Deemed "LA's hottest new neighborhood" in 2014 by LA Weekly, Frogtown (also known as Elysian Valley) shows few obvious signs of this given title. Despite the proximity to Silverlake and Atwater Village, it isn't crammed with trendy coffee shops, upscale restaurants, and minimal shopping destinations like its neighbors. Instead, it resembles many other low-key, Northeast LA neighborhoods, eschewing the typical expectations of a "hotspot" locale. But there are certainly subtle signs of its reluctant popularity: local breweries, upscale apartment buildings, and now, Salazar restaurant.
An outdoor oasis hidden behind cacti and a wrought-iron gate, the large, airy space is surprisingly easy to miss on a casual drive-by. The restaurant is almost entirely patio, with a small "indoor" space reserved for those unlucky few who don't get to fully enjoy the wood-laden overhang and tree-filled outdoor seating. With desert plants and vibrant blue accents, the area feels grounded and connected to nature (a rarity in other parts of the city), but still boasts plenty of modern and upbeat details that lend the restaurant a contemporary Mexican flare. All together, Salazar functions as something between an upscale version of a hole-in-the-wall taco shop and a trendy, hipster hotspot.
An idyllic spot for a casual happy hour, Salazar definitely delivers on creative cocktails from former Walker Inn/Normandie Club barman Aaron Melendrez. From alcoholic Agua Frescas to a flight of Micheladas, the drink list pays homage to Chef Esdras Ochoa's Mexican heritage. The La Paloma was one of my favorites, as smoky mezcal and ancho chili liquor immediately introduced my palette to the restaurant's strong BBQ flavors. The grapefruit and honey balanced out the smoke nicely with some freshness, acidity, and just a bit of sweetness. A standout of the evening, however, had to be the Savila y Coco, a crazy blue fishbowl out of some strange nostalgic, alcoholic-childhood fever dream. Made with Aloe, Coconut, Elderflower, Gin, and Mezcal, the drink was very strong; the mix of gin and mezcal was only overpowered by the sweetness of the coconut and elderflower. A surprise shark gummy at the bottom felt like a prize for finishing, and was a fun, whimsical addition to this playful beverage.
Just as memorable as the drinks, the food was perhaps slightly more serious, but nonetheless tasty and happy hour appropriate. Guacamole, chips, and salsa are steadfast requirements to start off any good Mexican meal, and their take was simple yet pleasing. The chips came in large rounds that were fun to break apart to dip in the no-frills guacamole and flavorful salsa.
Another great appetizer, the Shrimp Cocktail was a fresh palette cleanser. Simply prepared, the shrimp lays on a bed of chopped up onion and cucumber (which added nice, subtle depth of flavor) and a really light and flavorful broth. Finished with some cocktail sauce, avocado, and a lime for extra acidity, the dish is a lovely start to the meal. It's definitely a fun, more complex take on a traditional shrimp cocktail, while the lime and avocado add those subtle Mexican flavors that allow the dish to fit in seamlessly with the rest of the menu.
The Gem Caesar is another modern take on a traditional dish. Gem lettuce was well-dressed in the eggless caesar dressing, as croutons and crispy parmesan added nice, crunchy elements to the dish. A really nice salad, and a definite improvement on the ubiquitous Caesar.
The highlight of the evening, however, was most definitely the taco selection. With a taco menu that reflects the simple offerings of small taco joints in East LA, Salazar provides one taco option (avocado, salsa, cilantro, and onion) with four different meat choices: Carne Asada, Polla Asada, Al Pastor, and Seasonal Vegetable. And since Chef Ochoa is one of the co-founders of Mexicali Taco, you know these are going to be good. An excellent vehicle for the delicious meats and accoutrements, the tortilla (I believe) makes the dish. A bit thick and a little crispy, the flour tortillas (which are having a bit of a renaissance at the moment) don't easily fall apart under the weight of the meat or the liquidity of the guacamole or any salsa. Carne Asada is simple, with hints of soy and garlic and just the right amount of spice, while the Al Pastor boasts a really nice sweetness from a hint of pineapple. The grilled chicken is nice as well, and was actually very tender and flavorful. Addicting and easy for any after-work or early-evening occasions, Salazar's tacos are ideal bites for gatherings with friends or co-workers. They're both crowd-pleasers and foodie-pleasers.
Overall, our experience at Salazar was wonderful. From the atmosphere to the drinks to the food, it's no wonder why this restaurant is one of the city's favorite hangout spots of the moment. Even though they opened only a month ago, the restaurant is already full and buzzing almost every night of the week. There's also a strong sense of accessibility here; any food lover can walk in off the street, order a beer and some tacos, and enjoy the beautiful outdoor space (assuming they can get a table, of course). Despite the hipster leanings of the crowd, the restaurant isn't pretentious and manages to evoke the low-key roots of the Frogtown neighborhood, while acknowledging its evolution and development. We would definitely recommend coming in for happy hour and enjoying drinks and tasty food with a big group of friends.