Two words: Dueling mariachis.
There's a sign in the ceramic tiling at the entrance of El Mercadito de Los Angeles in Boyle Heights: it reads, "MARIACHIS 3er Piso," and there's a little arrow pointing up. So you go up. By the time you've made your way into the stairwell, past the vendors hawking t-shirts, cleaning supplies, blue jeans, and all manners of snacks and refreshments, the strains of mariachi music are faintly audible, echoing against the hard tile and cement. A melody here, a trumpet flourish there, and the low bassline of guitarrón keeping it together.
The most surprising thing, upon reaching the third floor mariachi restaurants, is how massive of an operation it is. The entire top floor of the Mercadito is essentially a giant, undivided room. There are two restaurants on each end of the room: La Perla and El Tarasco. Each restaurant has its own stage, and on Friday nights and weekends, each stage has its own mariachi band. If you're sitting at one restaurant, enjoying one mariachi band, you can see the other restaurant across the room — maybe the length of an Olympic-size swimming pool. You can also pretty much hear the other band, as well. A clamor of dueling mariachi bands.
The beauty of this place is in the detail: the floors and walls are magnificently tiled. Large, sweeping archways create a small courtyard in the middle of the room, which serves as a neutral space, and from which one can read small history lessons that drawn and inscribed on the pillars in the form of mini-frescoes. Each restaurant's (which "compete" in spirit only — they have the same owner) bandstand, on which the mariachis play, has its own theme. The stage on La Perla's side is Aztec-themed. The stage on El Tarasco's side is colonial Spanish-themed.
Three mariachi bands playing at once
And if, for some reason, dueling-Aztec-and-colonial-Spanish-themed-mariachis wasn't enough for you, when the place gets really busy, there's actually a separate, smaller room off of the courtyard in the middle, where there's another stage for another mariachi bands. Three mariachi bands playing at once.
It's a lot to handle, admittedly. On a Sunday evening, both restaurants were abuzz with activity — mostly families and large groups with some couples on dates here and there. Sitting close to the stage can be overwhelming, as trumpets tend to be, shall we say, deafening, but it provides the best place to view one of the other charming features of this place: mariachi karaoke. For a few bucks, patrons can get up on stage, grab the microphone, and croon their favorite tales of unrequited love. The familiar and always popular "El Mariachi Loco" is usually played at least once per hour.
There is, of course, food — it is admittedly an afterthought in a place like this — but it is plentiful and it is generally quite good. The best way to describe the dining would be to say that it's a Mexican version of Maggiano's: good quality food, massive portions, and slightly overpriced. Enormous, piquant ceviches, gargantuan, sizzling fajita platters, and tacos that are full-to-bursting. I ordered a taco plate my last visit, and the tacos had so much meat that they came wrapped up in paper to keep them contained.
A Mexican version of Maggiano's
They had twice as much meat as a typical taco, which I suppose is appropriate considering that the cost, $14, was about twice what you would expect to pay for two tacos with rice and beans. The pastor was solid — slightly sweet, tender chunks of meat that were a little on the greasy side. The asada taco was beautifully done — juicy, peppery chunks of beef that came with slivers of grilled onion.
But the food, again, is more a complement to the environs than the main event. Find yourself a prime table close to the middle of the room, sit back with a beer and let a sublime wash of different bands, crooners who've had a michelada too many, and the din of a hundreds of happy people wash over you.
El Mercadito Mariachi Restaurant is on the 3rd floor of El Mercadito de Los Angeles, 3425 E 1st St. On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, when more than one band plays, they are open from 9:30 a.m. until 1:30 a.m.