East LA Chicano comfort food. It's very specific niche, and one that Chef Robert Luna of Malo in Silverlake and Mas Malo Downtown takes very seriously, as he should: with a mother who owned and cooked in restaurants in Boyle Heights during his childhood, it's in his blood. We recently had the pleasure of having Chef Luna introduce us to the cuisine at the downtown location, housed in the skeleton of an historic former jewelry store circa-1923.
We start with some drinks in the Vault, a small but stunning room at the back of the restaurant. The confined space that once housed the jewelry store's most precious hardware carries on that tradition at Mas Malo today, now housing the restaurant's finest liquid riches. With its glass-fronted cases filled with beautiful tequila bottles, it would be a fantastic place to host an intimate dinner party.
The "spicy" cucumber margarita (below, right) with tequila silver, cucmber, lime, bitters, Tapatio, doesn't quite deliver on its promise of heat, but it is refreshingly cucumber-y. The Medicina Latina (below, middle) combines tequila blanco with lime, agave and a powerful amount ginger for a unique sipper. The Piñata Smash, with tequila silver, serrano chile, cilantro, pineapple, lime, agave, is a sweeter concoction that we would have liked to see hit the heat notes a little harder.
We move out to the main dining room, where modern decor works weirdly well with Art-Deco design. Chef Luna's off-menu "chewy" chips await us at our table. We've sung the praises of the thick, half-cooked chips before when we had them at Malo in Silverlake, as well as the much-loved by us burnt habanero cream salsa.
The first item from the kitchen seemed just wrong in theory. Vegan menudo??!! Sacrilege!! Give me my tripe! But Chef Luna seeks to bridge the gap between authentic and trendy with this dish, and is surprisingly successful. While I will take my menudo loaded with offal any day of the week, the vegan version (loaded with tender bits of tofu) is flavorful and hearty, and in all honesty, cuts out much of the oiliness so prevalent in traditional menudo. The vegan soup is just one example of the many vegan/vegetarian options the kitchen offers.
Next to hit the tables are a quartet of salads: a Tijuana Cesar, a kale salad with pistachio dressing and pumpkin seeds, a chop salad with cactus, radish, chorizo and cotija, and a spinach salad with avocado and chicharron (below). Often we find the salad selection at restaurants limp and bland at worst and uninspired at best, but Mas Malo’s greens are creative and packed with flavor. A particular favorite is the plate with the fried pork skin crumbles – the texture and taste that they bring make us wonder why chicharrons aren’t on every salad EVER.
Then, a dish that ends up being my downfall that evening, a corn and spinach pancake topped with honey carnitas. It’s parked right in front of me, and the ladies around me are largely vegetarian, so I have it to myself. And I proceed to absolutely gorge myself. The dish defies expectations: the pancake (which is wonderfully fluffy) is more savory, while the pork, braised and then crisped and caramelized with honey, is fantastically sweet.
Though the food now pulls focus, we still remember to enjoy a mason jar of the smooth and mild white sangria (below, left). A tumbler of the El Cucuy (translates as "The Boogeyman," below, right) is anything but scary - the combination of Mezcal, Kahlua and milk, is light and sweet treat with a smoky finish.
At that point, I’ve ruined any chance of going home comfortably, but the dishes keep coming, fast and furious. In order to take a breath (and because we're not typically fans of vegan meat substitutes), we leave the tasty-looking soyrizo fundido (below) to the vegetarians...
...and I promptly fill the space I save with gobs of the shrimp fundito, a delicious gut bomb, thick, cheesy and garlicky.
I don’t get the full effect of the squash blossom taco, as it's chock-full of my food nemesis, red onion, but once I pick out all the offending slivers, I enjoy the meaty texture of the squash blossom.
And of course, we all manage to crunch into a couple of bites of the ever-popular ground beef and pickle taco, a spin on the traditional hamburger inherited from Chef Luna's mother.
No one really has any real estate left in their stomachs, but the next savory dishes Chef Luna sends out are so good that we push ourselves past our breaking points. First, chicken in mole poblano, which hits all the sweet, smoky, and spicy notes a good mole should hit.
It’s the last entrée, the half-blasted baby chicken, that really steals the show, though. The chicken is as perfectly cooked as chicken can be, juicy and tender, with a crisp exterior. The apricot sauce, tangy and subtley sweet, is lovely, but lets the poultry shine.
Even though I am possibly dying of stomach explosion, the desserts are too pretty to ignore. The Choco Flan is nice, but a touch too rich for me at this point. Luckily, the light-as-air Tres Leches cake lets me finish the meal with some dignity (a.k.a. I manage not to pass out at the table).
It's here that I'm advised that many menu items can be made into burritos or tortas. At that exact moment, my brain explodes at the thought. But now I can appreciate that any one of the offered items in a carb-encased form would be a great (and affordable) meal in and of itself. And even though I leave Mas Malo with a distended stomach and a brain rapidly draining of blood from the oncoming food coma, I also can't help but smile. The description "East LA Chicano comfort food" is apt, indeed: head to Mas Malo Downtown for homey Mexican dishes with an elevated LA twist that absolutely comfort.
*Disclosure: This was a hosted meal.
Hours: Sun-Thu, 10:00a - 11:00p, Fri-Sat, 10:00a - 2:00a