Tacos Por Favor may not look flashy on the outside, but it has some of the best tacos inside. (Daniel Archuleta daniela@smdp.com)

Tacos Por Favor may not look flashy on the outside, but it has some of the best tacos inside. (Daniel Archuleta daniela@smdp.com)

Mexican food reminds me of Mexican music. Someone is singing or playing a melody, someone else is echoing on the side, there’s a deep bass keeping rhythm in the background, several other instruments playing complementary, but different rhythms, there’s a flute with a whole different agenda, and some kind of funky string guitar with a counterpoint melody. There are a lot of ingredients all working together to create a symphony of sounds and rhythms.

And that’s how good Mexican food is, with some main element and lots of other elements around it, creating a symphony of tastes. In my opinion, Mexican food should be considered one of the great cuisines of the world.  Especially with Mexican beer. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization agrees with me, and has added Mexican cuisine to its list of the world’s cultural heritage.

But there isn’t just one Mexican food. There are a number of regional specialties. There are a lot of Mexican restaurants around Santa Monica and the Westside that feature these specialties. I’ve tried a lot of them, but there are just five restaurants that I go to over and over again, usually for one of these special dishes. One of these restaurants calls itself Tex-Mex, but it’s really Mexican food.

My single favorite Mexican dish is the chile relleno. The best one in town that I’ve found is at Lares on Pico Boulevard. In other restaurants the chile pepper is inside some sort of breaded cake, which I don’t like. The rellenos at Lares are well cooked so the chile is soft, stuffed lightly with a flavorful cheese and lightly breaded. I put half of it inside a flour tortilla, add a touch of the delicious salsa, then a touch of the really hot thick sauce (you have to ask for), roll it up, and eat it slowly, spacing out the bites so that the amount consumed matches the sips of Dos Equis amber. Since I have only eaten half, I then prepare the other half, and eat it slowly with a second bottle of beer. That makes for a delightful lunch at less than $15.

Sometimes rellenos are stuffed with picadillo meat made of diced pork, raisins and nuts, seasoned with canella, but I prefer the cheese stuffing.

Another dish at Lares that I really like is the machaca, a dish which comes from the Sonora region of Mexico. It consists of scrambled eggs mixed with onion, peppers and shredded beef or pork. It’s particularly good for breakfast or brunch on Sunday Morning.

I often go to Monte Alban, a little Oaxacan restaurant in a small shopping center on Santa Monica Boulevard just east of Bundy Drive. The most famous cuisine from Oaxaca is the mole, and Monte Alban has a number of good moles. But I go there for the birria, a dish actually from Jalisco. The birria at Monte Alban comes in a big bowl, flavored with a base of dried, roasted peppers in a broth in which goat meat and bones have been slowly cooked for a long time. This creates a savory goat-flavored black broth with goat meat and bones in it. I spoon up the broth as a soup, and pick out the goat meat to put into tortillas, with a bit of chopped onion, cilantro, and salsa, and a squeeze of lime, all of which are served on the side.

According to Mexican folklore, birria is an aphrodisiac because it comes from goats, known for their sexual prowess. Maybe that’s why I keep going back.

Barbacoa is a form of cooking meat that originated in the Caribbean with the Taíno people, from which the term “barbecue” derives. In contemporary Mexico, it generally refers to meats or whole sheep slow-cooked over an open fire, or more traditionally, in a hole dug in the ground covered with maguey leaves. The best BBQ meat I’ve had in a local Mexican restaurant is at Mercado, in the heart of Santa Monica. This is a pretty upscale Mexican restaurant with wonderful drinks, excellent guacamole and the best carnitas around.

The most famous Mexican dish, I suppose, is the taco. My dad used to say, “Let’s go out for some real American food, like pizza, or tacos.” And certainly I’ll bet there are more tacos consumed in the U.S. than there are in Mexico. The best tacos place on the Westside, for my money, is Tacos Por Favor, on 14th Street and Olympic Boulevard. It’s not upscale. It’s sort of self-service. There’s a great salsa bar with a lot of spicy sides.  The tacos are even better than in Mexico, if that’s possible. They have a lot of other dishes, including a pretty good birria, but it’s the tacos that are outstanding.

Finally we get to the Marix Tex Mex in Santa Monica Canyon. Without a doubt, this restaurant is best known as the place to meet a new friend on taco Tuesday, when it’s jammed to the walls with sweet young things meeting tall athletic guys. But on other nights there’s some great food.  Don’t let the koi pond confuse you; it used to be a Japanese restaurant a long time ago and they kept the fish. Kids love it. But here you can find brisket tacos, wonderful marinated steaks, pretty good guacamole, great shrimp diablo, lots of draft beer and lots of TV screens to watch the games. Ask for the chipotle sauce on the side.

El Cholo has a great atmosphere, delicious blue corn enchiladas, a tasty margarita and pecan pralines for dessert. (Brandon Wise brandonw@smdp.com)

El Cholo has a great atmosphere, delicious blue corn enchiladas, a tasty margarita and pecan pralines for dessert. (Brandon Wise brandonw@smdp.com)

OK, one more comment. One Mexican restaurant I don’t go to for the food, per se, is El Cholo’s on Wilshire Boulevard. We always called it Tampico Tilly’s, but that’s not what it says on the Internet. Anyway, the food is not as good as the other restaurants listed above, but they do have five good things. First is the coffee, and good coffee in a Mexican restaurant is hard to find. Second are the wonderful pecan pralines given free with the coffee, or just for dessert if you ask for them. Third is a very good bar with excellent margaritas. Forth, in the Spring they have blue corn tortillas, which they also use for enchiladas. I don’t find them so special, but they have a big following and have certain nutritional benefits.  Last, this restaurant has the nicest atmosphere of any listed here, with lots of open space, and the feeling of being in an authentic Mexican villa, or patio.

If you go

Lares Restaurant

2909 Pico Blvd.

Santa Monica, Calif.

90405

(310) 829-4559

lares-restaurant.com

(Don’t miss the chile rellenos and machaca.)

 

Monte Alban Restaurant

11927 Santa Monica Blvd.

Los Angeles

90025

(310) 444-7736

montealbanlosangeles.com

(Try the birria and moles.)

 

Mercado

1416 Fourth St.

Santa Monica, Calif.

90401

(310) 526-7121

mercadosantamonica.com

(Try the carnitas and guacamole.)

 

Tacos Por Favor

1406 Olympic Blvd.

Santa Monica, Calif.

90404

(310) 392-5768

tacosporfavor.net

(Stick to the tacos.)

 

Marix Tex Mex

118 Entrada Dr.

Santa Monica, Calif.

90402

(310) 459-8596

marixtexmex.com

(OK, go on taco Tuesday and have fun. But don’t miss the shrimp diablo.)

 

El Cholo

1025 Wilshire Blvd.

Santa Monica, Calif.

90401

(310) 899-1106

elcholosantamonica.com

(Have a margarita, some chips, and, when in season, a blue corn enchilada.)

 

Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at mervynhecht@yahoo.com.

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