Mexican food reminds me of Mexican music. Someone is singing or playing a melody, someone else is harmonizing on the side, there’s a deep bass keeping rhythm in the background, there are 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. Unesco agrees with me and has added Mexican cuisine to its list of the world’s cultural heritages.
But there isn’t just one Mexican food. There are a number of regional specialties. And 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. There is no way I could ever try all the Mexican restaurants in the Westside!
My single favorite Mexican dish is the chile relleno. And the best one in town that I’ve found is at Lares on Pico. 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, titrating the bites to that it just 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.
There are a lot of other good dishes at Lares that I really like, one of which 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 small Oaxacan cuisine restaurant in a small shopping center on Santa Monica Boulevard. The most famous cuisine from Oaxaca is the moles, 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?
According to Wikipedia, “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 US than there are in Mexico. The best tacos place on the Westside, for my money, is Tacos Por Favor, on 14th and Olympic. 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.
OK, one more comment. One Mexican restaurant I DON’T go to for the food per se is El Cholo’s on Wilshire. The food is not as good as the other restaurants listed above, but they do have some very good aspects: 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. Fourth, in the Spring they have blue corn tortillas, which they also use for enchiladas. They have a big following and have certain nutritional benefits. Fourth are the three or four different sauces, made from different chiles. These are the best in town, and I go there primarily for these sauces. 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.
Mercado: try the carnitas and guacamole
1416 4th St
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Monte Alban Restaurant: try the birria and moles
11929 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Tacos Por Favor: stick to the tacos
1408 Olympic Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90404
Neighborhood: Santa Monica
Lares Restaurant: don’t miss the chile rellenos and machaca
2909 Pico Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90405
Neighborhood: Santa Monica
El Cholo: have a margarita, some chips, and in season a blue corn enchilada.
1025 Wilshire Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Worth a mention: my #2 son regularly goes to Gilberts on Pico. It gets top ratings on several internet sites. There is no question it has a big following, and the staff is very friendly. I just never found any dishes there that are exceptional.
Merv Hecht, like many Harvard Law School graduates, went into the wine business after law. In 1988, he began writing restaurant reviews and books. His latest book is “The Instant Wine Connoisseur, 3d edition” available on Amazon. He currently works for several companies that source and distribute food and wine products internationally. Send your comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org.