A friend from Arizona told me about his first experience at Salazar in Frogtown. “When I sat down, I started to get this vivid sense of being home,” he said. “The smell of mesquite smoke, the desert atmosphere, the gnarled trees. It was so evocative of Arizona, the way it looks, the kind of Mexican food we have there. It was kind of intense, like, it made me feel actual feelings!” Shortly after, he overheard two men who appeared to be on a first date at an adjacent table. One of them — also from Arizona — commented that Salazar was so reminiscent of his home state, it incited surprisingly strong emotions, too.
Whether or not you're from Arizona, the restaurant's greatest strength is its look and feel. Above all, Salazar is a triumph of atmosphere.
This area's potential has been much discussed in recent years, for its proximity to the prettiest in-town stretch of the L.A. River, but that proximity is undetectable from either inside or outside Salazar. Walking through the gates into the garden dining area from the somewhat grotty intersection of Fletcher Drive and Ripple Drive is like stepping through a portal of some sort into a desert fantasy. It's not too slick — the muted pastel chairs look as though they were pulled from a 1980s high school cafeteria, the sandy dirt underfoot gives everything a slightly dusty vibe — but it is beautifully laid out and designed. A sprawling patio fronts a modern box of a building at the back of the property, which used to be a mechanic's shop. It's now been transformed into a glassed-in kitchen and a small bar area. In the part of the kitchen that directly faces the patio, you can watch women patting out masa for the restaurant's house-made tortillas. Ninety percent of the seating is outdoors — I don't know how the place will fare if we ever get a few rainy winter months (please almighty Goddess, we beg of you), but for L.A.'s usual sunny climate this is the perfect breezy dining setup.
It's Sonora, Mexico, not Arizona, from which chef Esdras Ochoa takes his inspiration. (My friend also said that dining at Salazar was the first time he realized the Sonoran roots of the Mexican food cooked in his home state; many people there just think of the mesquite-cooked, grill-heavy cuisine as generalized “Mexican.”) Ochoa is known to L.A. diners as the guy behind Mexicali Taco & Co., the taqueria on the edge of Chinatown. When I came to California for the job interview that landed me in this position, Mexicali was the site of my very first L.A. taco. Its vampiros and salsas are part of what convinced me that living in this city would be a rewarding way to exist.
Ochoa is a Mexico City native, but he grew up in Calexico, the bordertown adjacent to the heart of the Sonoran Desert, that arid expanse connecting the Mexican state of Sonora with the American Southwest. The comparative lack of Sonoran Mexican food in L.A. — as well as its prevalence in Arizona — is thanks to that transnational connection and the immigration patterns it engendered. Where we are tied geographically and culturally to Baja, the same is true of Sonora and the Southwest.
With Salazar, Ochoa hopes to give Sonoran food a more prominent platform in L.A. The restaurant, with its bar program and its layout worthy of a spread in a fancy design magazine, is in some ways a far more ambitious affair than Mexicali Taco & Co. But the food is exceedingly simple: There are a few tacos, some sides, and a short list of grilled items that come with thick corn tortillas and can serve as entrees or as platters to share with the table.
The tacos come on freshly grilled, slightly stretchy flour tortillas that have improved greatly in the three months since the restaurant's opening, though they still vary slightly in consistency from night to night. I'm going to say the variations are weather-conditional, because I love the romance of climate science as it relates to baking and other flour-based skills, but I actually have no idea. It could be different cooks; it could be Mercury's astrological status.
You can taste the smoke of the grill on the meats in the tacos, you can dribble the very good house-made hot sauce over them, and they make for an exceedingly satisfying few bites of food. The carne asada has a garlic char, the al pastor a hint of pineapple sweetness.
If Salazar served only tacos and nibbles and drinks in these magical surroundings, it would still be a success. In fact, there's part of me that wishes the restaurant's utility were a little different — Salazar to me feels as if it should be an all-day bar, a place where you could meet friends at 2 p.m. and hang out till 6, drinking alcoholic aguas frescas and eating a taco or two. The sides make for great drinking food — the papas con chorizo are especially seductive, the potatoes silky and rich, the fat nodules of chorizo full of fatty flavor. This place reminds me in some ways of a great beer garden, of somewhere you'd spend a long Sunday afternoon getting tipsy and debating the meaning of life. L.A. has plenty of restaurants — it has far too few laid-back outdoor bars where you can eat and drink and while away a day.
This lazy bar vibe becomes more apparent late at night, and Salazar is open all day on the weekends so that whiling away is technically possible. I'm not sure how many people treat this place as their living room and not as a restaurant, or how frowned upon that would be by the establishment. Try it out and let me know.
But the larger, more “restaurant-y” dishes served here are delicious, so it would be silly to complain. There are better places in town to spend $54 on a rib-eye — though the dish is perfectly satisfying, the cooking isn't quite precise enough to be worthy of the expense — but the simply grilled pork and flatiron steak are as good as the best backyard meal, and the fish is significantly superior to what most home cooks could achieve over a live flame.
Delightfully, Salazar also has one of the best veggie plates in town: a pile of grilled eggplant, portobello, squash, spring onions and broccolini. It need not be treated as an entree — it works beautifully as a shared supplement to whatever else you're eating.
Like many restaurants in emerging neighborhoods, it's hard to consider Salazar without mentioning the “g” word. This is especially true in Frogtown, which sits adjacent to Silver Lake but has thus far avoided thorough gentrification. That is unlikely to be true for long. There's now a sandwich shop that names its sandwiches after NPR personalities, for chrissakes, and the proximity to the river plus the abundance of industrial buildings is like catnip for — what shall we call them? — the artistic class.
The clientele of Salazar could be actors on a set of a parody comedy show about Silver Lake, especially early in the evening, when throngs of impossibly beautiful women call after frisky toddlers with names like Sage and Beatrix. All of this can be seen as good or terrible, depending on your point of view. Another friend said to me: “What I think is genius about that place is they've taken the essence of an L.A. taco stand and turned it into something super trendy and sexy for wealthy yuppies.” Well, I didn't say it, but it's hard to argue with.
But I'd be a hypocrite if I told you I didn't find Salazar massively appealing, for its look and feel and food. I'm not from Arizona, or Sonora, I have no desert wonderland in my past, but even so the place feels magically transportive. Every now and then, a restaurant can rise above the sum of its parts and be perfectly suited for its exact moment in time. Right now, in Los Angeles, Salazar is that restaurant.
SALAZAR | Three stars | 2490 Fletcher Drive, Frogtown | No phone | salazarla.com | Tue.-Thu., 5:30 p.m.-mid.; Fri., 5:30-1 a.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-10 p.m. | Tacos $3.75; entrees $19-$54 | Full bar | (Difficult) street parking