We all know that, generally speaking, L.A.'s best restaurants are in strip malls. It comes as a surprise to visitors and new arrivals, but natives and old-timers know that the most interesting food is usually hidden in plain sight here. But sometimes — very rarely, but it happens — a restaurant owner will find an even more unlikely location for a project. Like, say, an old house, practically under the 134, blocked from street view by a dentist's office.
Cascabel, in the Toluca Lake/North Hollywood area, is that restaurant. Most people approach it — via said dentist's office's driveway and parking lot — with some trepidation. But then you walk through the arched entryway and realize that, if nothing else, you'll be spending the evening in beautiful surroundings.
The converted house was built in or around the 1920s, in the classic Spanish style of the era: exposed beams, lushly painted tiles, white walls and wood floors. The decor has been chosen to match the style of the house in a self-aware, rustic way, with leather and velvet and wicker. The little patio is a great choice for eating outside (use the old Valley trick of pretending the sound of the freeway traffic is actually the ocean).
As a city we're still struggling with some deeply held, and incorrect, notions about what kinds of food are “allowed” to be expensive. Generally, we think Mexican cuisine is supposed to be cheap. If I tell you right now to stop thinking that way, will you?
The surroundings at Cascabel should be your first clue that this is not a combo-platter restaurant. The enchiladas are served singly. The cocktails are more likely to be made with small-batch mezcal than with tequila. On the other hand, chips and salsa are set on every table. When asked via email if that was his personal preference, or if the market demands chips and salsa, chef Alex Eusebio answered, “Honestly, a little bit of both. People love chips and salsa, myself included.”
In a way, that pairing of chips and (very above-average) salsa with dishes such as “Mazatlan bouillabaise” and duck confit with tarragon salsa verde is exactly in line with what Eusebio wants to accomplish. “I call it 'L.A.-based Mexican' because while it is Mexican-inspired, it’s not 'traditional' Mexican. Everything we serve is influenced in some way from Mexico, and interpreted through the lens of Los Angeles. L.A. is very Mexican, and Cascabel is an extension of that. We are Mexican-inspired but not bound exactly within the 'traditional,'” he says.
There are homemade “choco tacos” on the dessert menu, showing there's room for whimsy in a kitchen that's doing thoughtful work. You might be too full to try them, though, after indulging in the brightly colored drinks and a few snapper or lamb tacos. Cascabel seems to do its very best work with starches, such as the plaintain and sweet potato enchilada with goat cheese, a real lick-the-plate situation.
Or since, everything's à la carte, make a night of it, ordering just a few things at a time, maybe deciding to go for that bacon guacamole after all, after starting with mussels and chorizo. Have another cocktail, tip generously, call a Lyft. Have a nice little evening escape.
10717 Riverside Drive, Toluca Lake; (818) 927-4210, cascabelrestaurant.com.