While the grand opening of the hotly anticipated Mexicali-meets-Austin-style barbeque venture, Salazar—from Esdras Ochoa, of Chinatown's heralded Mexicali Taco, and business partner Billy Silverman—is still a month away, the restaurant is already a flurry of activity. Inside the small bar and interior dining area, Ochoa takes a business meeting, deliveries arrive, and a box of pastries is being passed around among a small staff.
Meanwhile, Silverman, swigging a hot cup of coffee in the sun, is ready to get the show on the road. He ushers me into Salazar's pièce de résistance: the large, roughly 5,000-square-foot outdoor patio that will serve as 90 percent of the restaurant's dining area. As we sit in a shady spot next to a locally hand-crafted wooden ping-pong table, it's clear he can't wait to have the administrative i-dotting and t-crossing out of the way, and just start watching the place fill up. "I've wanted to do this forever," he says.
The project began in earnest last year when Silverman abandoned the idea of finding a viable space in the city's Arts District and ventured out to Frogtown: the small neighborhood (it's less than one square-mile) located between the L.A. River and the I-5 freeway, and one of the more surprising areas to be on Los Angeles' latest up-and-coming list.
When he saw the expansive property of Salazar Mazda Repair, he knew it was perfect. And Silverman was in luck—its owner, Antonio Salazar, was looking toward retirement.
"He's an amazing man who's been very supportive," Silverman says. "Hence," he adds, pointing to the "Salazar" sign hanging above the entrance.
Maintaining a sense of tradition has been central to the project for Silverman and Ochoa, and they've kept the rusty industrial husk of the repair shop as the foundation of the restaurant's indoor bar and outdoor dining area, which was renovated by local architecture firm Project M+.
Those familiar with Ochoa's work can expect a wholly organic menu, with Mexicali and Sonoran-style grilled meats, handmade flour and corn tortillas, and taco options galore.
Tapping Ochoa was a natural choice. A fan of both Mexicali Taco and Ochoa's unflaggingly sunny disposition, Silverman simply approached him during one of his regular meals about opening a restaurant together. "He was the first person I asked," he says.
Those familiar with Ochoa's work can expect a wholly organic menu, with Mexicali and Sonoran-style grilled meats, handmade flour and corn tortillas, and taco options galore—with an initial emphasis on dinners and lunch, and then brunch, before moving to a full-time schedule replete with breakfast and Stumptown coffee.
The team has also added Aaron Melendrez from the Walker Inn—the beloved 27-seat cocktail bar tucked away behind a secret door in the Hotel Normandie in Koreatown—to oversee a full bar program, featuring some intensely creative cocktails, such as: the Veracruz, made with organic peanut butter, banana, honey cordial, amontillado sherry, and white rum; a fermented mushroom cocktail; several Aguas Frescas (including an Horchata made with SelvaRey Cacao Rum); as well as craft beers and wine.
For a first-time restaurateur, Silverman feels like a natural, the type you might talk to at the bar for an hour before he reveals he runs the joint.
"We're really trying to keep it accessible," explains Silverman. "We have beer [options] if you want to spend more, and we'll also have cans of Tecate. It's the same with the menu: You can come and get tacos for regular taco prices or if you want a steak, that's available to you, too."
For a first-time restaurateur, Silverman feels like a natural, the type you might talk to at the bar for an hour before he reveals he runs the joint. Even when discussing the rapidly accelerating development of Frogtown, Silverman doesn't stick to pithy pleasantries. "The change is happening quickly and there is a lot of resistance to it, which I understand," he says. "Do I think the development is overboard? Yes. Do I think the reaction is overboard? Yes."
Silverman's instinct to include both sides of the conversation feels in keeping with his goal to create an environment where patrons feel comfortable, a theme to which he continually returns.
As we wrap up, Silverman hears about a last-minute debate over an aesthetic choice for the backyard. Umbrellas? Yes? No? Silverman, a little wearily, finally weighs in on the conversation, with a slight smile. "I just want everyone to be happy."