January 17, 2015

Photo Essay: Trying Something New (At An Old Favorite)

There are two kinds of diners: those who always order the same thing at the same place every time, and those that would rather order the special at a new restaurant.

I am the latter of the two.

When I find a favorite restaurant that I want to go back to, I try to order something different every time, often exhausting the menu options. A good place for me will have a secret menu that allows for endless customization, even if their regular menu remains constant.

An exciting place will take you on a wild flavor ride, trying old recipes a new way, and creating new favorites among their regulars while attracting new customers.

Loteria Grill is that kind of place.

I first fell in love with Loteria in 2010 during a scouting trip to LA before moving here. Edith and I were staying in Hollywood at a nearby hotel, and walked down to Hollywood Boulevard to have breakfast there. We sat at the counter and watched the staff make corn tortillas as we ate our eggs, and we loved it so much, we returned that night for dinner and tequila.

Loteria is one of the few places in LA I go back to again and again, and I thought I knew the menu. I thought I knew what Chef Jimmy Shaw could do. But tonight, during a preview of Loteria's Dine LA / Restaurant Week menu (which is available starting Monday January 19), I got to taste the result of weeks of experimentation, testing different flavor combinations and different plating styles. And it was new, and it was delicious.

I like Loteria because it's one of the few places where its celebrity chef will come out from the back (or even show up at all) and actually sit down with you and chat. He really wants to know what you think, and how his food tastes.

It was Jimmy who offered me my first drink, and when I hesitated because I haven't been drinking alcohol since New Year's, he promised me something delicious and came back to deliver a faux-jito to me, a minty virgin cocktail that somehow made me not miss having a margarita.

Jimmy says that he's always treated DineLA – a long-standing tradition in the restaurant's 12 years in the Hollywood location – as an opportunity to experiment with new dishes, and to invite people to explore along with him. This year, for the first course, he offers the choice between the Crema de Chicharrón, a creamy pork rind soup...

...or the return of a past DineLA favorite, the Ensalada de Flor de Jamaica, a spinach salad flavored with hibiscus...

...or the Tostaditas de Atún, mini tostadas of tuna ceviche done two ways: with olive, caper, and pepper salsa...

...or lime, cucumber, red onion, and salsa negra.

For the second course, there are the short ribs (which we didn't get to try), the Sea Bass Tinkin Xiik'...

...served with black beans with pickled red onions...

...and a spinach and goat cheese tamale on spicy beet and orange salsas...

...or the Nopal Asado con Queso Panela Tostado en Salsa de Chile Pasilla, which might be adventurous for those not used to eating cactus paddles.

For dessert, you can go for the churros (which are admittedly hard to turn down, wherever you go), or you can try the Flan de Guayaba, a guava flan...

...accompanied by some berries...

...and a freaking delicious, berry-flavored mini popsicle. Despite my sobriety, I dreamed of dunking it in a shot of tequila. I'll have to go back and try that. And suggest it for next year.

A lot of other restaurants use DineLA to create a lower point of entry for people who have been reticent to try a new place with an expensive dinner. It's a relatively economical way of getting a three course meal from some of the city's top restaurants, but you end up feeling a bit cheated when you just get smaller portions of the regular menu items for a cheaper price. When you go to Loteria for DineLA, it doesn't feel like you're using a coupon. It feels like you're experiencing something new and unique, made just for you – whether you're a first-timer or a repeat offender such as myself.

View Loteria's menu here.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Taste of the Nation LA 2011
Photo Essay: NYCWFF Tacos & Tequila with Bobby Flay
Photo Essay: Day of the Dead Cooking Demo
A Private Feast, in Pictures

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