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Restaurants : A LULA OF A RESTAURANT : Surprisingly Celebratory Mexican Food From an Irishwoman in Santa Monica

It was the best of birthdays; it was the worst of workdays.

I drifted into Lula quietly and anonymously, as required by the Critics Code, but to my shock, there stood a rogues’ gallery of friends shouting, “Surprise! Surprise!” I had to consider my anonymity just a tiny bit blown, since the restaurant’s owner was among them.

Reviewing this place had been a little dangerous from the start, because owner Gerri Gilliland knows me. I’d only agreed to review Lula because everybody said she was totally wrapped up in getting the kitchen on track and would never know I was there. And, in fact, she hadn’t known of my previous visits, but adios to all that.

Worse still, since this was a birthday party, she laughingly pressed a gift on me--a very clear violation of the Critics Code. Gilliland is probably the most guileless soul in the restaurant business and couldn’t have imagined she was buying my good opinion, and in any case I flatter myself that it would take more to corrupt me than a red polka-dotted necktie (now residing with the Goodwill) that had belonged to her uncle in Ireland. So I figure I can still write this review in good conscience.

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But I want my friends to know that I don’t have time for this kind of soul-searching on a deadline. Thanks, everybody. You gave me the best surprise party in world history--no kidding at all. But, please, swear you’ll never, ever , do it again.

As for the restaurant, Lula stands in distinct contrast to Gilliland’s Cafe, Gerri Gilliland’s other restaurant, located a few blocks up Main Street. No eclectic California place tinged with French, Italian and Southeast Asian influences, Lula is a flat-out Mexican restaurant named after a famous cookery teacher in Mexico City. It has a look both bright and plain--two big, boxy rooms with brick walls painted blazing yellow and shocking pink.

At first glance it suggests something like Santa Monica’s Border Grill, which features recherche and avant-garde Mexican dishes. Lula has a simpler aim: primarily, serving the Mexican foods we already know--tacos, enchiladas and so on--in a more autentico style, using crema mexicana (Mexican-style creme fraiche) instead of sour cream, cotija , manchego and panela cheeses, as well as Monterey jack and thick, home-style tortillas. Taking advantage of its high-traffic location on Main Street, it keeps its prices at a casual level, about halfway between the Border Grill’s and your neighborhood burrito parlor’s.

The botano plato shows off Lula’s best appetizers. It includes a volcanic stone molcajete filled with guacamole, coarse in texture and strong on avocado flavor. Also one sope : a tartlet of corn masa topped with a mixture of black beans and chorizo, the sausage mysteriously aromatic with sweet spices. And one panucho : two superthin flour tortillas encasing a layer of black-bean paste, topped with lettuces, chunks of plain baked chicken and pink pickled onion rings. Plus a quesadilla made from a thick corn tortilla, folded over Mexican cheese and some epazote greens and fried. Best of all, the plato includes a squash blossom stuffed with cheese, fried in a blue-cornmeal crust--very thin and crisp--and accented by a sharp and smoky tomato-and-jalapeno sauce. All these elements can be ordered on their own (in larger servings, and if you order quesadillas by themselves, one of them will have potato and chorizo in it instead of cheese). But the botano plato provides the most variety per plato, and a bottle of Mexican beer will suit it down to the ground.

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Two or three other appetizers work as well. The corn pudding rather resembles an American corn pudding, more moist than a souffle but almost as light, and almost sweet enough for dessert--but it comes with an intriguing roasted-tomato-and-chipotle-pepper sauce, faintly hot and sweet-sour. Lula makes its chiles rellenos appetizer out of three fresh jalapenos stuffed with cheese--pretty hot in themselves--and served with a hot, tangy tomatillo-chipotle sauce. I’ve also had, on special, stuffed calamari in a chewy, bittersweet hot-pepper sauce.

