Loteria Grill celebrates the regional cuisines of Mexico

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I’ve been a fan of the Loteria Grill in the original Farmers’ Market for years, and more recently, its sister restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard. Imagine how thrilled I was to learn they were opening a new location in my very own neighborhood? I would no longer have to drive over the hill to indulge in my favorite mole, a dish so ambrosial that it has even been featured on Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.”

Squash blossoms quesadilla. Photos: Karen Young

Squash Blossoms Quesadilla. Photo: Karen Young

Anticipation became reality last Friday when Loteria Grill finally opened on the corner of Laurel Canyon and Ventura. You’d never know that this is the space once occupied by the Gaucho Grill. The interior has a whole new vibe, your first clue that something special is at hand. The space is big and bright, modeled after the courtyard of a modern Mexican hacienda, but the ambiance is as warm as chef/owner Jimmy Shaw himself, who grew up in Mexico City where he learned to cook at his grandmother’s heels. The rich red walls and colorful Loteria cards mounted above the bar reflect the whimsical touches you’ll find in the cuisine. According to Shaw, “It’s not really Mexican food, but ‘food of Mexico.’” Here you’ll find unique dishes from all over this diverse country — from Oaxaca, Yucatan, Mexico City, Veracruz and Bajio, to name a few.

If you’ve never been to Loteria Grill, you have something to look forward to. Here’s how it usually goes for me… En route to the restaurant, I make a secret vow that I won’t eat too much; I won’t sabotage weeks of “healthy eating.” It takes one bite of their salsa to know I have lost that battle. Diet be (deliciously) damned, I am smart enough to know when thin thighs just don’t matter. Sure, there are plenty of healthy options on the menu, but really, once you taste this food, who really cares?

The restaurant is designed to feel like the inside of a Mexican Hacienda.

The interior is modeled after the courtyard of a modern Mexican hacienda. Photo: Karen Young

Forget everything you know about salsa; the one created in Loteria’s kitchen is truly addictive. A blend of smoky chipotle peppers, caramelized onions, garlic and mystery spices, it kicks other salsas’ butts and is perfect with house tortilla chips dusted with queso fresco.

Fried cheese might not be something you would think of ordering, but I dare you to resist the Chicharron de Queso. “Really, I shouldn’t,” you’ll say, as you tear into the giant, paper-thin disk of griddle-crisped cheese, shaped into a funnel while still warm (imagine the best part of your grilled cheese sandwich, the cheese that oozes onto the pan and gets all crunchy). Served with guacamole, a salsa verde and piping hot corn tortillas off the grill, this is pure decadence and I say, bring it on.

Owner.Chef Jimmy Shaw.

Owner/Chef Jimmy Shaw. Photo: Karen Young

You can’t go wrong with any of the appetizers, and while the guacamole is lovely — chunky and spicy, the way I like it — you might do well to share a taco platter, a sampling of 12 of their tiny tacos with fillings such as chicken tinga or zucchini, roasted corn, salsa verde and queso fresco.

Over the years, I have had a hard time ordering anything other than the chicken enchiladas in their heavenly mole sauce, which is made with over 72 peppers and spices. The Cochinita Pibil, a slow-roasted shredded pork dish in banana leaf, is divine, its citrus-pickled red onion adding a hint of tartness, and the chile habanero packing heat. Wrapped in more warm tortillas, it’s Mexican comfort food.

There are chicken, beef, pork and fish entrees a plenty, either stewed for hours or accompanied by tantalizing sauces with ingredients like spicy pumpkin seeds, peanuts, or espazote. If you’re in the mood for something simple, the shrimp tacos or homemade posole can hit the spot just right. You won’t find a tired bean burrito on this menu, but one bite of the Enfrijoladas – enchiladas in a rich black bean sauce — and you’ll never look back.

Enchilada Mole and Suiza.

Enchilada Suiza and Enchilada Mole. Photo: Karen Young

You don’t have to be a meat eater to love this place, either. There are enough choices that even I could consider becoming a vegetarian. Aside from tiny, sumptuous quesadillas with squash blossoms, there are tacos with fillings such as papa con rajas (potatoes and green chile strips) or mushrooms, epazote and cheese. Shaw has a completely unique take on chile rellenos, too. Served in two different incarnations on one plate, first you have a chile poblano, filled with plaintain and queso fresco in a sauce faintly tasting of cinnamon; second up is an ancho chile (the dried version of the same chile) filled with black beans, goat cheese and chorizo. Everything is served with rice, but here’s a tip: order the green rice, which has a hint of mint – delicious, especially with the mole.

Salads are on the exotic side, such as the Nopalitos, fresh cactus paddle with tomato, chile serrano, onion and cilantro in a lime vinaigrette; or the Jicama Salad, with jicama, mint and queso anejo in a chipotle dressing.

Making the Chicharron de Queso.

Making the Chicharron de Queso at the bar area. Photo: Karen Young

Who orders dessert at a Mexican restaurant? You will, once you taste Loteria’s ice cream,  Helados y Nieves, a seasonal variety of ice creams which are Loteria’s recipe, and exclusively served there. Also, worth it is the Flan de Cajeta, a Goat’s-Milk-Caramel Flan.

As for libations, Loteria’s liquor license is still pending(UPDATE: LOTERIA NOW HAS A FULL BAR), though I know from the Hollywood location that the house sangria and margaritas make fine partners to the spicy food. Until the bar opens, quench your thirst with one of the delicious Agua Frescas, which change every night. My favorites so far are mamei, a fruit somewhere between a mango and papaya, and pineapple and cactus fruit, though the cantaloupe and limeade are close behind.

Until the bar opens, there’s no need to worry, though. Even if you can’t have a real cocktail, the cuisine alone is enough to intoxicate you.

Loteria Grill 12050 Ventura Blvd. Studio City, CA 91604  (818) 508.5300 www.loteriagrill.com Entrees $8-$17

Jennifer Evans Gardner is a food and travel writer, cookbook author, and owner of the Little Feet in the Kitchen cooking school. Formerly Editor-in-Chief for PeterGreenberg.com, Jennifer has also written for huffingtonpost.com, ePregnancy, Eating, Santa Barbara, and Kiwi, among other publications. www.jenevansgardner.com

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About Karen Young

Karen Young is the founder of My Daily Find.

  • Cyndi Menegaz

    Great review, Jen! Can’t wait to try it!

  • Ana

    Went there last night. It’s easy to eat too much, but the food is light and flavorful. I can’t wait to go back! Thanks MDF for alerting me that this place was opening. Yum!

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