Leaving Margaritaville

“Authentic” Mexican restaurants, those patronized mostly by Mexicans, come in all shapes and sizes, from birrierias to loncherias , swank mariscos bistros to norteno -style dives. But it seems there are only two kinds of suburban Mexican places: restaurants where you drink and restaurants where you eat. The bar-restaurants have views of sailboats, one-touch margarita machines, hot-legs contests on Wednesday nights and oceans of Corona with lime. The restaurant-restaurants, usually smaller and proprietor-run, have weavings on the walls, tasteful Mexican ballads and beer lists that include Negra Modelo. You will never have to listen to a Technotronic song, or eat a tostada that is bigger than your head.

Drinkers’ Mexican restaurants tend to have great chips and awful salsa, eaters’ restaurants the opposite. (If you are using your chips to scoop up an incendiary chipotle sauce, you are in a place where food is the thing.) At the bar-restaurants, everybody orders fajitas or the Number 2 Combination Platter, complete with Popocatepetl-flows of gritty rice and beans. At restaurant-restaurants, there are rich moles and shrimp in garlic sauce. Not only is there no bar scene at these places, but most often no actual bar. Dudes go to one type to pick up on babes; they go to the other carrying their babies.

A good suburban Mexican cafe, and there are a couple in almost any West Coast suburb of size, is considered by its customers to be the greatest Mexican restaurant in the world. They’re wrong: There’s always too much cheese.

In the Southland, food-guys have long gravitated toward La Cabanita on the mountainous edge of Glendale, which is more or less the archetypical good suburban Mexican joint: a dozen or so tables, an hour wait on weekends, a tart, salty tomatillo salsa that is among the best in town. Even the chips are good.


The street outside, meandering toward central Glendale, is a magnet for the Glendale parking patrol, who may single-handedly balance the city budget by ticketing every car on the block for not having their wheels cramped toward the curb. (There’s no sign to warn of this overzealous enforcement--beware.) The dining room is decorated with woven wall-hangings that depict either flowers or red chiles. A photograph of Liz Taylor and Larry Fortensky is prominently displayed on a far wall . . . celebrity spotting only a few blocks from the city of Montrose!

The menu, vaguely Mexico City-cosmopolitan, is loaded with things such as entomatadas and mole de olla , which turn out to be basically chicken enchiladas and a slightly spicy beef soup, respectively, but which sound ineffably chefly and exotic. The tacos, made with freshly made corn tortillas, are stuffed with sweetly spiced beef picadillo studded with almonds and raisins; with dryish fried pork; with chopped beef and melted cheese. They’re terrific. The chiles rellenos are not.

But even if there’s little here to challenge the palate of Liz ‘n’ Larry, La Cabanita does have some interesting food: a musky, complex green mole , alive with a dozen unfamiliar pounded barks and seeds; a soothing chicken soup; delicious, long-cooked pork chops smothered soul-food-style in a smoky pasilla gravy; roasted poblano chiles stuffed with a sweet, intricately spiced chicken forcemeat. Somebody has obviously thought about this stuff.

Oddly, La Cabanita’s newer sister restaurant, in the genteel suburb of La Canada, serves more adventurous food and less adventurous salsas. You can get Mexico City-style tripe soup; crisp pork-skin tacos; stewed white-hot cuaresmenos chiles; open-face grilled-cheese and bean sandwiches called molletes ; chile-spiked black-bean soup; meatballs in tasty chipotle sauce--even though the typical customer looks something like Leland from “L.A. Law.” Sometimes three tablesful of customers in a row will demand margaritas before settling for bottles of Carta Blanca. From the boulevard, it’s easy to mistake this restaurant-restaurant for a bar-restaurant.


La Cabanita

2236 Foothill Blvd., La Canada, (818) 248-1711; 3447 Verdugo Road, Glendale, (818) 957-2711. Open daily 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Beer and wine. Takeout. MasterCard, Visa. Dinner for two, food only, $12-$15.