The acclaimed Pujol chef is getting ready to open Damian, a California produce-driven concept, and Ditroit, a back-alley taqueria, in the Arts District. Meanwhile, he’s also thinking about how he might throw down in Las Vegas.
Enrique Olvera
Credit: Araceli Paz

Superstar Mexican chef Enrique Olvera is moving to Los Angeles this summer, and it’s clear that he’s going to feel at home here. There’s so much about L.A. that reminds him of Mexico City, where he runs fine-dining destination Pujol and tortilleria Molino el Pujol.

“I think if you’re familiar with both cities, those connections are evident,” says Olvera, who’s planning to open two L.A. restaurants with fellow superstar Mexican chef Daniela Soto-Innes in the late summer or early fall. “It’s several very different small cities within a large city.”

The similarities between Mexico City and Los Angeles involve migration patterns, geography, architecture, art, creativity, and diversity, of course. There’s also comparable energy in the cities’ food scenes. Olvera loves seeing how street food and casual restaurants “give a very strong soul to both cities and inspire fine dining.”

Olvera will be opening two restaurants in L.A.’s buzzing Arts District. Damian, the more formal of the two, will be “very similar to Cosme,” Olvera’s modern Mexican restaurant in New York City. (Both Pujol and Cosme were on the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2018.) The names Damian and Cosme are a nod to the names of two Catholic saints who were twin brothers. Olvera wants these restaurants to share a lot of DNA, but he also knows that L.A. gives him an opportunity to create a new path.

“There will be an à la carte menu with about 20 dishes at Damian,” Olvera says. “It has a very strong Mexican background, but we want to work with local purveyors.”

Olvera will get corn and beans from Mexico, while also showcasing California produce from L.A. farmers' markets. He’ll make mole with ingredients from both Mexico and California.

“We’ve been visiting the Santa Monica market constantly, and we’re in love with the product,” says Olvera, who adds that “little subtle differences” in ingredients “make a huge impact on dishes.”

In addition to different produce, Damian will have a different vibe than Cosme.

“We think L.A. has a different scene,” says Olvera, who wants to make the most of the indoor/outdoor setup he’ll have at Damian. “With the L.A. weather, we want a place that’s a little more airy and green. We’re going to have a restaurant that’s from L.A. and made for L.A., not only with the design, but also with the music and the food.”

In addition to Mexican flavors, Olvera says he’s excited to cook with inspiration from Japanese and Korean food at Damian. At Ditroit, a back-alley taqueria adjacent to Damian, Olvera will also weave together multicultural influences. He’s planning to have a menu with two or three tacos each day at Ditroit. Expect a vegetarian option and one or two meat options. Olvera points out that many good taquerias don’t have big menus because they’re hyper-focused on doing a few things perfectly.

At next Tuesday’s opening-night event of the Los Angeles Times Food Bowl, Olvera will rep Ditroit by serving two different tacos at downtown’s Grand Central Market. The more Mexican taco will feature cauliflower al pastor. There will also be a riff on Korean flavors in the form of a lamb-neck taco with mango.

“I really like the influence of Korean and Mexican food in L.A.,” Olvera says. “The flavor profile for Mexican food is more acid and spicy. Korean is more sweet and spicy.”

Next Tuesday should feel like a welcome-to-L.A. party for Olvera. The night will start with the Olvera-hosted Mesamérica L.A. at the Million Dollar Theatre. Mesamérica L.A. will be a symposium of sorts where the connections between Mexico City and Los Angeles will be explored through discussions, live music, and videos. That will be followed by DFiesta at Grand Central Market, where Olvera will serve his tacos and where stalls will also feature one-night-only offerings from Mexico City’s Campobaja and Los Panchos. L.A. mainstays like Guerrilla Tacos, Guelaguetza, and, of course, Grand Central Market’s Villa Moreliana will also be on site. Then there will be an after-party at La Cita with tacos from L.A. street-food sensation Tacos 1986.

“I think it’s a nice way for us to start a conversation about Mexican food and Los Angeles,” Olvera says. “We’re very excited to be in L.A. and we’re trying to start making connections with the local community. We see it as a good first step.”

Olvera, who’s been criss-crossing the United States and Europe during the book tour for his new Tu Casa Mi Casa, is eager to dig into L.A. and be here for a while after his restaurants open.

“Mexican food in California is something that’s part of your daily routine, and there’s so many Mexican restaurants,” he says.

In New York, he adds, he’s freer to be be “more playful” at Cosme because there are fewer reference points for Mexican food nearby. In Los Angeles, he wants to continue being playful but also make it clear that he’s taking L.A.’s Mexican food scene “very seriously.” He also wants to make sure he gives L.A. the kind of tequila-fueled experience it craves. There will be a cocktail program driven by a desire for sustainability and zero waste.

Olvera knows that his L.A. restaurants should be high-energy and fun and surprising, especially in the vibrant Arts District.

“We like the fact that there’s a lot of young people who are very creative in the Arts District,” he says. “People here are free spirits, and we want that vibe in the restaurant. We want people to come in with no preconceptions about Mexican food and just have a beautiful time and relax. And I think this area allows us to do that.”

Olvera, whose restaurants also include Atla in New York, says that everything he opens is a new adventure for him.

“There are a lot of things we have to discover,” he says. “We have to make sure we have our eyes wide open because there’s no way to know whether it’s going to be successful. Restaurants tend to get their own path. In the end, it will have its own personality.”

Beyond L.A., Olvera has also been spending a lot of time in Las Vegas. There’s buzz on the Strip that he has big plans for a Vegas restaurant in a high-profile casino. Olvera says it’s too early to discuss specifics, but he knows Vegas would allow him to take things to another level.

“It has to have a huge nightlife component,” he says. “We wouldn’t open a formal restaurant in Las Vegas. If we’re going to Vegas, it’s because we’re going to party.”

Like with everything that Olvera does, he’s driven by a desire for reinvention.

“I think there’s an opportunity to do something in Las Vegas,” he says. “We don’t like to do cookie-cutter projects. If we’re able to do something that’s almost completely different from what we made before, I think that would be very exciting for us.”