By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
It sounds odd to say this, but Cinco restaurant reminded me that Westchester is a college town. Loyola Marymount University and Otis College of Art and Design are both in plain sight, but the student population has been mostly invisible off-campus. There was no local dining and nightspot that felt like a center of gravity.
There is now. We walked into Cinco past a sign announcing “Tamale Tuesday” into a lively room that was incredibly different from the sedate Thai restaurant that had been here before. There were 30 microbrews on tap behind the long bar, the center of the room was a long communal table, and a few people even braved a cold night to hang out on the outdoor patio. We opted for a booth and marveled at the hipness of it all before studying the menu.
The offerings here are a mix of standard Mexican fare and Oaxacan food, a cuisine that is fast becoming popular in Los Angeles. Oaxaca is the home of moles — rich and complex sauces that can be based on chocolate, pumpkin seeds and other ingredients not found in more northern parts of Mexico. There are seven different kinds of mole, but even the most authentic restaurants here rarely offer more than two or three because mole is labor-intensive even with modern kitchen tools.
Our server recommended that we start with “Tres Pistolas,” which was chips served with three dips: black beans, pico de gallo and queso fundido. This did not get the meal off to a good start. The chips tasted commercial and were served cold, and the accompaniments were uneven. The beans were tasty, pico de gallo ordinary, and the queso fundido a huge disappointment. Queso fundido is traditionally a thick mix of cheeses with chili and chorizo; this was a thin beer-based cheese sauce with bell pepper and almost no chorizo flavor, inferior in every way to the real thing. It’s strange that a restaurant that charges for baskets of chips doesn’t bother to serve good ones and would charge $8 for such mediocre sides led to very low expectations for the rest of our meal.
Thankfully, the rest of our dinner was much better. We had ordered a tlayuda (think of pizza with a thin corn-flour crust and you’re not far off), a dish of pork ribs in green chile sauce, chicken mole and a pair of tamales.
Tlayudas are uniquely Oaxacan —a tortilla the size of a dinner plate that is lightly smoked and then baked to crispness and layered with black beans, cabbage, string cheese, tomato and avocado. Several meats are offered as toppings, and we chose carnitas that turned out to be tender and tasty.
The pork ribs arrived warm rather than hot, but the flavor was exceptional. The meat was fall-off-the-bone tender and the zingy tomatillo and red chile sauce was exactly right. The dish was served with mild Mexican rice and a bowl of whole red beans, and for me it was the highlight of the meal.
But that isn’t to disparage the chicken in black mole. The velvety chocolate-based sauce had just the right heat, and the half-chicken with vegetable-fried rice and pickled chilies was a satisfying meal.
One of the two tamales was served Oaxacan-style, wrapped in a banana leaf, while the other had the cornhusk traditional in the rest of Mexico. We chose pork in salsa roja and chicken in what was described as a spicy salsa verde. The tamales were expertly made, the corn masa inside moist, and we all enjoyed the pork. None of us took more than one bite of the chicken because it was easily the hottest tamale we had ever tasted — I couldn’t detect the flavor of the chicken beneath waves of heat. I like spicy food, but this was excessive.
Cinco has been open for only a few months, and with any new operation there can be glitches in food and service. On the evening we were there the restaurant was just half-full but service was quite slow because only two servers were working the whole large space, with a busser clearing plates and bringing more water when signaled. I hope this understaffing was caused by someone’s unexpected absence rather than being the usual way things go here, because the servers were overworked even though they were doing their best.
Our meal for four, including three cocktails, was $98 and reasonable at the price. There are things that need work here, but Cinco is off to a good start and catering to a customer base that has not previously had a home in the neighborhood.
Cinco is open from 3 p.m. to midnight Mondays through Fridays and from 11 a.m. to midnight on Saturdays and Sundays. There’s a parking lot, patio dining, wheelchair access and a full bar. 7241 W. Manchester Ave., Westchester (310) 910-0895 • cincola.com