The name that Jose H. Rodriguez chose for his Boyle Heights restaurant was steeped in tradition, much like the Mexican seafood he had served to acclaim since 1985, the year he opened La Serenata de Garibaldi.
Inspired by a mariachi plaza in the neighborhood, the romantic-sounding moniker alluded to La Plaza de Garibaldi, a square in Mexico City where mariachis had long "serenaded" crowds.
FOR THE RECORD:
Jose Rodriguez: In the Nov. 25 LATExtra section, the obituary of Jose H. Rodriguez, the chef-owner of La Serenata de Garibaldi restaurant in Boyle Heights, said he was the eldest of eight children. Rodriguez was the eldest of nine. He had seven brothers and one sister. —
Soon after La Serenata opened, a Los Angeles Times review called it the "neighborhood Mexican place of your dreams." Crowds quickly followed — as did a reputation as one of the best Mexican restaurants in the city.
Rodriguez, who was both chef and owner of the establishment, died of heart failure Monday at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, his family said. He was 76.
"In the 1980s, La Serenata was one of the very few Los Angeles restaurants demonstrating the world of Mexican cooking beyond the carnitas plate and the No. 2 dinner," Jonathan Gold, the LA Weekly food critic, said in an e-mail to The Times.
"For years, it was the only Boyle Heights restaurant anybody on the Westside ever visited — those complex sauces blew everybody's minds," Gold wrote.
When La Serenata reopened in 2000 after a nearly two-year remodeling, restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila wrote in The Times: "What Nobu Matsuhisa is to Japanese cooking, chef/owner Jose Rodriguez is to Mexican: a genie of sauces."
In a September review that marked the establishment's 25th year, Virbila recalled her initial impression of La Serenata in the mid-1990s: "It was love at first bite."
On East 1st Street, less than a five-minute drive from downtown, the restaurant had long been a favorite gathering spot for politicos, lawyers, police chiefs and downtown workers.
One of them, Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), said that Rodriguez had been called the city's "Maestro de Salsas."
"His exquisite slightly sweet mole (best with chicken) is so delicious it is almost like dessert," Cedillo said in a statement that praised Rodriguez's civic involvement.
Jose Hernandez Rodriguez was born March 22, 1934, in Torreon, Mexico. He was the eldest of eight children.
After leaving high school early, Rodriguez found his way to Juarez, Mexico, where he started learning the restaurant business in the 1950s and married his wife, Aurora, whom he met in a bakery.
In the early 1960s, he came to Los Angeles to help his mother, Isabel Hernandez Rodriguez, who was raising his younger siblings by herself.
He waited tables at fine restaurants, mainly on the Westside, before establishing La Serenata with his wife and his mother, the source of much of his cooking expertise.
"We would always experiment as a family, cooking on Friday and Saturday nights," said his brother, Jorge Rodriguez. "My mom was a fabulous cook, and we just toyed around making different dishes."
What Jose Rodriguez tried to do, he told The Times in 1989, was "introduce real Mexican food" and educate people about what that meant.
He argued that California-Mexican food — a sweeter, less spicy version — had been created for American palates. Rodriguez planned to serve authentic Mexican dishes using ingredients found "in every kitchen in Mexican cooking," he said in the 1989 article.
Over the years, Times critics invariably rhapsodized over the seafood dishes — Mexican sea bass with a smoky chipotle sauce, giant shrimp with molcajete sauce, mahi-mahi tacos with a dark chile sauce.
Two more La Serenata locations opened in the 1990s, in West Los Angeles and Santa Monica. His wife and his son, Marco, a cook and pastry chef at La Serenata, will keep the restaurants going.
Rodriguez, a longtime resident of Culver City, was a committed social activist from the 1960s through the 1980s, marching for the rights of farmworkers and immigrant workers, his family said.
For many years, he sponsored a "Thanksgiving in the barrio," serving about 1,500 people dinner with the help of volunteers and donated turkeys. He asked waiters to wear their uniforms because "he felt that no matter how poor people were," his brother said, "they deserved to be served properly."
Besides his wife, son and brother Jorge, Rodriguez is survived by five other brothers, Jacobo, Antonio, Javier, Jaime and Ricardo; a sister, Isabel; and two grandchildren.
Services are pending.