Coyotes adorn the walls and even the bathrooms at Coyote Cantina, but the paintings and sculptures don't show the actual mangy, skulking canines you might encounter in our hills. The male coyotes wear zoot suits, the females lounge in slinky gowns. These coyotes are sly hipsters--they look a little like Joe Camel.
Redondo Beach clearly loves this place (don't even think about coming without a reservation; I've found an hour's wait at 6 p.m. on a rainy Sunday), and it's easy to see why. The room has a cozy, welcoming air and an excited buzz. A loudish buzz, perhaps, but in any case not a roar.
The food is a personal version of Southwestern cuisine, one without mesquite grilling (the word "mesquite" appears only on a bottle of hot sauce) or painterly squiggles of sauce. It has muted health-food notes, such as a certain preference for turkey and seafood, and a specialty in Southwestern-style pastas.
Take the appetizer called "bolsillos": rectangular ravioli with oddly ridged sides, filled with sweet red pepper puree and served in pesto. There's a simple but powerful main dish called Sonora ravioli, about a dozen chicken ravioli in a very garlicky cream sauce with a little chopped tomato and dried guajillo pepper puree.
Often there's a pasta among the nightly specials. I've had chile linguine (pinkish pasta with the faintest of bites--there's chile in the dough) with bits of chicken and vegetables in a tangy cream sauce. Another night the special was shrimp ravioli, made with very fresh shrimp, accompanied by one rather doughy crab cake.
Some of these were made with that slightly gimmicky pasta that has pastel stripes of color in it. In every case, though, the pasta was cooked to a perfect silky texture.
Southwestern With Chinese Accents
But to get back to the appetizers. In the genre-bending tradition of California cuisine, there are Southwestern takes on Chinese ideas. The Santa Fe egg rolls are a low-rise version of tall food: two "egg rolls" cut in half and stood on their ends, frosted with a dark green cilantro pesto. As egg rolls go, they have a texture more like enchilada wrappers, but the filling of chicken, corn and black beans is savory and the pesto is wonderfully garlicky.
The rendition of pot stickers is less exciting. The filling might be chicken (the menu doesn't specify), but it doesn't matter, because you don't taste much but the familiar lightly fried flavor of pot sticker wrapper.
In the more traditional Southwestern vein, there is a fairly standard sope: masa cake topped with chicken, tomatoes and such. The quesadilla is a big flour tortilla filled with roast chicken, fried red onions and cheese, and griddled. It's a meal in itself.
I didn't expect much from the vegetable wrap, but it turned out to be unusually good. It's two green tortillas rolled up with corn kernels, sweet peppers, cheese and luscious poached spinach, in a cilantro sauce reminiscent of an Indian coriander chutney.
If you order the turkey jalapeno enchiladas, you get two of them, one in a little red sauce with melted cheese, the other in tomatillo sauce. The beans are black and the rice is cooked with a tomato juice until al dente and an arresting reddish orange color.
The tender pork tenderloin is served in the nouvelle way, cut in slices and fanned out on a mellow ancho chile sauce. It comes with a ragged mountain of cilantro mashed potatoes. Carne asada is a fairly tender grilled steak sliced up and served with pinto beans, that red rice and guacamole.
There's also a roast chicken, which will taste familiar if you've had the quesadilla, and a grilled salmon filet in tomatillo sauce with a little vegetable burrito on the side.
The desserts seem to change all the time, but I've had an imposing cheesecake that incorporated sliced apples and a crunchy walnut streusel, a great chocolate pie with a crunchy caramel filling and an excellent lemon cheesecake. Alas, I've also had an insipid "Mexican wedding cake" (cake crust, faint lemon layer) and a mud pie with a surprisingly bland chocolate pudding filling.
That was a surprise because up to that point I scarcely found a dud. This is one classy canine.
* Coyote Cantina, 531 N. Pacific Coast Highway, Redondo Beach, (310) 376-1066. Dinner 5-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 5-9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday. Full bar. Parking lot. All major cards. Dinner for two, food only, $31-$57.
* What to Get: "bolsillos," Santa Fe egg rolls, quesadilla, vegetable wraps, turkey jalapeno enchiladas, pork tenderloin, Sonora ravioli, apple-walnut cheesecake.