As we continue to emerge from the stupor of our Covid confinement, the need for rabies is mounting even among the most meek and introverted locals. There are those of us who have spent the last two years reading Merriam-Webster Unabridged from A to Z and dreaming of a colorful margarita, with more ice, more fruit, and enough tequila to fit in an aquarium-sized glass.
What might help explain the sudden explosion of the branches of a Mexican fiesta called Calaverasappearing in Montebello, Whittier and more recently in the Pasadena area, where there is no foot traffic at all. Calaveras isn’t so much a Mexican restaurant as it is a themed ride that reminds me of Coco, the Disney/Pixar animated film. Skeletons abound. And these skeletons love to bend their bony elbow.
If you ask for a takeaway menu in the skull-dominated Calaveras, you’ll be handed an eight-by-five inch card with smaller and larger platitos, tacos, and desserts. There is nothing unusual about this. But 25 percent of the menu is dedicated to the idea that Calaveras is more than a place to eat, a place to have fun. Monday is Margarita, Tuesday is Taco, Wednesday is Mescal, and Thursday is Michelada. There is a daily “happy hour” that lasts four hours, from 3 to 7, where draft beer is on sale for $2.50 off and some cocktails are on sale for $5.00.
Next to the takeaway menu is a card that says “Our Newest Items”. Three of them are edible — the chorizo-based El Nono burger, the barbacoa Quesa Birria tacos, and the salmon Culichi roll. All the other five drinks are drinkable – lots of fruit. As is the case with La Vela (tequila flavored with serrano, mano and pineapple). And Mi Cucu (vodka with lemon, strawberry, kiwi and passion fruit).
The three drinks are described as “Five shots and a lot of noise!” Loka Loka costs $63 and is described as “Specialty Candy Shots”. This is not where you order a very dry gin martini. Not at all.
This should give you an idea of the Calaveras trick. This is a great place to eat. But when it comes to bending the elbow, the bartenders are busy mixing, mixing and shaking. It’s not so much a restaurant as it is a cantina, with margie jugs and Modelo Especial on almost every table.
Drinking and Mexican food have a long and very happy relationship, and I’m not new to the joys. Some of my most memorable “until the next morning” nights were south of the border. (As I sit here, I can recall the mixed joys of Sauza Hornitos with the distinctive green label in San Miguel de Allende. Happy hour at The Office on the beach in Cabo San Lucas. And shots of mezcal at a wedding at Las Mañanitas in Cuernavaca .good times…good times…)
In Calaveras, I didn’t drink like that, but I enjoyed sipping a homemade drink called “Paloma Negra” – tequila, grapefruit, lime, a pinch of soda and … coal. Here’s what he says. What the heck? Sweet and spicy at the same time, an amazing combination. And a great way to warm up over a big plate of nachos – chips, beans, Monterey Jack, pico de gallo, crema cotija, avocado and carne asada to choose from, pork, chicken, etc.’ food. It’s a world away from the original nachos, which were just tortilla chips and cheese, melted down and served. Period.
Simply put, Calaveras serves amazing bar food. Although I must emphasize that this is not just bar food. This is a great family run Mexican restaurant with something for everyone. But for starters, at least it’s a food that pairs very well with michelada.
And in general, it’s nice to see so many draft Mexican beers. I have long argued that draft beer tastes better than bottled beer. Subtleties are just subtleties. But I love the draft enough to be somewhat obsessed with it.
As is often the case, you can make a good meal out of just snacks. This is how I find myself eating more and more often. Many little tastes, not one big taste, that’s the way it is these days. And in Calaveras, along with nachos (which aren’t particularly small), there’s delicious aguachile tostada – lime-cured shrimp, essentially a spicy ceviche, with cucumber and avocado.
Esquite, which seems to be as ubiquitous as guacamole these days, is roasted corn flavored with garlic aioli, cotija cheese, and spicy chili powder. It is easy to eat, a kind of children’s dish for adults.
There are taquitos and quesadillas – and tacos, 10 of them, filled with carne asada, carnitas, chicharrón, chicken, beef stew, white fish, shrimp, and even vegan chorizo. No Beyond Meat or Impossible Meat. Thank God.
But there are Mexican-style sushi rolls. Seriously. The Dragon roll is packed with tempura teriyaki shrimp, cucumber, onion, jalapeno, cream cheese and spicy mayonnaise inside a deep fried roll. He crunches. Kulichi Roll is salmon chipotle, cream cheese, jalapeno aioli, teriyaki sauce and red onion. There is no sashimi. At least for now. But who knows?
For those who disagree that lots of little flavors are the way to go, there are 16 main courses. Including spicy molcajete made from carne asada, chicken breast, chorizo, fresco cheese, grilled cactus and avocado. It’s a meal for two, easy. Especially if you started with nachos. And margie.
And you want to leave room for a churro sandwich. Or at least flan. Calaveras are fun, and even more fun to sit on the patio and watch the cars go by; no one walks in this part of Pasadena. But eat too much and you might join one of the skulls on the walls faster than you’d like. Moderation in excess is a good motto, no matter how difficult it may be to live up to.
Merrill Schindler is a freelance restaurant critic based in Los Angeles. Email [email protected]
- Rating: 2.5 stars
- Address: 187 N. Sierra Madre Boulevard, Pasadena, 626-314-3540; 854 N. Garfield, Montebello, 323-728-7492; 13112 Philadelphia St., Whittier, 562-360-1152
- Information: www.kalaveras.com
- Kitchen: mexican fiesta
- Details: beverages; full bar
- When: Lunch and dinner, every day
- Atmosphere: Depending on the location – colorful, wildly colorful or insanely colorful. It really does feel like a Mexican fiesta with colorful drinks and lots of light snacks flying in all directions.
- Prices: About $35 per person
- On the menu: 10 platitos ($9-20), 10 tacos ($4.50-5), 16 platos ($9-40)
- Credit cards: MS, V
- What do the stars mean: 4 (World class! Worth going from anywhere!), 3 (Great, even exceptional. Worth going from anywhere in Southern California.), 2 (Good place to eat. Worth going from anywhere in the area.) 1 (If you get hungry , and it’s nearby, but you shouldn’t be stuck in traffic.) 0 (Honestly, you shouldn’t write about it.)