[ review ]
"In L.A.," my friend explained, "little old Mexican ladies set up totally illegal grills on the sidewalks outside the bars. They sell Hollywood dogs. They're always wrapped in bacon and covered with onions, jalapeños, mustard, mayo, ketchup and anything else."
We were sitting in a vinyl booth in the back of a Fishtown saloon-turned-Cali-cantina with its own take on the Hollywood dog. At Loco Pez (the Spanish translation of the old taproom's name, Crazy Fish), this bellyfiller is called the Street Dog, a Sabrett link laid into a soft, spongy bun and larded with bacon, refried beans, ketchup, mustard, mayo, pico de gallo, pickled jalapeño, cheddar and Monterey jack.
Each bite was perilous, to be undertaken in a stooped position as you would a drippy cheesesteak. Condiments tumbled out the sides, splattering the wax-paper-lined basket beneath. A bun break seemed imminent.
SoCal's taco-truck culture is the inspiration for Loco Pez, according to Joe Beckham, who owns this spot (as well as Center City's Alfa) with partner Giancarlo DiPasquale, but having never been to L.A., I can't say whether disintegration is a traditional ingredient in the after-hours treat. I don't mean to take it from "street" to neat — it's not called the Park Avenue Dog, after all — but a sturdier bun could help contain the chaos and ensure more gets in my mouth than on the Formica-topped table.
Fortunately, the damp dog did not represent the rest of the lively cooking at the laid-back Loco Pez. Under the direction of chefs Joe Hunt and Sara Fernandez, this kitchen is feeding Fishtowners new and old every night until 1 a.m. Arranged like a classic neighborhood tappy with the bar in front, dining room in back, the retro-appareled restaurant — vintage wallpaper, eBay auction pendant lamps — hummed like a beehive, luring locals with its cheap (but not cheaply made) margaritas and mountainous Nachos de Kenzo.
We destroyed the latter, plucking loaded housemade tortilla chips from the stack like loves-me, loves-me-not petals from a flower. Loco Pez layers their signature nachos with three meats: chopped carne asada, smoky and savory from its marinade in chipotle, vinegar, cilantro and soy; pulled chicken thighs glazed with tamarind soda; and spicy chorizo crumbles mingling with potatoes. With refried beans, pico de gallo, guac and a rich web of cheddar, Monterey jack, Oaxaca and cotija cheeses and crema, they create an appetizer than eats like a porterhouse.
I could be happy with those nachos, a pint of Dos Equis and a few rounds on the Family Guy pinball machine clanging and jangling behind my booth, but Loco Pez is no one-trick caballito. Think of this oasis as El Rey Lite, both in looks and menu, which includes vivid tacos al pastor crowned with spears of seared pineapple that slice through the fat-laced pork. Considering the pig here is roasted in an oven instead of on a spit — the tiny kitchen couldn't accommodate Beckham's gyro machine — its complex, slowly developed flavor surprised. The hot, tangy marinade does the work: pasilla, guajillo, arbol, ancho, onion, garlic, Mexican oregano, cloves, cinnamon, vinegar and pineapple juice.
Marinating also gives the grouper for the fish tacos their zing. The firm white fish hangs out in garlicky oil infused with ancho chili powder before getting dunked in a tempura batter laced with mustard and Mexican oregano and fried. A squirt of housemade salsa — Loco Pez makes a tangy verde, fiery roja and super-spicy chipotle in-house, leaving squeeze bottles of each on every table — enlivened those tacos, as well as the quesadillas, tortillas stuffed with gooey Oaxaca cheese and shredded chicken. Instead of relying on two tortillas for these, Hunt uses just one, folding it over into a half-moon before crisping it on the griddle. The cute individual quesadillas were lighter (if something this cheesy can be called light) and neater than the traditional version sliced like a pizza.
Bundled in a flour tortilla, the Volcano burrito erupted with refried beans, melted cheddar and a ghost pepper-and-habañero hot sauce. Beckham's goal: "a consistent goop" on par with Lupe's #2, one of his favorite stands? in East L.A. (Trimmer burritos are also available filled with your choice of meat; ditto for the quesadilla and tacos.) The "diablo" black beans are a wonderful optional add-in to this or any dish and are also available as a side; soupy, spicy, addictive and black as ink. A flurry of cotija floated on the surface like fresh snow on a black road. The bowl of zippy, herbaceous green rice is great too, folded through with a purée of roasted serranos and poblanos, cilantro, garlic and onion.
Meanwhile at the bar, a restored relic of mahogany and white and red oaks, manager Sergio Ruiz has found a home for his breed of cool, expertly spiced "Lowrider" Latin cocktails (the soursop-tinged Fairlane, the fizzy orange Bel Air) after chucking deuces to his old position at Xochitl. (Loco Pez has become something of a haven for Xochitl escapees.) There's a tidy tequila collection, and the six taps spout five "mucho frio" local brews and Dos Equis Amber. Two dozen? bottles and cans grow the south-of-the-border selection with Negra Modelo, Pacifico, Sol and Tecate.
Beckham has family in San Diego, and now that the two-month-old Loco Pez has settled in nicely, he's planning a return trip to the West Coast. "I'd like to start a dive bar and taco truck tour business in L.A.," he says. Is he serious or joking? I'm not sure, but here's hoping he brings plenty of recipe notes back home with him.
Loco Pez | 2401 E. Norris St., 267-886-8061, locopez.com. Open daily, 5 p.m.-2 a.m.; kitchen till 1 a.m. nightly. Appetizers, $3-$12.50; tacos, burritos and quesadillas, $1.75-$10; sides, $3-$4. Cash only.