liters of production a year. All the mezcals in the U.S. are from Oaxaca and many of these are mezcals with foreign investors who have gone down and produced a product. So you don't really have a true artisanal production," Esparza says.
The name Petty Cash has several meanings -- most of which center on music. Manzke recalls, "I saw a band called The Petty Cash at the Key Club. I went there and loved the band. I always thought it would be a great name for a restaurant. I had the name saved, which fits this concept really well. I didn't want it to be too traditional. I certainly didn't think it should have a Mexican name. It's a name with a lot of meanings. I think that it fits musicwise. It also stands for Tom Petty and Johnny Cash, whose music I love."
"We're doing a beer bar created from the old wine cellar. It's only bottled beers and shots. There is no sink so you can't do any mixing there. The bar doesn't have a point-of-sales system, so it's cash only. That's also part of the name," Manzke adds.
The restaurant features an East L.A. landscape by grafitti artist RETNA, who is one of a few commissioned to provide art. Playa's private room has become a game room, complete with a shuffleboard table.
Manzke makes no attempt to present the restaurant as traditional. "I'm not Mexican, so I try to respect the tradition and do what I can with it."
Esparza views his approach in line with what's currently happening in Mexico. "All the elements are there. There's a bunch of cool new mezcal bars in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico city. They all have nice lists of mezcals and bar bites that are not necessarily traditional. If you go to an upscale, cool place, you'll find Mexicans know how to play with their cuisine and do interesting things with it. And so you have these bites that are not necessarily traditional, but they're 100% Mexican."
As for the pig ear nachos, Esparza says that "pig ear nachos are like the anti-nachos. Would you see something like that in a bar in Mexico City? It's an absolute possibility. I just see it like a really cool place in Mexico." For Angelenos whose first and perhaps most indelible memories of Manzke's cooking are not Bastide but Church & State, where the chef convinced many guests of the worthiness of pig's ears, the dish is utterly fitting.
The restaurant has a walk-ins only policy; no reservations will be accepted. Petty Cash will be open Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Thursdays through Saturdays, Petty Cash will be open from 6 p.m. to midnight.
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