First, there was the pre-dinner cocktail(s) at La Terza.
Second, there was a bottle of syrah during the meal.
Third, we decided to walk five blocks to El Carmen.
That was a dumb idea.
Not the "walk five blocks" part.
The "El Carmen, the tequila bar with 300+ tequilas," part.
I’ve been to El Carmen before, but it was a long time ago when I was a young, bright-eyed gal of about, oh, 23. My girlfriend Sandy and I would paint our faces with makeup, get dressed, try on three different pairs of stiletto-heeled sandals that, now that I look back and think about it, all looked exactly the same, check ourselves out in the full-length mirror, change our outfits or at least some portion of it, re-apply shimmery eyeshadow and shiny lipgloss, then check ourselves out again. To get ready to “go out,” it took us four hours, after which we would finally end up at the barclublounge flavor of the week to look pretty for one (hour, not drink). It was ridiculous. Fun, but ridiculous. El Carmen was our tequila flavor of the week three or four times back during those silly early-ish 20s.
Ridiculous. Silly. Early 20s.
So when El Carmen came up as our ee-cha (second stop) after dinner, I was a little concerned. This is Jason. We can’t take Jason to El Carmen. We have twirl off to some ooh-la-la hotel like The Orlando out of which we had just stepped and hang out in the sha-wan-kay hotel lobby lounge and sip on martinis with pinkies up, daaaah-ling. But this is why Jason is awesome. Not only was he down for a tequila bar, but along the way, he peered into the front window of Joan’s on Third and noted that he would “have to come back” the next day. I found out later that Jason most certainly did come back to Joan’s on Third all the way from his downtown hotel to try the cupcakes.
The black leather jacket clad Goliath at the door checked our IDs. Now, I’ve never been to Tijuana, but I can only suspect that stepping through the thick, deep dark red velvet curtain draped across El Carmen’s front door transports you from La LA Land’s West 3rd Street into a dark, back alley sliver of TJ. The space is narrow, runs deep to the back, and it’s dark – none of which is unusual for a bar – but the darkness glows a sexy, but somewhat demonic, red. Not scary demonic, but playful demonic, as if La Diabla were an Aeon Flux-type anime character who has furnished her basement rec room with red leather bar stools and decorated it with red glass candle holders that she picked up for ten cents a piece at a garage sale and red light bulbs in all the light fixtures. The ceiling is curved, which makes it feel even more like an underground lair. From the ceiling, lamps hang down that look like giant, translucent alien ova and sideways ceilings fans with wide paddles spin lazily, less for functionally circulating air, more for fashionably making you feel like you can breathe in what will eventually become very claustro-crowded.
Walls are plastered over with what look like old news clippings, and the most striking, though somewhat creepy, feature is the dozen or so framed pictures of Mexican wrestlers. The pictures hang high on the wall where it begins to curve into the ceiling, so it feels like these leather-masked, skivvies-clad men are hovering over you. But though they are are erotically creepy, the devil keeps it fun with multi-colored Christmas lights strung around the top of the walls. Wait, the devil celebrates Christmas?
El Carmen may feel like la diabla’s vacation cottage in TJ, but make no mistake, there’s no lack of LA. The entire left wall is a mirror, likely intended to make the space seem bigger, but I have a feeling that it also serves to 1) check yourself out, you sexy thang, and 2) check the crowd out for other sexy thangs. And there sure are a lot of sexy thangs at El Carmen. They’re sitting lean and long-legged at the bar, draped all over the low tables and chairs along the wall under the mirror and opposite the bar, and standing in stiletto heels (or wedge-heeled espadrilles if it’s summer 2005) in the two-foot wide floor space in between. The crowd is LA pretty, but the totally effin bueno thing about El Carmen is that LA attitude must be too big to slip between the folds of that thick vevet curtain out front. The vibe is mostly friendly, casual, and cool. (I say “mostly” because there is no place that isn’t without a few of the youknowwhats.)
I remember that you don’t remember much if you start shooting tequila at El Carmen, even if you try to balance it out with a few of the teeny tiny tasty tacos off the bar menu. So, though the list of 300+ tequilas was tempting, we stuck with very respectable margaritas at El Carmen because Jason and Colleen had to be lovely and charming at a wedding the next day. Which is why our "salud!" just before downing our last round and carrying on sahm-cha (third stop) with martinis at Lola’s made absolutely perfect sense.
8138 West 3rd Street (@ La Jolla)
Los Angeles, CA 90048