When it comes to holidays with exciting food, Halloween is low on the list. Most restaurants celebrate the day with sugary cocktails and uninspired “spooky” dishes.
Luckily, this is L.A. — and for every gimmicky Halloween special, there's a much cooler Dia de los Muertos one. A three-day-long celebration most often observed on Nov. 1, Dia de Los Muertos is a traditional Mexican holiday that honors the dead with stories, song, dance, food, drink and, of course, those altars (on which offerings of pan de muerto, marigolds and mezcal are placed).
While you can properly celebrate Day of the Dead at any number of festivals around town, some of L.A.'s Mexican restaurants are rolling out special menus and getting ready to honor those who've gone before us. Here are a few places to eat and drink in honor of the dead.
So what if it's happening a few days early? On Friday, gourmet tacos and calavera face-painting descend on Roy Choi's Koreatown restaurant POT. Chef Alex Stupak (of New York City's Empellón Taqueria) and co-author Jordana Rothman picked a good weekend to be in L.A. promoting their book Tacos: Recipes and Provocations. Choi is letting Stupak prepare his famous fish, pastrami and blood-sausage tacos, as well as classic carnitas plates and chocolate tacos (which are not to be confused with ChocoTacos). Radio Sombra's Heartbreak Radio will be spinning sweet, sad love songs, and you can get your face painted like a Dia de los Muertos sugar skull from 6 to 10 p.m. Fri., Oct. 30; 3515 Wilshire Blvd., Koreatown. (213) 368-3030; eatatpot.com.
El Dia de los Muertos is the favorite holiday of chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, so it only makes sense that their Mexican restaurant, Border Grill, would be going big for the day. At both the original downtown location and the newer Border Grill in Santa Monica, Sunday's so-called Brunching Dead (11 a.m.-3 p.m.) party includes endless small plates, a taco-and-chilaquiles station, coffee, dessert and a mimosa bar for only $30. An afternoon party at the downtown location starts at 4 p.m. with more all-you-can-eat goodness (for just $25), plus a live Latin-music trio. If you can't wait until Sunday, Feniger and Milliken also have special Dia de los Muertos menus available now, including pumpkin tamales and guacamole deviled eggs. Sun., Nov. 1; 445 S. Figueroa St., downtown; and 1445 Fourth St., Santa Monica. bordergrill.com.
Tacos Tu Madre
This new-school Westwood taco stand has been soft-open for a week or so now, but the official grand opening is Sunday, which feels appropriate with its colorful Day of the Dead–themed mural and mix of traditional and L.A.-style tacos. The walk-up window with a tiny indoor seating space near bustling UCLA-ville features an interesting lineup of basic tacos, including lamb birria, chorizo and egg, and al pastor, plus a selection of premium tacos including vegan bánh mì, Korean barbecue, ahi tuna and more. A specialty menu goes decadent with a duck confit and foie gras taco, a braised ostrich taco and a taco with unagi, hoisin and furikake. Show up anytime on Dia de los Muertos and show the staff that you follow their Instagram to receive a free basic taco. Sun., Nov. 1; 1945½ Westwood Blvd., Westwood. instagram.com/tacostumadre.
West Hollywood's vegan Mexican paradise isn't delineating between Halloween and Dia de los Muertos this year, and this weekend GM will be serving chili, grapefruit and tamarind cotton candy plus lots of pumpkin pie. Beverage director Jason Eisner (the man behind the $25 hoppy hemp cocktail smoked in a bong) is at it again with another creative creation appropriately themed for the holiday. The no-name special includes tequila reposado, Oktoberfest beer, house pumpkin-cream soda, artichoke liquor and cold brew coffee. The whole thing will be batched beforehand and will run through a nitrogen draft line, giving it a silky mouthfeel that is sure to soothe even the wildest of spirits. 8905 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. (323) 978-2170; graciasmadreweho.com.
Yxta and Mercado
Jesse Gomez and chef Jose Acevedos' L.A. restaurants Yxta and Mercado have always been a place to get a taste of L.A.'s new-wave Mexican cuisine. And, at least in Mercado's case, the Dia de los Muertos decor is year-round. Standard Day of the Dead imagery — skulls and skeletons — can be found throughout all three Mercados, but the one in Hollywood is known for a seasonally appropriate mural on its back wall called the Skull Project (the art is a collaboration between Gomez, local artist Carlos Nieto and others). Mercado is celebrating El Dia not with a special food menu but with a cocktail called Los Muerto, a twist on a margarita with muddled orange slices and a splash of hibiscus syrup. At sister restaurant Yxta in downtown, there's the annual Dia de los Muertos party, featuring special pricing on food and drinks from 5 p.m. on. Yxta, 601 S. Central Ave., downtown. (213) 596-5579; yxta.net. Mercado, multiple locations. mercadorestaurant.com.