Welcome to The Gatekeepers, a monthly feature in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite tough-to-get tables.
Photos by Elizabeth Daniels
Melissa Powell had managed the constantly busy Chaya Downtown, and then the blogger-favorite Petrossian (during Ben Bailly's tenure), before getting recruited to oversee the floor at Petty Cash Taqueria, Walter Manzke's white-hot taco restaurant on Beverly, which quickly replaced Playa. Since Petty Cash's opening, it's been pretty much packed every night, with dozens of diners waiting for tables at the bar (or ordering Julian Cox's cocktails), and groups trying to nab bench seats. Powell talks to Eater about the onslaught, how to get a table without waiting, and the best things to eat on the menu.
When did you start working here? About a month ago.
Did you know what you were getting into? Yes and no. I anticipated a busy, lively crowd, but goodness it's busy. There's not much that can prepare you for the volume that we do and how fast it moves.
It's 8 p.m. on a Saturday night. How long is the wait for a table for two? We just taking reservations on OpenTable, so it helps to have a reservation, there's no wait at all. Without a reservation, the wait might be 45 minutes. At worst, an hour. If you come in with a big group, say 10 people, it's going to be tough. We take reservations on the phone, but only after 5 p.m. when we have the hostess here. I'm here from noon, six days a week and I'll answer the phone sometimes, but I might have meetings. I always suggest that people go on OpenTable.
Do you think it's easier because of the seating and the more casual concept of tacos? Because of the open seating, or communal seating, it's a different atmosphere. It's rowdy, it's sexy, it's fun, everyone squeezes in and talks to each other. This a place to meet, mingle, and have fun. People tend to be pretty open about sharing a table. As long as people are being fed and have great cocktails, they're happy.
What are you favorite things to eat on the menu? The hamachi ceviche is probably one of the most incredible combinations of flavors. It's just high sushi-quality fish, the best you can buy. It has a tanginess, the onion, the sweetness. The dishes here are dynamic and balanced in unexpected ways. I'd say the same for the cocktails. The vision is creating something that you know, but it's still surprising. I think that's what Walter and Julian have accomplished here. I know what tacos are, I've had a million in my life. I know what a margarita tastes like. You've had nothing like this margarita before. I would never ordinarily order a mushroom taco, but I literally order it every night. I eat tacos every day. It used to be caviar and Champagne every day, but now it's tacos. I think I won.
How did you get hired here? When Bill Chait and Walter sat down and told me about the concept. I thought, Mexican food in L.A.? I can get that anywhere. But I'm in this business because I love food. I know Rick Bayless, I've eaten at Red O, and Tortilla Republic. Petty Cash is another level. This is a combination of ideas that's never been done, I honestly believe that. I've never been so excited to work at a restaurant that I believe in so much, and I loved Chaya and Petrossian. This is chartering new territory.
Is there anything I can do to reduce my wait? Anyone try to slip you a twenty? That's never happened here. We try to keep your petty cash for the meal and not having to tip us. Persistence always works, if you keep me in the loop and let me know how long you've been waiting, and keep in my eyes, I'll work really hard to get you in. It's always first come, first serve. We also have text messaging so we can text when your table is ready. Most people are pretty happy to have a cocktail or two before they get in, it's well worth the wait.
Where else do you like to eat around town? Eveleigh. I don't get to eat dinner very much, but they have one of the best brunches in L.A. I love Susan Feniger, I'm sad to see STREET close, but I'm excited to try Mud Hen Tavern. I love the Black Cat in Silver Lake, they have some interesting stuff going on there. I really like Gusto, really different, really enjoyed that. Republique! Oh my god, I got to go to the soft open, and I think we ordered every item on the menu. Walter is a genius, I never met anyone who had such an incredible vision. You have this feeling that you're working for someone who's on the cutting edge. Chefs are artists … they're people that are passionate and you help shape that vision. Republique blew my mind.
How does it feel managing one of the hottest restaurants in the city, if not the country? Humbling. This is a dream that I've had for a very long time. I'm from L.A., I left because I went to school in New York, which upped the game. In college I went to restaurants. I wasn't playing beer pong. I had some of the most incredible culinary experiences. I'm so happy to be back in L.A. when Bill Chait and Walter Manzke are creating a renaissance. You have a generation of people our age that give a shit. We care about where our food is coming from, and who's making it. Our concept is unparalleled. We grow our produce on the roof. The women making the masa have been doing it for generations in their family. The painting on our front is the woman who taught Walter how to make tortillas. I can't tell you what the phone call was like when I was offered this opportunity.
·All The Gatekeepers Coverage [~ELA~]