Okay, right off the bat: Malo is not malo. It’s a decent, new, stylish Mexican restaurant that inhabits the former Cobalt Cantina in Silver Lake. Back during the ’80s restaurant boom, the building was originally Larry Nicola’s Martini Lounge; 20 years of neighborhood trends — stylistic, demographic, economic, culinary — could be traced in this large, handsome building, which is still neatly bifurcated into half long dining hall, half roomy bar. The place has now been redone by Steve Arroyo, of Cobras and Matadors and Hillmont fame. It’s low-key and whimsical, with a tastefully allusive pomo flair — just enough red flocked wallpaper, old-fashioned cast-iron candelabra and black tile to conjure a cinematic idea of a Tijuana bordello, but no hint of the reality’s squalor or venereal pall. Overhead, exposed ductwork — that vestigial ubiquitous design flourish of the ’80s — recedes with a thick coat of chocolate-brown paint. Oddities that could have been sprung from neighborhood junk stores — a pink hibiscus painting, two taxidermied mountain-goat heads — add sly humor. Smokers and other outdoor types will find a big patio overlooking the parking lot, where the valet charges a friendly $1.25 to keep your SUV or Subaru off the street.
The first flush of customers, on some nights, makes Malo seem like the new hip family coffee shop, what with babies and kids happily eating chips and tacos. As night deepens and bedtimes loom, the nostalgic ’80s techno rock gets a little louder, and in come child-free adults, dates, couples, gatherings of friends. Which is a good thing, because the menu is a taut, well-devised little list of small, shareable items by executive chef Robert Luna — although one night, Arroyo’s mother, Julie, was cooking in the kitchen. Whoever’s been back there, the food we eat has the hearty heft and flavor of good, home-cooked Mexican food. And in keeping with today’s small-dishes, share-everything, anti-starch, Atkins-friendly ethos, entrées come unaccompanied; beans, rice, guacamole and sautéed squash are offered as side dishes.
Filling up on chips and salsa is optional here — you have to order (and pay for) them. But the chips are fried to order — chewy, hot, irresistible. I recommend them with the burnt-habañero and crème fraîche salsa and an ample order of flagrantly fresh guacamole. Another great way to start a meal is with the juicy, citrus-soaked ceviches, which can be ordered in two sizes. The plain fish is light and refreshing; the mixta, with shrimp and bits of octopus, more texturally varied.
Soups tend to be meals unto themselves. The pozole is thick and gritty with ground chile and masa and full of hominy and chunks of chicken. Albondigas (meatball) soup is thinner, beefy, authentically salty and satisfying. I’d also make a whole dinner from the iceberg-and-grilled-steak salad; the long-marinated meat comes well-charred and sputtering on the lettuce, which is flecked with grated cheese and olive slices — it’s a tortilla-less, Zone-diet tostada.
Tacos “dorados” have a fried shell — that same delectable chewiness of the chips. The lobster tacos aren’t luscious or interesting enough to justify the price, whereas the ground-beef, potato and pickle tacos pack a surprising wallop thanks to the crisp, sour dill slices. Lavishly sauced cheese enchiladas, sprinkled with scallions and olives, provide big, sexy mouthfuls of soft, plumped tortilla and globby melted cheese. Almost as good and relatively starchless are the zucchini rellenos: cheese swaddled and stuffed; fried and sauced squash.
The grilled carne asada echoes the steak salad’s pleasures, only the larger portion of meat comes with cool sliced cucumbers. Pork, too, is a good bet here. The chile verde is strips of pork shoulder stewed in a mild, slightly and pleasantly sour sauce of green chiles and tomatillo. The pork chops are thin, big sheets of sizzling meat, all nice and mineraly near the bones; though the menu promises tomatillo salsa, ours comes sauced with a light, fresh, tasty but not too spicy chile-red sauce.
Only the $11 shrimp dishes, however tasty, seem skimpy and therefore overpriced: Six not-huge shrimp are cooked in either a creamy, mild habañero-based diablo sauce or in an excellent, garlicky mojo de ajo, and are served in their own small steel skillets accompanied only by tortillas. Sides, however, are big enough to share. Both the mashed refried beans and whole, plump “de la jola” pintos are excellent in their own way. And sautéed squash, always worth ordering, is on some nights the best thing we eat — juicy, a little crunchy, topped with cheese.
Desserts seem to be evolving. A big, too-fattening, too-sweet pineapple-ice-cream sundae in a fried shell appears to have vanished, replaced by various granitas and a buttery, raisin-rich bread pudding.
The service is friendly but occasionally stretched — the neighborhood and restaurant are still finding out about each other. But Malo, with easy parking and affordable, satisfying food, is well on its way to becoming a local standby. Not malo, not malo at all.
Malo, 4326 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake, (323) 664-1011. Dinner Mon.–Thurs., 6 p.m.–midnight; Fri.–Sat., 6 p.m.–2 a.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.–10 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, MC, V. Entrées, à la carte, $7–$14.