As we continue to emerge from the torpor of our Covid confinement, the need to unleash is felt by even the most meek and reclusive locals. There are those of us who have spent the past two years reading Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged from A to Z and dream of a multicolored margarita, with lots of ice, lots of fruit and as much tequila as a glass of the size of a fishbowl.
Which may help explain the sudden explosion of Mexican fiesta branches called Kalaveras, appearing in Redondo Beach, Bellflower, Montebello, Whittier and more recently in a section of Pasadena with no foot traffic. Kalaveras 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 like to bend a bony elbow.
If you ask for a take-out menu at the skull-dominated Kalaveras, you’re handed an eight-inch-by-five-inch menu, with smaller dishes and larger dishes, tacos and desserts. Nothing unusual about that. But 25% of the menu is dedicated to the idea that Kalaveras is, more than a place to eat, a destination to party. There is Margarita on Monday, Tacos on Tuesday, Mezcal on Wednesday and Michelada on Thursday. There’s a daily happy hour that lasts four hours, from 3-7 p.m., when draft beer is $2.50 and some cocktails are $5.
Next to the take-out menu is a card advertising “Our New Items”. Three of them are edible – El Nono Burger Chorizo, Barbacoa Quesa Birria Taco, and Salmon Culichi Roll. The other five items are all drinkable – very rich in fruit. As in the case of La Vela (serrano flavored tequila with mano and pineapple). And the Mi Cucu (vodka with lemon, strawberry, kiwi and passion fruit).
Three of the drinks are described as “Five shots and a lot of noise!” The Loka Loka costs $63 and is described as “Specialty Candy Shots.” This is not where you order a very dry gin martini. No way.
This should give you an idea of Kalaveras’ purpose. It’s a good place to eat. But when it comes to bending an elbow, bartenders are busy confusing, mixing, and shaking. It’s not so much a restaurant as a canteen, with margie and Modelo Especial pitchers on almost every table.
Alcohol and Mexican cuisine have a long and happy relationship, and I’m no stranger to those joys. Some of my most memorable evenings before the next morning took place south of the border. (Sitting here I remember the mixed joys of Sauza Hornitos with its 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 in Las Mañanitas in Cuernavaca. Good times… good times…)
I didn’t drink like that in Kalaveras, but I happily sipped a house drink called Paloma Negra – tequila, grapefruit, lime, a squirt of club soda and…charcoal. That’s what he says. What the hell? Sweet and spicy at the same time, a wonderful combination. And a nice way to warm up on an oversized plate of nachos – chips, beans, Monterey Jack, pico de gallo, cotija crema, avocado and a choice of carne asada, pork, chicken, etc. ‘ food. It’s a world away from the original nachos, which were just tortilla chips and cheese, melted and served. Period.
Simply put, Kalaveras serves great bar food. Although I have to stress that it’s not just bar food. This is a good, family-run Mexican restaurant, with just about something for everyone. But for starters, at least it’s food that goes really well with a Michelada.
And anyway, it’s good to see so many Mexican beers being served on tap. I have long maintained that the draft tastes better than the bottle. The subtleties are just that – subtleties. But I like the draft enough to be somewhat obsessed with it.
As is often the case, you can make a really good meal with nothing more than the entrees. This is how, more and more often, I find myself eating. Lots of little tastes, rather than one big taste — that’s how it is these days. And at Kalaveras, in addition to the nachos (which aren’t particularly small), there’s a tasty aguachile tostada – lime-dried shrimp, essentially a spicy ceviche, with cucumber and avocado.
Esquite, which seems to be as ubiquitous these days as guacamole, is roasted corn flavored with garlic aioli sauce, cotija cheese and spicy chili powder. It’s 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, chicharron, chicken, braised beef, white fish, shrimp and even a vegan chorizo. No beyond meat or impossible meat. Thank God.
But there are Mexican-style sushi rolls. Seriously. The Dragon Roll is filled with teriyaki shrimp tempura, cucumber, onions, jalapeños, cream cheese, and spicy mayonnaise, in a deep-fried roll. It cracks. The Culichi Roll is chipotle with salmon, cream cheese, jalapeño aioli, teriyaki sauce and red onions. There is no sashimi. At least not yet. But who knows?
For those who disagree that many small tastes are the way to go, there are 16 entries. Including a crisp molcajete of carne asada, chicken breast, chorizo, queso fresco, grilled cactus and avocado. It’s an easy meal for two. Especially if you started with the nachos. And a margin.
And you want to save room for the churro sandwich. Or at least the flan. Kalaveras is fun – and even more fun is sitting on the terrace and watching the traffic go by; in this part of Pasadena, no one walks. But eat too much and you might hit one of the skulls on the walls faster than you’d like. Moderation in excess is a good motto, however difficult it may be to respect.
Merrill Shindler is a freelance food critic based in Los Angeles. Email [email protected]
- Evaluation: 2.5 stars
- Address: 187 N. Sierra Madre Blvd., Pasadena, 626-314-3540; 16530 Bellflower Blvd., Bellflower, 562-461-0599; 854 N. Garfield, Montebello, 323-728-7492; 13112 Philadelphia St., Whittier, 562-360-1152
- Information: www.kalaveras.com
- Kitchen: mexican party
- Details: beverages; full bar
- When: Lunch and dinner, daily
- Atmosphere: Depending on the location – colorful, wildly colorful or incredibly colorful. It really is like being at a Mexican fiesta, with multicolored drinks and lots of easy dishes flying around.
- Prices: About $35 per person
- On the menu: 10 Platitos ($9-$20), 10 Tacos ($4.50-$5), 16 Platotes ($9-$40)
- Credit card: CM, V
- What do the stars mean: 4 (World class! Worth the trip from anywhere!), 3 (Most excellent, if not outstanding. Worth the trip from anywhere in Southern California.), 2 (A great place to go for a meal. Worth the trip from anywhere in the neighborhood.) 1 (If you’re hungry and it’s nearby, but don’t get stuck in traffic.) 0 (Honestly not worth it write on it.)