On the other hand, the (delicious) queso fundido-- melted jack and panela cheese with bits of chorizo and peppers in it, buttery and fragrant with sweet spices from the sausage--amounts to a rather small portion. The coctel de camarones , a bowl of light, sweet tomato broth with some shrimp and cilantro, might be just what you want on a hot afternoon, but don’t order it with your mouth set for what we call a seafood cocktail. The green-corn tamale doesn’t have the spongy texture of a real tamale; consider it a complicated package for corn pudding with some salsa and crema mexicana on the side .

You don’t find many unfamiliar names among the entrees, but the old friends don’t quite resemble L.A. Mexican food either. The chicken enchiladas (which also contain cotija cheese) are mild and light, topped with a tart tomatillo sauce. The poblano chiles rellenos (not coated in batter, incidentally) have Mexican-cheese and ground-beef fillings. The menu refers to these as very spicy, but I’d scarcely call them spicy at all--the chief impression is green-pepper flesh and roasted-tomato sauce, which may not be what some people are looking for in a chiles relleno .

Lula makes rather basic but tender carnitas (of the non-browned carnitas school) and sometimes another easy-chewing pork dish, cochinita en pibil . Like most entrees, these come with perfectly cooked black beans and thick tortillas. One of the better items is brochetas de filete --basically, plain old beef shish kebab with bell peppers and onions on the skewer, accompanied by a funky, reddish-brown peanut sauce containing three peppers (chipotle, de arbol and New Mexico, says the menu) that give a new and decidedly non-Thai meaning to peanut sauce.

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Sometimes one senses a whiff of California, as with the tostada topped with rare ahi tuna, and the papas misto (baked potato skins filled with Mexican cheese and chunks of carne asada ) would pass muster in the Midwest. I must say I can’t stand the Salvadoran-style chicken tamale--sweet and cinnamony, with green olives and a thin dash of vinegar as well as the odd chunk of chicken--but it must appeal to somebody, because it’s the only item available on both the appetizer and entree sections.

The best entree I’ve had here, though, was a special called emerald seafood pozole , a seafood soup (shrimp, calamari, scallops and fish) thickened with ground almonds and both radish and lettuce leaves, along with tomatillos, parsley and cilantro. At the bottom of this rich, fragrant bowl are crunchy white corn kernels. I’d order this over any number of Lula’s chicken enchiladas.

Apparently Lula’s original plan was to serve nothing but Mexican desserts. You can still get arroz con leche , a sweet and very liquid rice pudding served comfortingly warm, and an unusually good flan with a meaty, mouth-filling texture. However, the fried-plantain dessert, for instance, seems to have vanished on the breeze.

No problem. Most of the current desserts recall Gilliland’s Cafe at its best: an espresso brownie, with a powerful chocolate-and-espresso flavor, served warm but essentially uncooked; a Kahlua mousse, like a coffee-flavored Bavarian cream surrounded with caramel butter cream and sprinkled with slivers of lime peel; a caramel-and-chocolate pastel (pie) with a caramel cajeta filling topped by a thin layer of bitter chocolate and crushed toasted almonds.

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Like Gilliland’s Cafe, Lula is an easygoing, unpretentious place--a natural hangout. If I wanted the most extraordinary Mexican food around, I’d go to Border Grill. If I wanted someplace that wasn’t as loud and expensive or altogether as aggressive, I’d go to Lula.

And if I were going somewhere for my birthday . . . well, I think that might be home, with my answering machine on, hiding under the bed and not answering the door.

Lula, 2720 Main St . , Santa Monica; (213) 392-5711. Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday, dinner nightly and brunch on weekends. Full bar. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $25-$35.

Suggested dishes: corn pudding, $4.25; botano plato , $8.95; emerald seafood pozole , $10.95; brochetas de filete , $10.95; Kahlua mousse, $3.25; espresso brownie, $3.95; caramel - and - chocolate pastel , $4.50

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Food stylist: Norman Stewart; plate courtesy of Raintree Antique Co., Santa Monica


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