As we continue to emerge from the torpor of our Covid imprisonment, the need to run wild surges through even the most mild-mannered and reclusive of locals. There are those of us who have spent the past two years reading through Merriam-Webster Unabridged from A to Z and dream of a multihued margarita, with lotsa ice, plenty of fruit, and as much tequila as fits in the fishbowl-sized glass.
Which may help explain the sudden explosion of branches of the Mexican fiesta called Kalaveras, popping up in Montebello, Whittier and most recently in a section of Pasadena with no foot traffic at all. Kalaveras isn’t so much a Mexican restaurant as it is a theme ride that reminds me of “Coco,” the Disney/Pixar animated movie. Skeletons abound. And these skeletons like to bend a bony elbow.
If you ask for a takeout menu at the skull-dominated Kalaveras, you’re handed an eight-inch by five-inch card, with smaller platitos and larger platotes, tacos and desserts. Nothing unusual about that. But 25 percent of the menu is dedicated to the notion that Kalaveras is, more than a place to eat, a destination in which to party hearty. There’s Margarita Monday, Tacos Tuesday, Mezcal Wednesday and Michelada Thursday. There’s a daily happy hour that stretches for four hours, from 3 to 7, when draft beer is $2.50 off and select cocktails are $5 off.
Adjacent to the takeout menu is a card announcing “Our New Items.” Three of them are edible — the chorizo based El Nono Burger, the barbacoa Quesa Birria Taco, and the salmon Culichi Roll. The other five items are all drinkable — very heavy on the fruit. As in the case of the 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 cost $63, and is described as “Specialty Candy Shots.” This is not where you order a very dry gin martini. Not at all.
That should give you an idea of the focus of Kalaveras. This is a fine place in which to eat. But when it comes to bending an elbow, the barkeeps are kept busy muddling and mixing and shaking. This isn’t so much a restaurant, as it is a cantina, with margie pitchers and Modelo Especial on nearly ever table.
Drinking and Mexican food have had a long, very happy relationship, and I’m no stranger to the joys. Some of my most memorable nights-before-the-morning-after were enjoyed south of the border. (Sitting here, I can recall 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 mezcal shots at a wedding at Las Mañanitas in Cuernavaca. Good times…good times…)
I didn’t drink like that at Kalaveras, but I did happily sip on a house drink called Paloma Negra — tequila, grapefruit, lime, a squirt of soda and…charcoal. That’s what it says. What the heck? Sweet and spicy at the same time, a terrific combination. And a fine way to warm up over an oversized plate of nachos — chips, beans, Monterey Jack, pico de gallo, cotija crema, avocado and a choice of carne asada, pork, chicken and so forth, all making for quite a pile o ‘ food. This is a world away from the original nachos, which were just tortilla chips and cheese, melted and served. Period.
Simply speaking, Kalaveras serves terrific bar food. Though I need to emphasize that this is not just bar food. This is a fine family Mexican restaurant, with pretty much something for everyone. But for starters, at least, it’s food that goes very well with a Michelada.
And anyway, it’s good to see so many Mexican beers served on draft. I’ve long argued that draft tastes better than bottled. The subtleties are just that — subtleties. But I like draft enough to be somewhat obsessive with it.
As is often the case, you can make a pretty good meal out of nothing more than the appetizers. Which is, increasingly often, how I find myself eating. Lots of little tastes, rather than one big taste — that’s the way these days. And at Kalaveras, along with the nachos (which aren’t especially small), there’s a tasty tostada aguachile — lime-cured shrimp, essentially a spicy ceviche, with cucumber and avocado.
Esquite, which seems to be as ubiquitous these days as guacamole, is roast corn flavored with a garlic aioli sauce, cotija cheese and a spicy chile powder. It’s easy to eat, kind of a kid’s dish for grownups.
There’s taquitos and quesadillas — and tacos, 10 of them, packed with carne asada, carnitas, chicharron, chicken, braised beef, white fish, shrimp and even a vegan chorizo. No Beyond Meat or Impossible Meat. Thanks goodness.
But there are Mexican-style sushi rolls. Seriously. The Dragon Roll is packed with teriyaki shrimp tempura, cucumber, onions, jalapeños, cream cheese and spicy mayo, inside a deep-fried roll. It crunches. The Culichi Roll is salmon chipotle, cream cheese, jalapeño aioli, teriyaki sauce and red onions. There’s no sashimi. At least not yet. But who knows?
For those who don’t agree that many small tastes are the way to go, there are 16 entrees. Including a snappy molcajete of carne asada, chicken breast, chorizo, queso fresco, grilled cactus and avocado. That’s a meal for two, easy. Especially if you started with the nachos. And a margie.
And you do want to save room for the churro sandwich. Or at least the flan. Kalaveras is fun — and even more fun is sitting on the patio, watching the traffic go by; in this part of Pasadena, nobody walks. But eat too much, and you may join one of the skulls on the walls faster than you might wish. Moderation in excess is a good motto, tough as it is to live up to.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Email email@example.com.
- Rating: 2.5 stars
- Address: 187 N. Sierra Madre Blvd., Pasadena, 626-314-3540; 854 N. Garfield, Montebello, 323-728-7492; 13112 Philadelphia St., Whittier, 562-360-1152
- Information: www.kalaveras.com
- Kitchen: Mexican Fiesta
- Details: Beverages; full bar
- When: Lunch and dinner, every day
- Atmosphere: Depending on the location — colorful, wildly colorful, or insanely colorful. This really is like being at a Mexican fiesta, complete with multicolored drinks and lots of easy eats flying every which way.
- Prices: About $35 per person
- On the menu: 10 Platitos ($9-$20), 10 Tacos ($4.50-$5), 16 Platotes ($9-$40)
- Credit cards: CM, V
- What the stars mean: 4 (World class! Worth a trip from anywhere!), 3 (Most excellent, even exceptional. Worth a trip from anywhere in Southern California.), 2 (A good place to go for a meal. Worth a trip from anywhere in the neighborhood.) 1 (If you’re hungry, and it’s nearby, but don’t get stuck in traffic going.) 0 (Honestly, not worth writing about.)