It probably came as a surprise to many locals when Renee’s Courtyard Cafe closed its doors for good a couple of months back. But then again Santa Monica’s landscape is undergoing some serious transformations.
With the exception of Chez Jay, it seems like no place is safe from new development or trendier competition. Renee’s did sadly seem antiquated when pitted against some of the hot new bars and restaurants hitting the Santa Monica scene. And one eatery that exemplifies this new wave of hip restaurants has moved into Renee’s old digs — artisan taqueria and bar Tinga.
Renee’s may have not left their creepy doll collection behind, but Tinga was bequeathed their full liquor license. Not even the original Tinga location on La Brea Avenue can serve the selection of libations the new Santa Monica spot can. They offer some serious cocktails, including those that have been barrel-aged in American oak to bring out the richness and smokiness of the liquor.
The classic margarita made with a quality tequila (Corralejo Blanco), fresh lime and orange triple sec is a solid choice. And a pitcher of four for $30 seems like a good deal as well. For something different try the Tipsy Jalapeño made with oak-aged tequila, fresh lime, jalapeño, rosemary and agave. It’s sweet enough to cut some of the heat from the tequila and jalapeño, making for a refreshing choice that will keep you cool on those hot summer nights.
Of course they offer the frozen variety as well as a handful of creatively crafted house cocktails. And for those who want to hit it hard, there is a nice selection of mezcal to boot.
For food, Tinga essentially took their menu from their successful La Brea location and transplanted it here. And you know if L.A. Times food dynamo Jonathan Gold approves of the fare then they are certainly onto something. An example of an imaginative dish, compliments of chefs Jerry and Chris Baker, is the chicken and waffles with buttermilk fried chicken, horchata buckwheat waffles, maple syrup and borracho sauce. Something more signature is the Tinga Taco with chipotle-steeped shredded chicken with shredded lettuce, crema and pickled red onions.
Familiar vessels including tacos, burritos, quesadillas and nachos are all there. However, the contents of each item are enough to make your culinary mind run wild. The menu ranges from a decadent Pastram-adilla with pastrami, grilled chayote, gruyere and Monterey jack to a vegan friendly chickpea and broccoli “falafel” taco. The braised short rib in the taco I ordered was cooked perfectly. Crunchy pickled red cabbage and tomatillo salsa set a nice contrast in flavor, texture and color as well. The not too thin, not to thick hand-pressed tortillas were quite accommodating too.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the bacon guacamole. It’s smoky but creamy, making for a refreshing twist on an old classic. There are significant chunks of pork belly, not just some sprinkling of bacon bits. You have to try it.
Prices may be a bit of a surprise if you are used to tacos off the truck. Tinga’s offerings are anything but the standard taco to go. Two Tinga Tacos will run you $7.75 while the more adventurous flat iron steak taco runs $10.95 for two. You also have to pay for chips and salsa, but if you have been living in Santa Monica for a decent amount of time you just get used to the fact that everything is monetarily enhanced. Even tacos. With that notion, Tinga’s prices follow suit to other casually classy restaurants in the area.
Considering the hand they were dealt Tinga has done a nice job of sprucing up the former Renee’s. Aside from knocking down some support walls, there is not much one can do with a disjointed floor plan other than embrace it. Three different bar rooms, a series of nooks and doorways could send a patron looking for the restroom and end up at the next door barbershop, which might not be a bad thing depending on the cut of their mug.
The owners have certainly added more light, which accentuates the brightly-colored decor. There are plenty of off knick-knacks and odd paintings of tacos riding horses near the Santa Monica Pier. In one bathroom there’s even a partially nude taco that would make Pamela Anderson’s breasts jealous. It’s playful and contributes to the restaurant’s relaxed vibe. And it’s a great place to people watch.
Times are changing and Renee’s will be missed by some. But Tinga is a welcomed replacement and a spot I see myself at quite often. There’s just something about sipping on tequila in the open air with your mitts around a tongue-tingling taco.
If you go
522 Wilshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, Calif.
Michael can be seen riding around town on his bike burning calories so he can eat more food, or on CityTV hosting his own show, “Tour de Feast.” To reach him visit his website at tourdefeast.net or follow him on Twitter @TourDeFeastSM.