Beverly Boulevard's Petty Cash Taqueria has quickly cemented itself as a loud, proud part of the L.A. Mexican food landscape. The colorful restaurant took over John Sedlar's lauded Playa space a year ago, and immediately worked to get the neighborhood on board with their $5 tacos and uni guacamole, though chef/owner Walter Manzke will be the first to admit it wasn't easy at first. Chef de Cuisine Fabian Gallardo runs the day to day at Petty Cash now, and both men sat down to talk about the restaurant's frenzied beginnings and the true origin of the uni guacamole dish known as TheBomb.Com.
Walter, how did it feel to come back to the LA food scene with such a strong restaurant like Petty Cash?
Walter: It was very spontaneous in a way, but it was also something that I had planned on doing. I actually had the basic menu, the name, the concept, all laid out a few years ago. It was almost going to be in the space where Factory Kitchen is. I didn't really have any ideas of opening Petty Cash at the time, but I was running into delays with Republique, and we had already hired kitchen staff and a manager, so we decided to do Petty Cash. We did it all in one month. We had virtually no training, and I'm not a chef who knows everything about Mexican food. There was no recipe testing. The first night we cooked in there was the first night that we served.
Mexican food is never an easy segment to get into in LA. Were you worried? Walter: I grew up in San Diego, and spent a lot of time going to Tijuana. And at the time it was really a great place to go. It sort of became a dark hole for a few years, where no one really knew what was going on there, and that curiosity for me of what was happening helped to shape Petty Cash. I mean, I still wonder: If this place were in Mexico, would it be the type of restaurant where people would want to come? If you're 25 in Tijuana, you're still passionate about the food you eat, but you want to spend time in an ambiance that's something more like Animal.
I've been lucky to spend some time with great chefs down in Mexico, and it's great to see that they're all into the same thing as up here. They want to go to the farmer's market, they're into fresh, craft beer, quality, great coffee.
Also the name, which I think is really important to the concept and isn't always understood, I actually found three or four years before the restaurant opened. It came from a band that I saw on the Sunset Strip years ago, that did Tom Petty and Johnny Cash covers. I loved the band, and just saved the name Petty Cash. And I think it's perfect for here. I'm not from Mexico, I don't have any ties to Mexico, and I think it'd be false to call it anything in Spanish.
Fabian: It's really fun to be able to bring all of my flavors of Mexico and to cook for people here. It's a tough environment, because there are great Mexican restaurants. We've played with different techniques and flavors in order to really stand out.
How has Petty Cash evolved over the year that it's been open? Walter: It took some time for us to get where we are, especially with the hurdle of $5 to $6 tacos. I think we've gotten past that, but we took a big hit making that choice up top. And it had nothing to do with being greedy. It's just our dedication to the sort of meat and fish that I've always been used to working with. It was the highest food cost that I've ever run in a restaurant, when we first started.
Fabian: For me, I was working in an Italian kitchen in New York City for ten years, so there has been some adapting to California, which has been hard. But chef Manzke has showed me around the farmers markets, which really allows me to get ahold of great seasonal ingredients. I'd still like to source from more local farms to get even greater quality ingredients.
What one thing do you love most about Petty Cash? Fabian: My staff. I try to keep them happy, and they reflect that when they're cooking. That's why everyone enjoys the food.
Are there any dishes that you think are quintessential to what Petty Cash does? Fabian: The aguachile. It's really representative of Tijuana in the 1980's; fresh seafood, just something simple but satisfying for a hot day.
It feels like there's a bit of mystique surrounding Petty Cash — the uni guacamole, the smuggled-in mezcal, the sort of hidden rooftop garden. Was that by design? Walter: The uni with the guacamole, things like that were purely accidental. It was named after one of our cooks in there, who's a typical East LA girl. Early on when I'd ask her opinion on a food she'd just tell me it's 'the bomb.com'. And it became kind of a funny thing in the kitchen.
We had a service on a Saturday night, and at the time we weren't open on Sunday, so we had this box of uni that was half leftovers that weren't going to make it until Monday. And we had these fried chicharrones and a bowl from the guacamole was there. And unconsciously we all started eating what was in front of us, because we'd been working all day and hadn't eaten. So we're dipping the chicharrones into this guacamole that's got uni on it, and thinking wow, that's a pretty good combination. And so we put it on the menu and named it after our cook.
I think it's important to have things like that on any menu. You want things that are controversial and talked about. It may be something that not everyone likes. Some people may even be disgusted by it, and that's fine. It's something different and something to talk about. That's why it's there. —Farley Elliott
· All Petty Cash Coverage [~ELA~]
· All One Year In Coverage [~ELA~]