In an almost imperceptible moment, your heart blushes before you snap the phone open. Hellooo, you purr in a feigned pink feline voice. Dinner? You force yourself to breathe, pause, breathe for that requisite lemme-think-for-a-sec-because-I-am-a-very-busy-girl-you-know-I-might-have-plans. You’d loooove to. 7:45? Fabulous! You snap the phone shut and look at at the display. It’s 7:18! Helloooo, kitty. You have 27 minutes.
You can’t even shower so you spritz yourself with...what’s the image you’re going for here? You snatch up the tiny turquoise bottle of Ralph for fun and flirty, sweep the pouf over you face in a miraculous transformation from blotchy and sallow to smooth and bright, magically wave your mascara wand, and with a final smack with a Juicy Tube in “Enchantress,” for that’s what you are, even if no one else knows it, your face looks fabulous, if you do say so yourself. Scratch that. Wipe with a kleenex and it’s a 20 second do-over with “Spring Fling.” That’s more like it.
You’re going to hear the roar of his GT in front of your place in about nine minutes with an “I’m outside” call from his cell because he’s like that, you know. Nine minutes. But you haven’t had a pedicure in weeks so you certainly can’t slip into those adorable capris that only work with your ankle-strap wedge sandals. A sexy pair of jeans and stiletto boots it is. Besides, he never mentioned where you were having dinner, and “nice” jeans, like MasterCard, are accepted everywhere (at least in LA).
But you’ve gained four pounds! Okay, five. You desperately flip through the ridiculous stack of jeans on the floor of your closet. Too tight. Too low-cut. Not those, those are your “fat pants.” And then, apart from “the stack,” in a singled rumpled, slightly faded mess in the corner, in a class by itself, lie the True Religions. In a scene straight out of Goldilocks, you shake the wrinkles out of your old reliables and shimmy into them with a *sigh*. Just right, Baby Bear.
When all else fails, when you’re down to the wire, when you’re in a pinch but need something that pops, you turn to your size *ahem*areyoucrazy?I’mnottellingyouwhatsizejeansIwear!*ahem* True Religions that make you look like a size 2 and feel like perfect “10.” Every girl has pair of those, you know. Chameleons that can go to La Salsa or La Terza. The Fall-back that’s still fabulous. The Reliable-Fits because they’re laced with spandex but no one will know.
La Serenata Gourmet is to dining out what my True Religions are to jeans. When you’re bored with the weekly Don Antonio’s routine, when you don’t have the energy to dress up and drive to Hollywood for something fresh and glamorous, when “What do you feel like? I don’t know, what do you feel like” turns into an extended volley, La Serenata is a very reliable standard.
The original restaurant is in East LA, but I have yet to haul my jeans-clad bootie all the way over to First Street, as both the Santa Monica La Serenata de Garibaldi and West LA La Serenata Gourmet are within 10 minutes of me. The Santa Monica location has a more refined atmosphere, a slightly better dressed crowd, and a full bar, but we always end up in West LA. The food at the West LA location tastes better.
Because La Serenata is Mexican food, it is casual and laid-back, for when does Mexican food ever really get fussy? And yet, the offering of seafood, and other certain details about the restaurant, take La Serenata a step beyond Taco Town. It is a place that works across the board whether a lazy I-don’t-feel-like-cooking weekday, a second date with seafood sangria, Friday night girlfriends who gossip, or a lively birthday party fueled by margaritas.
Thankfully, there’s valet parking. Though meters are seemingly abundant along Pico, so are the number of restaurants, so finding street parking at dinner prime time is next to impossible. If you’re on a date, you wouldn’t want to walk two blocks in those heels while still painfully sober, would you?
There’s a small patio with tables out front, but I have only ever seen people out there waiting, not dining. Just inside the front door, there’s a glass case displaying their housemade desserts. I always scan the shelves right away, looking for their pastel de tres leches. Only once did they not have it, and that was because we were dining fairly late.
