Kid Hit Menu Items: Sure, quesadillas with a mix of cheeses (or meat optional) is probably a busy workhorse in the kid-friendly Mexicali Taco & Co. (Twitter: @MexicaliTaco) stable, but the signature Vampiro might be the great carnivorous equalizer. A flour tortilla grilled to ideal crispness, filled with a densely distributed layer of killer chopped carne asada (here’s some schooling on the roots of Mexicali Taco’s beef) and slathered with a garlic sauce that’s got just enough spunk to make itself known but not dominate the dish or set any timid tongues on fire. Chopped bits of savory flavor-loaded steak can be picked at or eaten in said Vampiro style quesadilla, or ordered in a taco ($2.25 each). Templates other than quesadillas and tacos that come with a choice of chicken, chorizo, carne asada or veggies include cachetadas (a riff on a tostada drizzled with aoli) or better yet, Mexicali’s insane mass of nachos — the layers and textures of which will keep small hands busy and intrigued as if they’re digging for a treasure. Plus the Zuperman ($5) will play well with the superhero obsessed. Wash these goods down with specialty drinks that change daily, such as Mexicali’s lemonade that uses tamarind earthiness to disarm tartness rather than solely relying on the blunt instrument of sugar.
Adult Perks: Excitement in the beverage department means aguas frescas, maybe a Mexican Coke, or a sweet creamy cebada for grown ups, too. You could do far worse with seven bucks than to stop at Downtown on Fig between Sunset and the 110 for the Vampiro combo, which for $6.75 includes a drink with Vampiro and taco of choice, along with a little cup of beans. Long hungs of squash and mushrooms aren’t subjected to much handling before hitting the grill; these can be eaten whole, picked out, cut into smaller pieces, whatever. All the tools needed to reach optimal custom heat levels are waiting at the loaded salsa bar. And put an egg on it for an additional 75 cents! If you’ve got leftovers, the staff is happy to hand over foil to pack up your food. And while it might be shame to eat a Vamprio whose last exposure to the heat that properly seared it all together is a relatively distant memory, it’s a far greater sin to waste any.
Pros: Open room in a simple gable-roof building stripped to its elements and then updated with hard tile floors, clean wall treatments and practical picnic benches. The other day I noticed co-owner Esdras Ochoa hanging out during lunch with a multi-generational group that included a few young kids. (So yup, I’ve already got my eye on a future Ask the Experts subject.)
Cons: None really, unless you don’t like awesomeness with this kind of Mexican food. The runny/creamy Baja-style guacamole isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I guess. It’s cash only, and space is limited so you might have to share a table, and when I was a kid I definitely thought that was weird (flashback to Duke’s Coffee Shop, Sunset Strip circa 1980).
Changing Station: No
High Chairs: Yes
Parking and Access: Easy metered parking on Figueroa, or a lot with about three spaces next to the building.
Other Tidbits: Once a crowd favorite parking lot operation run by a couple guys from Baja, Mexicali Taco & Co. jumped across the 110 into a fitting permanent home. It’s a central but quiet spot in an eye-of-the-storm pocket of northwest Downtown near Chinatown, just where Figueroa suddenly sluices onto the 110 North. Neighbors include a school across the street, and a former movie theater that’s been adapted into the high-style Ford & Ching showroom. Mexicali’s design components speak to its street vendor origins, specifically the smart bright red picnic benches located inside this trim, bright mid-century vernacular building that appropriately feels open to the sidewalk. The photo of Downtown Los Angeles, mixed and matched reclaimed wood, and track lighting mounted on the pitched ceiling might be of the here and now, but the narrow strip of outdoor counter placed in front of ribbon windows that look into the kitchen feels like classic mom-and-pop L.A. A perfect, welcoming place for Mexicali Taco to reinvent its own traditions in the best way possible.
702 N. Figueroa St., Downtown/Chinatown
Hours: Monday – Thursday, 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 11 a.m. – midnight. Closed Sunday.