My weekday dining falls within a 2-mile radius around my house. It’s not that I always enjoy the lovely evening, pre-dinner walk to a local bistro. It’s not that I don’t have the transportative means to go beyond those limits. I am just...lazy. And I hate LA traffic. But mostly, I’m lazy.
However, I do, on occasion, actually fire up my old, beat-up, yet very reliable car (die! die already! die so I don’t feel guilty about buying a new car!) and actually motor out beyond the confines of 26th Street, Montana Avenue, the 405 freeway, and Wilshire Bouelvard. It happens on occasion, and when it does, I find myself somewhere far-away and exotic like...Venice. When we decided to go to La Cabaña, which is on the corner of Lincoln Boulevard and Rose Avenue, for the first time, I felt like we had just set sail on the Pinta, Niña, and the Santa Maria.
La Cabaña is in an area of Venice that looks and feels sketchy, which of course, doesn’t narrow down the GPS much. All of Venice, with the exception of Abbot Kinney between Main Street and Venice Boulevard, looks and feels sketchy. However, La Cabaña is flanked to the east by a shopping plaza that appears to double as a homeless’ Hotel California after dark and to the west by a darkened, empty lot that is enclosed by a chain-link, barbed wire-topped fence. Downtown Sketchville. Except for the large banner plastered across the front of the unremarkable building that proclaims that it has been awarded for "Best Margaritas," La Cabaña didn’t look at all inviting from the outside.
But if they have the “Best Margaritas,” we must brave the urban elements!
If La Cabaña’s interior decorator was going for an ancient-Mayan-ruins-turned-cantina-bar, he got it. In fact, I think La Cabaña, Don Antonio’s and Casa Escobar all shared the same el decorador. The inside is dark, lit primarily with candles on tables, and cavernous. Brick and stone archways separate the restaurant into small semi-private nooks. The host in a short bolero-like tuxedo jacket and bow tie seated us first at table near the front, which was too small and very wobbly. He apologetically moved us to a booth in the back by the bar. The ceiling by the bar was strung with Christmas lights shaped like margaritas and Sauza tequila bottles. If that doesn't scream “Spring break in Cancun!” I just don't know what would. Maybe someone actually screaming, "Spring break in Cancun!"
Tortilla chips were disappointingly oily and chewy, as if they had been scraped from the bottom of the tray that had been sitting since 6 am under a heatlamp that was missing a few bulbs. The salsa tried unsuccessfully to make up for its own lack of flavor with an overdose of screaming hot chiles. But chips and salsa neither make nor break a Mexican restaurant, so we turned our attention to chilling the flavorless burn with a couple of La Cabana’s “Best Margaritas!”
Whether or not they truly won for Best Margaritas, La Cabana certainly gives itself the greatest odds by offering a semi-sizable list of both “House” margaritas (which can also be super-sized) and “Premium” margaritas. They’re not necessarily based on an impressive list of tequilas like some tequila bars we've been in bed with, but the house margaritas come in flavors that range from coconut, to the standard fruits, to midori (which I wasn't sure meant “melon-flavored” or “made with Midori liquor” or "shaken with violin playing in the background"). Though the fruity concoctions were a nice option for Captain Stubing and Isaac in Puerto Vallarta, I stuck with a simple margarita, on the rocks, with no salt. It wasn’t bad, but unfortunately, it wasn’t the “Best Margarita!” I’ve ever had.
La Cabana’s menu is a typical Mexican restaurant menu, and like typical restaurant menus, most of it is forgettable. However, I will note two things, one about the menu’s content, and the other about its format. La Cabana printed its menu "landscape" rather than “portait” which could not have been an accident because everyone’s default printer orientation is portrait. They purposely chose landscape! They went into their printer properties and radio-buttoned “Landscape!” Was it to be unique? Was it to be artistic? The landscape orientation of the pages made it very awkward to peruse the menu. We had to flip between the pages up and down like it was a drawing pad, which certainly isn’t a huge problem if you’re in the open space of the boardwalk sketching caricatures, but slightly annoying if one false flip could send a tall, narrow, inappropriately shapely margarita glass tumbling across the table.
The other remarkable feature of the menu is that there are two entire pages are dedicated to quesadillas of all kinds. If ever you thought a quesadilla was simply two flour tortillas welded together with melted queso of unimportant species, you’re right! But, La Cabana is to quesadillas what Enrique Higgins is to Eliza Hace-poco, creating such illusions of refinement like El Cangrejo with crab and tomatoes, and El Amuado with smoked salmon and avocado. I liked the idea of elevation from simple super bowl party snack to dollhouse tea party, but opted to order something that didn’t make me think of my high school musical theater days.
I started with albondigas soup, which is something I always order if it’s available on the menu. I have it in my mind to make this at home one day, but only after I've tried it in at least a dozen different places. Unfortunately, La Cabana's will not be one that I will try to remember. The broth was nothing more than lightly s
alted water, and the meatballs tasted like boiled ground beef. “Boiled ground beef” sounds grosser than it actually was, but I’m not going to candy-coat and call it as good as Campbells’ either.
The sope, a thick masa tortilla, was rock hard and as dense as clay. I left the sope itself on the plate, minus the two bites I tried to choke down, and scraped off the refried beans and chicken. Refried beans can never be bad, but unfortunately, the shredded strands of chicken were drier than my hair without a proper hot oil conditioning.
While the chips, salsa, sopa de albondigas, and sope were dreadfully flavorless, the plato de barbacoa made up for them with tender, flavorful, highly spiced barbecued meat. The earthiness in the sauce was still somewhat strong for my taste, but if I have to choose between "strangely flavored like earth" and no flavor whatsoever, I’ll take the mud.
Overall, the margaritas were good, but I wouldn't agree with the sign out front that says La Cabana has "The Best!" The food at La Cabana wasn't bad, either, but the true test is whether I would return. It's not that I wouldn't want to go back to La Cabana, but I would be hard-pressed to drive all the way to Venice when there are several restaurants that are no more than a mile away from my house that are almost exactly the same.
And they don’t print their menus on landscape.
738 Rose Ave (@ Lincoln Blvd)
Venice, CA 90291
** a year ago today, haroset was the end of my passover **