"Right there! You passed it!"


"On the left. See, Pueblo Viejo!"

We had been craning our necks out of the car to find 5722 Melrose, yet the nearby gargantuan Paramount Studios momentarily distracted us from the search. A neon sign advertising this gem of a Mexican restaurant on a quiet section of Melrose finally caught my friend’s attention. The sign hovered above a dark door next to an "interesting" seafood joint, and we were skeptical. Yet as the door swung open, joyful lyrics and pulsating drums immediately eased our minds.

"Sit anywhere you want," cooed the handsome waiter. At 8 p.m. on a Thursday night, Pueblo Viejo entertained a crowd of diners. Soccer beamed from the TV suspended above the bar, a couple huddled over bowls of soup and a double date fiendishly ordered another round of margaritas.

Paper placemats featuring themes of a "Mexican Fiesta" adorned the tables, telling us how to say "goodbye," "please," "you’re welcome," and "how are you?" in Spanish. Some great food, por favor. We were hungry.

Pueblo Viejo sets itself apart from the get-go. Although nachos and salsa are on the menu, the moment you sit down, a bowl of crunchy carrots and jicama with ranch dressing is placed on the table. It was the first indication that Pueblo Viejo is not looking to stuff its diners to the brim so that waddling home is the only mode of transportation. Sure, there are sombreros over the bar and Christmas lights suspended above the ceiling. There is even karaoke on Thursdays. But Pueblo Viejo keeps the kitsch to a minimum and concentrates on providing an excellent meal and a good time.

In a city obsessed with traditional Mexican fare like carne asada and burritos, the restaurant’s chef is daring enough to offer more eccentric items: an $8 ceviche of halibut, lime, tomatoes, and cilantro is more adventurous than most Mexican eateries in LA.

The quesadillas are truly out of this world. The cheese is salty, hot and powerful, while the tortillas are thin and soft. The chef was at his station, but the quesadillas had that made-right-before-your-eyes taste. The restaurant’s perfect guacamole is chunky and has an even lemony zest. Sopa de tortilla is made of spicy chile broth, tortillas, cheese, and avocado.

All tacos are $5.95 and come with rice and beans. The pescado tacos are stuffed with lightly grilled halibut, crispy cabbage, and tartar sauce. The rice hints of soy sauce and is studded with peas. Another side of sautéed zucchini is tenderly cooked, while the pinto beans are creamy and comforting.

Carne asada, carnitas, and rajas (grilled pasilla chile, onion, cheese and avocado) are other popular and satisfying selections.

Pueblo Viejo impresses with its fresh ingredients in the specialty dishes. All plates are $7.95, and piled high with enchiladas de mole, flautas or chile relleno. Pollo caliente is a daredevil’s dish: red New Mexican chile over chicken, adorned with a grilled cactus. Chicken so tender, topped with onions simmered in orange juice is called pollo naranja. Don’t miss it. The seafood dishes are especially inventive. Grilled shrimp blanketed in spicy smoked chile sauce describes camaron al chipotle, and pescado de aguacate borders on divine with halibut and chunky avocado sauce.

Any of the combinations are awesome. Prices range from $10-15, and include a taco and enchilada, asada and mazatlan, and relleno, taco, and enchilada.

Pueblo Viejo also features over 20 varieties of imported tequila to encourage the karaoke bravehearts. Thursday is "Tequila Night," and $2 tequila shots, $3 margaritas and $1 beers are available throughout the evening.

Los Angeles is known for its inexpensive, fast, and sometimes life-altering Mexican food. You might be loyal to a local taco truck, but take a chance on Pueblo Viejo. The service is friendly, the food is a cut above the most popular Mexican restaurants and the festive music will have you swaying in culinary pleasure. And if that karaoke-goer is truly unbearable, another round of enormous margaritas might even have you dancing to their "special" tune.

For more information, call (323) 464-0624.