It wasn't so long ago that the idea of having a quick bite before a show at the Music Center or the Walt Disney Concert Hall meant eating a protein bar while you circled for a parking spot.

Ladies and gentlemen, that is no way to start an evening. We recently happened upon Casa Cocina y Cantina, a stylish, indoor/outdoor outlet for modern Mexican cuisine. Located in a courtyard beneath Two California Plaza (plug 350 Grand Ave. into your GPS), it's a hop and a skip, even in heels, from Disney Hall and the Music Center.

Executive chef Alex Moreno knows a thing or two about pre-performance food: The native Angeleno cooked on the road for Van Halen, Nelly and Destiny's Child. That may be why most of his menu skips the gut-busting beans and dense cheese that define so much of Mexican food. At last, Mexican food with no regrets.

Instead, Moreno uses lower-fat meats and seasonal produce to create lighter versions of taqueria classics. The “turduckenizo” albondigas roll chorizo-spiced turkey, duck and chicken into bite-size meatballs that are braised in a chile-spiked, fire-roasted tomato sauce. Several dishes include sides of greens or emphasize farmer's market fruit and vegetables. An assortment of chunky wild mushrooms fills a homemade corn tortilla to create a hearty quesadilla that should satisfy vegetarians and omnivores alike.

short rib "birria" at Casa Cocina y Cantina; Credit: Valli Herman

short rib “birria” at Casa Cocina y Cantina; Credit: Valli Herman

Most small plates are $10 or less, including mini-corn tamales and an assortment of tacos (choose from Yucatan-style chicken, carne asada, beer-batter-fried tilapia and the Asian-style fried shrimp). We're heading back for another taste of 'Jaime's chicken burrito' just so we can sop up more of the four side sauces, including the housemade crema and the habanero green chile salsa.

A 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. weekday happy hour offers food for $6 to $8, and premium cocktails for $8, a deal that should take the edge off of the usual pre-show ritual — an hour of stop-and-go driving.

Casa Cocina y Cantina: 350 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 621-2249.

LA Weekly