After I flew in to interview for a job at The Times in the mid-'90s, I was taken to lunch at La Serenata to be introduced to one of L.A.'s best Mexican restaurants. I remember the warm, freshly made tortillas and soft tacos piled with chunks of fresh mahi mahi drizzled with gently smoldering salsa. I enjoyed the happy buzz of talk and laughter, the easy grace of the waiters and how cool it seemed inside compared with the sun beating down mercilessly outside. We scooped chunky guacamole onto warm chips, feasted on chicken enchiladas and shrimp in cilantro sauce.
For me, it was love at first bite. And I felt that way for a long time despite the occasional disappointing meal. Now I don't expect any culinary revelations but enjoy the restaurant more for its tradition and history.
After that first encounter, I came to appreciate Rodriguez's arsenal of more than 30 sauces, some traditional, some his own invention. And when he and his family opened the more casual Serenata in West Los Angeles and later a Serenata in Santa Monica, I reviewed those as well, though neither, for me, ever quite lived up to the original.
When my friend Richard finally secured a date with a woman he'd been sighing over for years, he took her to La Serenata de Garibaldi on 1st. And though he's never been back (I guess it did the trick; he married her), he still remembers what he ate: camarones in mojo de ajo sauce.
I didn't know any of this when I invited him to dinner the other day at La Serenata. When he walked in he did a double take. The place looks very different since Rodriguez remodeled several years ago, adding elaborately carved stone pillars and heavy wood beams. The back area, where the valet parking is located, now makes a grand entrance with potted cactus, a tiled fountain and an ornately carved door.
Richard recalls simple wood tables covered in bright oilcloth and strolling musicians (actually, one group left just before he arrived). And he marvels at the spruced-up Mariachi Plaza, now a Metro Gold Line station, down the street. La Serenata is more crowded than ever at lunchtime when anybody who works downtown can easily ride the Metro from Union Station or Little Tokyo to Boyle Heights. Potential jurors, take note.
Prices were lower then too, but weren't they all? It's still expensive for the neighborhood, especially now, which may be why the restaurant is generally so empty on weeknights.
At La Serenata, don't even think about ordering a margarita because they're not made with real tequila. Why La Serenata doesn't have a full liquor license, I don't know. They do have wine and beer, but nothing stronger. On a hot day, the virgin margarita made with mango is a good bet. It's basically a fruit slush. Or you can try Mexican wines from the producer L.A. Cetto in Baja.
Warm crisp chips come right away with a bowl of smooth, deep red salsa made from dried chiles. And piled on top of the chips are wedges of quesadilla, the cheese molten at the center. I had practically the same thing, a thin flatbread sandwiched around melted cheese, at an Italian restaurant recently. Same idea, different cultures.
Guacamole is always freshly made, and chunky. There's a fine fish quesadilla for two, and gorditas. The word means "fat" and usually, they're fat little boats of masa with various toppings. Here, the gorditas are more like miniature pita pockets in shape, made with fresh masa and stuffed with shredded beef, rosy rock shrimp or morsels of pork — and a splash of salsa. They're definitely worth ordering.
Those fish tacos are still one of the best items on the menu, usually made with mahi mahi, avocado and a mysterious dark chile sauce. Though mahi mahi doesn't have the bright flavor of red snapper pulled from the Pacific, the fresh, supple tortillas make a big difference.
The occasional dish just doesn't work. Filet of tomato is an odd one — not a filet at all, but a peeled whole tomato served warm covered in melted cheese, roasted peppers and a raspberry sauce. Huh? It's not very compelling and no beauty queen either, an haute experiment gone astray. Chicken empanada is the expected fried half-moon-shaped pastry. The crust is fine, but the chicken is dried out and dull.
Unless you order a la carte, the default for main courses includes soup. It could be a lovely lentil one flecked with a confetti of vegetables. Or it could be a boring carrot purée. You have no choice in the matter. You'll also get a small round of molded rice and a small bowl of creamy pinto or black beans. It's always the same.
Soft tacos or flautas with various fillings, enchiladas too, are all fine, but not exceptional. Shredded beef in a rich, robust chile Colorado makes a terrific do-it-yourself taco spooned into warm corn tortillas. The carne asada is excellent, and generous. Big tender chunks of pork in chile verde is another best bet.
But the real specialty here is seafood. Camarones (giant shrimp) have a fine flavor and come in many different preparations. I'd still go with the mojo de ajo, even though the last time I ordered it, the garlic was slightly too burnt. I love the sheer quantity of garlic, the rough texture and charred, almost smoky quality.
Anybody who has been to the coast of Mexico treasures memories of eating grilled fish just pulled from the sea or tacos heaped with that same pristine fish that tastes just of itself. It's somehow depressing to find that the specials are salmon, tilapia and mahi mahi instead of anything more local. There is Mexican sea bass, but when I order it one night, it doesn't smell all that fresh.
That should never happen. Nor should nopales salad taste as if it came from a can or has been cooked to oblivion. Not all the sauces are as subtly balanced as I remember. It may be simply because Rodriguez now spends more time in his other restaurants.
But when the seafood is fresh and the kitchen is on its toes, the original La Serenata can turn out some wonderful dishes. The salmon that night is perfectly fresh, the chunky molcajete sauce — roasted tomatoes, chiles, onions, diced avocado and epazote ground together in the traditional granite mortar and pestle, or molcajete, is absolutely wonderful with it.
Dessert? The best bet has always been La Serenata's flan, though this too has its ups and downs. Sometimes it's beautifully silky; sometimes it's tough from overcooking.
Though La Serenata isn't as consistent as it once was, when all the stars align, La Serenata dishes up solid and sometimes sublime Mexican cooking along with a little piece of L.A. history.
LA SERENATA DE GARIBALDI
RATING: one-and-a-half stars
LOCATION: 1842 E. 1st St., Los Angeles; (323) 265-2887; http://www.laserenataonline.com
PRICE: Starters, $8 each or three for $21; starters for sharing, $10 to $21; barbecue items, $18 to $27; traditional entrees, $18 to $28; hot pots, $22; rice and noodle dishes, $5 to $18; soups and stews, $12 to $18; dessert, $6 to $8. Corkage fee, $20.
DETAILS: Open from 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday to Friday and 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Valet parking, $3.50.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.