Wrap or burrito? Potato chips or tortilla chips? Ahi tuna salad or fajitas? Bayleaf and Calavera Burrito Company are two conjoined restaurants where you can mix and match contemporary American and traditional Mexican cuisines without skipping a beat.
Inside the revitalized Spring Arcade Building in Downtown Los Angeles, the attached eateries look decidedly unrelated, each with its own signage and open doorway. Step inside either one, and the only obvious connection is the pathway in front of a staircase that divides each side and leads to an upper-level seating area. To your left, Calavera Burrito Co. is decorated with colorful sugar skulls from which the restaurant borrows its name, celebrating Mexican heritage and traditional foods. To your right, Bayleaf is a garden of green plants and open preparation space for assembling fresh salads and sandwiches.
“You can come here seven days a week and try different food. Today you can try Bayleaf, and tomorrow you can come back and try Calavera,” said Andres Temores, general manager of both restaurants. And since the two fall under the same ownership, you can also conveniently add dishes from each place to the same order tab.
Though the menus are distinctly different, the restaurants share similar approaches to food preparation as both chefs collaborate and share the same kitchen. To achieve fine dining quality at a fast food pace, the chefs drive the menus and draw from experience to nimbly make nearly everything from scratch. Executive Chef Catherine Wooten was a top graduate of Le Cordon Bleu who combines inspirations from the many cultures of American cuisine to balance tastes and textures at Bayleaf. For Calavera, Chef Ruben Ruiz uses family recipes from Michoacán, Mexico for the succulent meats and sauces that occupy the burritos and plates.
“You put them together and they’re the A-team,” Andres said. “There’s a lot of freedom for them to express themselves.”
On the Bayleaf menu, a selection of entrees can be served as a salad, sandwich, or wrap with your choice of ahi tuna, turkey, steak, or veggies. You then choose a flavor style, which may appeal to you based on key ingredients, such as the barbecue and bacon jam in the Modern Cowboy, or the candied walnuts and grapes in the Tarragon Waldorf. Other styles incorporate regional flavors like Mediterranean, Latin, or Asian.
The mix of styles may vary seasonally, but for each one, Chef Catherine aims for balance. “There has to be sweet, salty, savory, and even sour so that it’s well rounded,” she explained. “I like texture to be in it. I like for there to be different temperatures and different variations on heat.”
The flavors of the Spicy Sumo style exemplify this balancing act. It’s one of Bayleaf’s most popular mixes, particularly with the seared ahi tuna, which gets coated in a fiery housemade sauce and paired with a slaw of shredded cabbage and creamy garlic soy ginger sauce. Charred jalapeno slices add heat, contrasted by the cool crunch of a Japanese cucumber salad mix and spiral-cut carrots, cushioned with mixed greens.
“I’m actually a quarter Japanese. So Japanese food really speaks to me because it reminds me of my grandmother and my mom,” said Catherine, who is also part Cherokee Indian, English, Guatemalan, and Spanish. Inspirations from her multi-ethnic heritage, world travels, and culinary training all culminate in her menu selections for Bayleaf. Her creative skills with salads have been honed through extensive experience, having started her career making appetizers and salads as an intern at Saddle Peak Lodge in Calabasas.
Seasonal ingredients also factor into the ever-evolving creations on the Bayleaf menu. This summer featured stone fruits and berries, and this fall will mix in root vegetables, squashes, and pumpkins. Fruits and vegetables are bought whole and chopped on site, along with fresh herbs. The restaurant’s name is well-suited to its chef since Catherine uses bay leaves in many of the dishes, including her sauces and soups, such as the clam chowder and chicken tortilla soup.
“It adds a soul to the dish. It’s unlike any other herb,” she said. “A lot of the dishes here have that background flavor.”
For the sandwiches, Catherine chose pretzel buns, not just for their distinctive taste and look, but also because the soft and tender bread inside cradles the ingredients so they’re less prone to getting squished out. The risk is real, considering that each sandwich is loaded to a precarious height that often requires the aid of a wooden pick to stay upright.
Any entree choice comes with crispy housemade chips—a mix of both regular and sweet potatoes, each cooked separately and then blended together for that interplay of salty and sweet flavors. “It was not easy to accomplish them because at first they were soggy. And then they weren’t all uniformly fried, and then they were burned,” Catherine said. “So, you really have to find the perfect way to do them.”
At Bayleaf, desserts vary daily. On any given day you’ll find ice cream cookie sandwiches, whoopie pies, carrot cake, and maybe bread pudding a la mode. Among the housemade beverages, Bayleaf offers lemonades enhanced with cucumbers, berries, melons, pineapple, and other juicy fruits.
The handcrafted quality at Calavera is immediately apparent when you pick up one of their signature burritos. A trace of flour dust on your fingertips offers evidence of tortillas made from scratch. Chef Ruben’s approach to building the perfect burrito starts with making flour tortillas with just the right amount of flexibility, flattening them to about 2 millimeters. “It has to be thick, but not that thick, and not too thin,” he estimates. The same care goes into making the crunchy corn tortilla chips that are fried in-house and served on the side.
Folding the burrito is part science and part art. Ruben starts with a layer of rice to absorb the juices from the meats. Then the trick is to evenly spread out the ingredients so that in every bite you taste the rice, meats, beans, vegetables, guacamole, and sauces. “I’m making it as if I’m making the burrito for me, and as if I was going to eat it. I’m a big believer in that,” he said.
Your choice of beef, pork, chicken, or vegetables fills the burritos as well as the platos, nachos, and mulitas. The fajitas are one of the most popular picks, with beef fillets marinated in a well-tested recipe. But since Ruben comes from Michoacán, which is known for carnitas and birria, these meats undergo a more complex, slower preparation to achieve their distinctive flavors and textures. The beef for the birria is marinated in a mole sauce made with a multitude of spices, including four different peppers, oregano, cumin, cinnamon, and chocolate.
Ruben starts preparing the birria and carnitas at 6am, allowing the meats to cook through the morning until they’re tender enough to fall apart, just in time for the lunch crowds. The pork for the carnitas gets seared, braised, and seasoned section by section over the course of 4-6 hours. Likewise, the chicken thighs roast slowly in the oven for three hours until they, too, shred with ease. The extra effort Ruben puts into the slow cooking process reminds him of his uncle, who handled food with reverence, telling him, “It all depends on the love that you put in the food. That’s what you’re going to get back.”
With just one dessert option at Calavera, the choice is easy: churro fried ice cream with guava sauce. Drinks get the same freshly-made-in-house treatment as Bayleaf, with Calavera serving jamaica and tamarindo aguas, plus a strawberry flavored horchata.
Both restaurants plan to expand their menus and hours to include breakfast and dinner this fall, giving Catherine and Ruben more opportunities to express their passions for food and create fresh gourmet dishes for the bustling urbanites and visitors of Downtown LA.
“We offer a little bit everything for everyone. It works out very well,” said Andres. “You can try a little bit of both and leave happy.”