As you walk into PettyCash, you know you are in for something completely different from former John Sedlar establishment Playa. The building has a fancy new mural façade, party-ish music blasting inside, a giant RETNA mural, and an overall super casual feeling to it. Scribbled above the old Playa placard as you walk in, the acronym R.I.P. floats above the old sign. You feel as if you are walking into a Dia De Los Muertos celebration for the ghosts of the beloved restaurant before this: this is a culinary exorcism
Like all religious experiences, there is a lot of fanfare. There are lines of people and spirits and loud chants of praise, coming from a place of excitement and fear. There’s also a buffer built around the place too, making it so that you can only access PC after some waiting or after making a reservation some time in advance. Places like this, a highly buzzed about new restaurant, are places that everyone wants to visit–especially considering this one came out of nowhere, materializing in less than four months after Playa closed.
The restaurant comes from Chef Walter Manzke. It’s a taqueria, AKA a modern and twisted take on new Mexican cuisine. The slant here is ocean gazing with a hefty selection of ceviches and items from the sea. It isn’t a seafood place, no, but it definitely has a very Mexico by way of Baja feel to it.
Making a new Mexican style restaurant in Los Angeles can be tough. Since we are in a place where Mexican food is so close to the source and authentic food makers are around every corner, bringing a new, high concept place in this world can be tough. For example, blocks West on the same street is Escuela, which promises a similar concept. The experience there is not bad but there doesn’t seem to be as much of a soul there as there should be. It instead feels like a capitalizing on a food trend instead of something born from an deep love of the cuisine.
On the other side of this conversation and in the other direction on Beverly is El Coyote, a historic Los Angeles Mexican restaurant that everyone has been to and has taken a relative from out of town to. A friend told us that he passes PettyCash every day on his way home from work and has been surprised to find that the line outside of El Coyote seems smaller than usual, perhaps redirected to the line of people waiting for tables dripping out from PC. What an interesting thing to think about.
This tells you something: everything here is authentic. Chef Walter is doing something doubly right, something that is both passionately dedicated to the culinary world it comes from and something that breaks away from any baggage associated with the cuisine and locals’ take on it. There are classics–chips, guacamole, margaritas–and adorably inventive spins on classics like Pig Ear Nachos, Cheesy Churros, and Uni Guacamole. There is a lot to take in.
You are seated at a table and are quickly ran over chips in a cup, which you dip into bottled salsas on the table, an effective and wasteless approach to getting you your dip. There’s a tomatillo sauce that’s has the fruit’s fruitiness and has that mean green spice to it. There’s a smokey chipotle salsa that fulfills your more classic idea of salsa without being the chunky tomato something you get from Chipotle.
You’ll look at the drinks first, to have a meeting with the spirits of the house that mix master Julian Cox has crafted for the new place. He’s amped up his usage of technology here, sharing itmes that he’s apparently been trying out for over a year. This includes trying to perfect homemade effervescent sodas and draft cocktails scientifically measured to make the perfect glass. You can also expect a lot more than just tequila or mescal or pisco: the bar service here is an equal opportunity employer. There’s Buck Dynasty, a bright and limey take on a Dark & Stormy that can be served with whatever liquor you want (We suggest dark rum.), the drafted Oxaxacan Old Fashion is a mezcally, serious drink that makes you question the need for bourbon, the Banana Hammock is a tiki yum yum tamarind and lime exploration, the Rhubarba Walters is a funny tequila drink that uses homemade grapefruit soda to mimic Campari, and the Brixton is a very complicated wander through sweet and spicy that comes with flaming fruit (wink, wink El Compadre) and a stress inducing paper straw. The Margarita? A clean, health fitness and classied up version of the classic. No salt rim required and, like a lot of the drinks, you get a patterned lime garnish too.
How do you start after you choose a drink? Dive in from the top and work down. TheBomb.com lives up to its name and is basically really good guacamole on an acid trip: there are large uni pieces placed on it, a decidedly strange addition that will make you go “Huh?.” It all works because the briney, salty uni is of the same consistency as the guacamole and–instead of distracting–adds a beefy oceanic finish to each bite. It certainly is bomb. Chicharrones are always welcome to our table and these come fresh and warm and are full of air. You dip them in their Eastern carrot/pineapple sauce or tame spicy avocado dip and they then explode like salty Pop Rocks as you eat them. A curious but welcome addition are “Cheesy Churros.” What are these? Basically Mexican cheese straws, something that Ina Garten would likely blush over as she vacations down South. They come with a lickable sweet corn mole sauce, too.