We’ve never been seated in the small front dining room that also has the bar. The main dining room is more spacious and has bigger tables. Everything about the space feels warm: low lighting from small sconces on the walls that are a softly whitewashed antique yellow, and the usual bright, primary color decor of Mexican restaurants has been replaced with earthy, muted earth-tone artwork. The ambience is comfortably romantic. Or relaxing. Or both. However, though visually La Serenata is dim and warm, it certainly isn't a quiet atmosphere. Unless it's 9:30 on a Monday night, it's crowded enough that there is some sort of wait, sometimes as long as a half hour. Dinner conversation is constant, and somewhat boisterous servers add to the medium-low din.
Having grown up in San Antonio, I am a Tex-Mex girl to the core. I
dive chip-first into fiery, jalapeno-laden salsa and chunky tableside guacamole. I scoop up refried beans dripping with melted cheese, and can finish a monster burrito (given enough time). However, La Serenata comes from nowhere near the Rio Grande. Chips at the table are a small plate with a handful of chips sprinkled with cheese, and the salsa is a smooth, thin, red sauce, fragrant with spice, but barely a tickle of heat. It's a refreshing salvation from filling up on salty chips and salsa before I've even ordered.
If I think long and hard enough, I could probably think of one time I've ordered something twice at La Serenata, but for now, I will say that I don't think I have, except the margaritas, of course. It's not that anything I order isn't worthy of a repeat dining performance. Quite the opposite. Everything has always been delicious, but everything on the menu sounds so good that I want to try everything at least once. Even something as simple as a quesadilla isn't just a handful of shredded unidentifiable cheese slapped between layers of an anorexic tortilla. La Serenata's quesadilla is two cornmeal dough layers mortared together with a magical melted mess of cheese. Hm, I think the quesadilla might actually be something I have ordered more than once. Twice. Three times, a maybe.
Tacos are different from the crispy yellow shells filled with ground beef, shredded Iceberg lettuce and sour cream that I love (Tito's? No, honey, Taco Bell Grande *wink* ). La Serenata takes thick, but tiny in diameter, corn tortillas, and instead of folding them around a filling, saucy, flavorful pieces of fish are generously stuffed into the tortilla that has been split like a pita pocket. The Iceberg lettuce isn't inside the taco. It's a garnish. Chile rellenos are plump with cheese, coated in properly airy, eggy batter, and drowned with red salsa.
The main attraction at La Serenata, however, isn't the standard taco or even their "gordita," which is delicious, and nothing at all like the fantaaaaabulous chubby taco interpretation from Taco Bell. No, the big deal at La Serenata is the seafood, and specifically, the fresh fish. The fish offering changes with whatever happens to be fresh and in season, whether it's a thick steak of mahi mahi or a delicately flaky seabass. The fish are prepared in a number of ways, and served with any number of their special sauces: a fresh pico de gallo, mildly spicy salsa verde, a strong cilantro sauce, a simple spinach sauce, or mojo de ajo. These last two, the "campeche" and the garlic sauce, are the ones I most often order, alternating each time. None of the sauces are exceedingly spicy, so I always end up adding some sort of hot sauce.
At any other Mexican restaurant, I rarely have room for dessert after more than my fair share of margaritas, chips, salsa, and dinner. Besides, the most popular dessert always seems to be flan, which is something I liken to a fancy, expensive, Latin version of Jello pudding. However, I love La Serenata's pastel de tres leches, baked in a deep glass dish so that you can see the airy bubbles of sponge caked soaked to full with sticky sweet, milky tres leches sauce. The dessert can't be cut like a regular cake, but must be scooped from the dish with a serving spoon.
In the universe of restaurants that serve Mexican food in southern California, La Serenata is in its own little galaxy. It's somewhere between a taco trap on the corner and the overdone ooh-la-la of Ciudad, but depending on what you're wearing it can be closer to one end or the other. You might take your top client on the company's dime to La Serenata, but then again, you probably wouldn't wear jeans to a Board meeting, either.
La Serenata Gourmet
10924 West Pico Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90064
** a year ago today, we had smoked salmon benedict for an easter bruncheon **
tags :: food : and drink : mexican : restaurants : reviews : los angeles