Despite its name, The Escondite -- "hideout" in Spanish -- isn't that hard to find. It sits on the southeast corner of S. San Pedro and Boyd Streets on the border between Little Tokyo and Skid Row. (Owners Erin Carnes and Brian Traynam call the location "Skidrowkyo.") What's tricky is that the restaurant is set back behind a spacious parking lot. And you must decipher the wordless signs. At the parking lot's corner, an illuminated plastic sign displays an image of The Escondite's logo -- a single eye peering through a rustic wood door. The building is marked by a blue neon arrow pointing to the entrance.
The Escondite, a bar serving burgers, sandwiches (called "sandos"), salads and appetizers, opened in September. It replaced 410 Boyd, a spot that drew local creative types. On one visit, a gathering of L.A. noir and crime writers had conversed in the dimly lit back room well past midnight. In a recent mystery novel by Denise Hamilton, crime-fighting reporter Eve Diamond snacks on calamari at "Boyd Street Grill." She had been there before with an illustrious L.A. Times colleague who then slipped into an alley to score drugs.
No calamari (or drug dealing) this time around. For appetizers, you'll find fries, cheese sticks, teriyaki steak tips, and "buffalo mushrooms" (a vegetarian spin on wings). Also fried pickles, which you may have tasted last at the County Fair. The namesake item is a roast beef sandwich, but grilled burgers are the specialty.
The menu includes ten, plus a daily special, available with beef, chicken or a black bean patty. "Our burgers are creative variations that accentuate great flavors," Carnes and Traynam say via email. One twist pairs bacon and pineapple with jalapenos and teriyaki sauce. Another smothers the burger with garlic mashed potatoes and gravy. A third mixes parmesan cheese, Caesar dressing, and croutons. Ingredients come from local businesses and farms; the bread arrives daily from a nearby bakery.
The burger names, inspired by the television shows the owners watched as kids, are as creative as the ingredients. The breakfast-themed burger (egg, hash browns, cheddar cheese, and bacon) is "Captain Kangaroo" after the children's series that ran mornings from 1955 to 1984. The "healthy burger" (provolone, romaine, tomato, avocado and sprouts) honors psychologist and advice columnist Dr. Joyce Brothers. The "Ricardo Montalban" is topped with refried beans and hot sauce while "Nacho Man Randy Sanchez" involves jerky, jalapenos, Doritos and nacho cheese. For those with simpler tastes, there's the "John Belu-cheese" highlighting, yes, blue cheese.
Cocktails feature seasonal ingredients. Nine beers are on tap with 15 bottled varieties. Beer aficionados may want to check out the Great Bottle Challenge every second Saturday at 2 p.m. (The next is Jan. 28.) Participants taste eight craft beers -- new brews as well as rarities -- and play a drinks-trivia game. Carnes and Traynam bestow the winning team with what they call "an awesome prize." The cost -- $35 this month, but it varies depending on the beers -- includes appetizers. Reservations are suggested.
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It may be a bar, but The Escondite seems kid-friendly with its comfortable booths and American West ambience. (Entry is restricted to 21 and up only after 10 p.m.) The owners say The Escondite "feels like a sanctuary in the woods." The decor includes antler light fixtures, a cuckoo clock, cow skull, stuffed white owl, and posters for "Western Outlaws." And an Addams Family pinball machine. There are few windows. But step onto the spacious patio (dog and smoker friendly), for a panoramic view of downtown's twinkly skyline.
Some may be intimidated by The Escondite's proximity to Skid Row. During the day, men and women push shopping carts and sometimes mumble to imaginary voices. After dark, sidewalk tent cities emerge. Carnes and Traynam know the area well. Both have lived and worked downtown for a number of years -- Carnes at Pete's Café and Bar and Traynam at Bar 107. (Both are within a half mile of the new venture.)
"If you're not a local and don't understand how the streets move and breathe, you may be turned off by our location," they say. Still, they emphasize that the local homeless population is not a problem. "For the most part...they want to sleep and have some peace."
The Escondite keeps long hours, from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day. (The kitchen closes at 1 a.m.) The owners say the place stays busy. Is it the beer? The burgers? Or something else. "To be successful," say Carnes and Traynam, "you need a wooden Indian at the end of the bar."