We stepped into a darkened room devoid of tables and chairs. What glowed under muted, pointed lights was a bar, behind which stood a man placing a serving bowl onto the countertop. We stepped closer. Dotting the bar were 3″ x 4″ pieces of paper that read “Bar + Fish,” which then listed a couple of appetizers and several cocktails. In the white ceramic bowl was shrimp ceviche that the creator, James Beard nominee Eddie Ruiz, said was ready for consumption. To accompany said dish we perused the drink list for the evening: TEA-quila, sangria, and beer and tomato juice. We opted for two TEA-quilas, which were served in small saucer-type margarita glasses, filled to the brim, making walking to a table out in the courtyard a slow balancing act. At $9 a glass, you don’t want to lose a drop.
The ceviche was sampled, then savored. Red onion, cucumber, roasted peanuts, cilantro, and tender shrimp soaked in a zesty, acidic, slightly sweet marinade. Our forks clashed for the final bits and we had to constrain ourselves from slurping the remaining liquid.
We concede that entering our second half-century, our tolerance for spirits is not what it once was and we were rather ambitious when we ordered our third TEA-quila. But they were, as stated previously, so small in volume—and such a compliment to our food—that we felt “compelled.” Sweet black tea shaken with tequila and lemon, then topped with whipped meringue and a sprinkle of chili powder. Sweet and spicy. Very smooth.
After the ceviche, we found the menu for Picnik, which is across the courtyard. Hand crafted sausages include bratwurst, jagerwurst, chorizo and sicilian. They have merguez sausage (originally from North Africa) with lamb, harissa, cumin, and smoked paprika. The “Head-to-tail” consists of pig head, ears, tongue, and feet. We were feeling mellow, unsurprisingly, and not overly adventurous, so we opted for the chicken with garlic and sage, which was served on a fresh baguette with sauteed onions and peppers. The sausage was smooth and moist with a hint of garlic and a nice note of sage without being overpowering. The veggies we would’ve enjoyed more if they were not so al dente and we’re blaming our blood alcohol content on the fact that we forgot to ask for the optional roasted garlic butter to be spread on the baguette.
Dishes, including the couscous salad we ordered, are served directly on sheets of brown parchment paper, which line individually-served, yet still oversized, aluminum sheet pans. Ultimately casual, easy cleanup.
As evening descended, the fire pit was lit, the lights strung across the courtyard twinkled, and the music began. Raúl Pacheco of Ozomatli fame gathered musician friends from here and there under the banner of the Immaculate Conception. Whatever musicians are free for the evening came to jam, “making something special out of nothing,” Pacheco says. And the evening was special. The weather was balmy, the tables and seats soon filled, and people were bobbing their heads, tapping their feet, and swaying back and forth while Pacheco dug into the music with his guitar and his vocals.
Our visiting friend said Pacheco seemed infused with the music and the exhilaration of playing. His energy and joy were infectious. Pacheco was joined by Alex Gonzalez on drums, Fredo Ortiz on percussion, Gabriel Gonzalez on vocals, Hugo Vera on bass, and Devon Humpf on guitar.
The next Friday Night Music event, on May 30th, will feature Abstrakto with Asdru Sierra and Balt Getty with special guest Mateo Stevens. But in the meantime, go and sample some of the 20 beers on tap at Picnik, stop in for breakfast—brie and grits, tres leche French toast, pistachio milk, and habanero scramble—at Kitchn, or take in a late night at Punch Bar, the upstairs “speakeasy.”
Located on the corner of Colorado Boulevard and Pasadena Avenue, this enclave that used to house, way back in the day, the Old Town Bakery and Clearwater Seafood, as well as not so long ago Villa Sorriso, which has moved east on the boulevard, is the domain of restaurateur Jack Huang, owner of Villa Sorriso, Ixtapa, and Bar Celona. Raul Pacheco was kind enough to introduce us to Mr. Huang and we plan to meet up with him for a longer chat in the coming month. Next time we’ll take advantage of the coffee bar by Zona Rosa Coffee and splurge on a couple scoops from the Bulgarini gelato cart parked at the front gate.