When my dad first tasted pizza around 1950, he proclaimed it a fad that would disappear soon. Years later he would proclaim his love of American food, things like pizza and tacos.
It certainly is true that many foreign foods have become mainstream American, and in Southern California, Mexican imports might be number one on the list. That might explain why Casa Escobar has been around for 46 years, still run by one of the original founding family members.
This could be considered an historical tourist site. There is the leather bar, leather-vinyl booths, piñatas, and that most rare of restaurant commodities: a parking lot. It’s really dark inside, with no windows, and the building itself is clearly from the 1950-1960 era. A few men at the bar look like they’ve been coming there since the day it opened.
The food? Well, good chips and two delicious salsa dips came within 60 seconds of our sitting down. That might be in part because we were the only customers at lunch the last time I was there. At the waiter’s suggestion, a bottle of Noche Buena quickly followed. A few sips confirmed that I prefer Dos Equis. No water was offered, but that’s just as well.
The menu confirmed my recollection that almost all of the lunch dishes were under $10, probably one reason for its longevity. I ordered a chile relleno and a crab enchilada, and my friends ordered a few other standard Mexican-American dishes. I didn’t care for the relleno at all: it was a small chile with negligible cheese stuffing encased in a thick breaded coating with an over thickened sauce on top. I like my rellenos full of cheese with a lightly breaded tempura-like cover. Try it at Lares on Pico Boulevard and you will see what I mean.
The crab enchilada was typical, with good crab flavor, but unexceptional in seasoning or saucing. But it is the best dish I’ve ever had there.
Casa Escobar is a throwback to the old style Mexican restaurant specializing in tacos and enchiladas, burritos and chile verde — everything covered with spicy tomato based sauce. Like so many others it has not kept up with the wonders of Mexican cuisine. Its main claim to fame is its margaritas.
While the staples of Mexican foods are corn, beans, squash and chili peppers, there are many wonderful regional dishes in Mexico that restaurants like Casa Escobar are ignoring that include these ingredients as well as regional specialties.
In northern Mexico (and on the Casa Escobar menu) one can find carne asada — thin beef strips marinated with lime, garlic and Worcestershire sauce and grilled over coals or on a griddle. In the Yucatán the locals dine on tamales and moles. In Jalisco there is delicious goat birria.
Then there are the coastal regions with seafood specialties, including fish a la veracruana and Mexican ceviche. In the southeast there are spicy vegetable dishes a bit like Indian foods and chicken-based dishes with various flavored sauces.
Some of my favorite Mexican foods are the slow-cooked pork dishes from the Yucatán Peninsula. On the other hand, I stay away from the Mayan and Aztec based foods such as iguana, rattlesnake, corn fungus, spider monkey, ant eggs and insects. As they say in French, everyone to his or her own taste.
Needless to say, few of these mouthwatering dishes are on the menu at Casa Escobar. But the current owner says he’s about to come out with a new menu, so maybe something wonderful will happen. Until then, I prefer those special regional Mexican restaurants we are so fortunate to have in Santa Monica and West Los Angeles.
If you go
2500 Wilshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, Calif.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.