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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Leave the Sunset Strip Behind on Olvera’s Historic Patio

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Some 22 years ago, when Butterfield’s on the Sunset Strip first opened, a kid from Guanajuato named Gerardo Olvera took a job there busing tables. Six years later, he had become the executive chef. Now, some 15 years after that promotion, Butterfield’s is gone, and Olvera is part-owner of the restaurant replacing it, a restaurant that, incidentally, bears his name. According to the promotional hype, he’s finally getting to cook the regional cuisine of his Guanajuato childhood.

Butterfield’s--and now Olvera’s--sits on a portion of what was formerly John Barrymore’s estate. The small inside dining rooms, today painted in deep chile reds and oranges, occupy the estate’s guest house where the dashing actor Errol Flynn spent his summers.

The majority of the restaurant’s seating, however, is outdoors on a series of descending patios. Several times during the last heat wave, I took refuge on this historic Hollywood hillside to try out Olvera’s Mexican cooking. The patio itself is worth a visit; canopied by huge, healthy shade trees, sealed off to the west by the monolithic House of Blues, this outdoor haven has the feel of a huge treehouse--you easily forget you’re on the Strip.

It is especially lovely at night, with small white lights twinkling in the branches. Mariachi music cheerfully blocks out the sound of traffic on Sunset. Leaves drift into a pretty fountain with hand-painted tiles. Waiters sail past carrying trays of exotic margaritas and shots of tequila (there are more than a dozen varieties to chose from). The chips are fresh and hot, the salsa fiery, the beer icy cold.

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We sit among tourists and dates and older couples. A server makes the guacamole we’ve ordered right at our table. He scoops out a ripe avocado, smashes it vigorously in a bowl, consults us on the seasonings--onions? tomatoes? cilantro? salt and pepper? lime juice?--then refills the skin. The finished product is fresh and good.

Antojitos, little snacks and drinking accompaniments, may be the best thing to order here. Carnitas sopes are two chewy little masa cups filled with crisped pork, spicy vegetables and queso fresco. The first few bites of queso fundido (melted cheese and spicy chorizo with mushrooms and peppers) are delicious. Eat it fast, because once the cheese cools, it becomes rubbery. Too bad the flour tortillas are so leathery. Chicken tamales have a good flavor, but they’re dry and crumbly. And the cactus salad, a few meager tablespoons of marinated nopales under big lettuce leaves, tastes tired.

What we slowly realize is Olvera’s is not really a bastion of regional Mexican cooking, but rather a large, fun bar, a tourist joint, which offers a selection of Americanized Mexican dishes whose spice level and sophistication is on a par with Los Arcos’ or Acapulco’s.

The handful of “Especialidades Regionales” (regional specialties) won’t impress anyone with the slightest knowledge of Mexican cooking. For example, there’s a pasta dish called the Jalisco, which is a mild jalapen~o and sweet rock shrimp: It’s a delicious bowl of food, but nothing about it tastes remotely like anything I’ve ever eaten in Jalisco, Mexico.

The Durango, New York steak in a chile-garlic sauce, looks promising; the steak has a good charred crust and the sauce has an intense roasted-chile appearance, but it all tastes bland as baby food. I wish Olvera would trust his customers enough to give us a more authentic Mexican palette.

My favorite plate of food--and certainly the most flavorful I eat at Olvera’s--holds two huge chile rellenos; plump pasilla chiles stuffed with cheese, lightly breaded and fried. The accompanying plump pink pinto beans and rice are quite good.

Fresh fish, which varies on a daily basis, can be cooked five different ways and served with one of seven sauces. I choose swordfish, grilled, with a cilantro tomatillo sauce, which shows up as a small, dull round of fish in some kind of a cream sauce spiked with alcohol.

The food may be disappointing to those expecting quality Mexican regional cooking, but the patio is still a charming retreat for an ice-cold drink and fresh guacamole during a heat wave.

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* Olvera, 8426 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood . (213) 656-3055. Open for lunch on Friday and brunch on Sunday. Open nightly for dinner. Full bar. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $25-$64.


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