Now that you’ve gone through your baptism and are trying to figure out what move to make next, move down the menu and settle in their mid section full of seafood. You’ll notice songs are shifting from Salt-N-Pepa to Tom Petty to “Drop It Like It’s Hot” and you’ll feel a bit more at ease to take risks.
Go big with the Aguachile en Molcajete, which is basically a giant stone bowled ceviche made to order. You’ll get a warm soup palette cleanser, something like the Mexican version of Miso Soup, which trains your palette to get serious for some spiced up fresh fish. The Aguachile is like a fascinating dip where you are literally using chips to fish out fish. There are prawns and clams and oysters and–of course–uni, who steals the show yet again. You pick what you want in this dish, too. Some cucumber and radish serve as nice breaks from the madness of spice happening in the stone pool.
You’ll find that chips serve as a refrain between each dish and that they really tie everything together without youOD-ing on them. If you get the Ceviche Negro, chips are your best friends as you need them to carry these dark mole, charred fish off your plate. The Tostada–like a round, earthy Mexican pizza–is basically a giant nacho covered with strips of basil and blackberries and lobster. Chef Walter smartly does not mix these ingredients into a salsa, opting to keep them as grassy and natural as possible, allowing the lobster to be taken off sea to land.
Let’s take a moment to talk about PettyCash’s Pig Ear Nachos. You may see this on the menu and wonder if it is some sort of joke: it is not. Sure, it may have been hatched on some night after a little too much of the good stuff and a bad case of the munchies but, good heavens, is this a guilt inducing delight. Like TheBomb.com, PC takes your idea of something and pushes it one step forward: instead of giving you nachos, you get a mashup of chips, dip, pig ears, and egg. It’s like Mexican poutine and the dream version of nachos you never knew you wanted. It is incredibly good, incredibly indulgent, and we suggest you ask for extra cheese.
Moving on the the third act of your meal, you now have to decide which tacos you want. There are a lot–and each is special–but a few ones you have to try. Note that you can get them in orders of one, three, or six: try each of these. The prawn tacos are complicated street tacos that you wouldn’t expect to be this way, the octopus taco (“The Kraken”) are hearty with a fun spice and adult angle on complicating tacos, the Dorados are “potato tacos” that are more like a potato taquito made to taste like fancy junk food AKA fries wrapped in a taquito, and the fish tacos are pretty good–they just need some extra chipotle sauce lubricant. They sadly do not beat out Best Fish Tacos In Ensenada for best fish taco in town. The best–in our opinion–have to go to the fatty, simple carnitas and the OMG-worthy carne asada that is rich in lime accents and a cleanliness you didn’t know meat could have.
If you still have room left and want to do something sweet, that are two opportunities for you. There is a little flan that has a lot going on, namely a strawberry granita that adds a tension to the creamy custard from the frozen fruit. For those who thought the Cheesy Churros were a teaser of the classic dessert version of the dish, you must get the Buñelos as they are like small, airy, excellent churro bites in a bath of deep chocolate. They–like everything else–are great.
This is a lot of food, we understand, and it is very easy to hike up your bill and your eating capacity because you will not want to stop trying out dishes and tasting new things. Moreover, the service is so chilled out and good and Chef Walter is so sweet and unassuming that you feel less like you are in a restaurant and more like you are in someone’s crazy big, kind of fancy dining room where they invited you over to make and break Mexican culinary traditions.
PettyCash is not Playa. It doesn’t want to be it and it will never be the same as the previous restaurant. There are remnants of the former space but, through new technologies and youthful risks, they establishment has used Playa’s history as a platform to take a Mexican concept one step further than any expectations of it. Like when you walk in, that “R.I.P. Playa” comes to mind as you exit since PC is basically dancing on the grave of the former establishment. This isn’t a rude or irreverent dance but more of a, “Thank you for what you have done and thank you for letting us do our thing here!” dance. You won’t want to leave but you’ll have to because there is only so much Bomb.com and Pig Ear Nachos that you can eat in one sitting. There are also droves of people waiting outside who want to participate in the experience, too. They can’t be bothered with Escuela or El Coyote either.