By day, the food scene on Santa Fe Avenue below Seventh Street consists of just a few options: Bread Lounge and Stumptown, plus whatever food truck has decided to park itself on the bustling, well-traveled trucker stretch.
But at night, all is usually quiet on the Arts District’s southeastern front, with destination restaurant Bestia hiding down an alley and relatively few vehicles cutting through the street lights’ orange glow. Petty Cash Taqueria’s new downtown location does little to interrupt this pattern, instead hiding its loud, pop-art interior and attention-grabbing uni guacamole up some stairs and across the expansive multilevel ground floor of an old Heinz warehouse in what used to be home to a fine-dining restaurant called Fifty Seven.
The second iteration of République chef Walter Manzke and restaurateur Bill Chait’s “semi-authentic,” upscale-taqueria concept landed in the Arts District a few weeks ago, two years after the original opened in a prime storefront on busy Beverly Boulevard in the Fairfax district.
In the time between the two, diners have become more accustomed to seeing fancy tacos such as the grilled-octopus one Manzke serves in Mid-City. And many seem to embrace the coddled tortillas and thoughtful fillings, despite the fact that these tacos can cost as much as six times more than a street-bought version.
Still, building a larger Petty Cash this deep in the Arts District is a ballsy move, given that the warehouse-surrounded location is only a block away from La Reyna, which slings $1 tacos from a truck out front every night of the week, and a few more blocks away from Yxta, which all but started the Arts District’s Mexican food revolution, albeit with larger portions and more moderately priced options.
New-wave fancy tacos are already available to the downtown set thanks to chef Ray Garcia’s B.S. Taqueria, lauded since its April debut for imaginative tacos, including those filled with clam and lardo, lengua, and nopal.
Maybe some of this explains why on multiple nights since it opened, we found the new Petty Cash to be pretty empty, its two bars devoid of customers taking advantage of the Mexican craft beer on draft or the house specialty cocktail (a savory-spicy mezcal drink called Moustache Ride), and its multiple levels of tables occupied by only a few groups, each strategizing how to satiate their hunger given the restaurant’s small portions and high prices.
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This emptiness is a shame, because even though the menu is less expansive than at Mid-City, there are several interesting new items from chef de cuisine David Chavez that are unique to the downtown space. You will not find the Ceviche Negro, sea bass tossed in squid ink that has been a Petty Cash favorite. It is replaced with a soothing grilled scallop and coconut aguachile, tropical in sweetness, slippery in texture and spicy with chile oil.
There are also, for the first time, tostadas — including Dungeness crab and braised oxtail. And for sides, try the calabacitas, bite-sized pieces of McGrath Farms squash cooked to gum-touch softness and topped with crumbly Mexican cheese that melts in the crevices. At $4.50 for a bowl, it’s the cheapest thing on the menu.
Outside, in an alley to the building’s side, a massive brick-lined patio is already latticed with string lights, taunting you with space for tables and chairs, which will come later this year. When that happens (along with daytime operating hours — pretty please?), Petty Cash will have more of a chance to alter the energy on its chunk of Santa Fe. It's a place already creeping toward change, with new residential lofts, retail and creative spaces planned all the way down to 10th Street. First things first, though: $6 tacos.
712 S. Santa Fe Ave., Arts District; (213) 624-0210; pettycashtaqueria.com.