Lula Cocina Mexicana
2720 Main Street
Santa Monica, CA 90405
Lula is a little Mexican place on Main Street in Santa Monica that plays in the same league as El Cholo and Border Grill, but gets far less of the star spotlight It’s not as authentic as many Mexican holes-in-the-wall. It’s a little more upscale like the La Serentas, but livelier. The bright yellow paint out front, with a curly pink and green neon sign are just like the vibe inside – cheerful, fun, and festive.
The man who usually takes names up front has an accent that matches better Lula’s sister restaurant/bar a few doors down, Finn McCool’s (a very unlikely family – but you’d never guess I am related to my sisters, either). He’s not sweet, not particularly charming, but over the years, I’ve learned to ignore him. We always make the narrow curve to the left then right, and head straight for the back, either to sit in the bar area, with an actual bar that only seats about six people, or out on the partially covered patio. Whether for dinner or drinks, they let us sit anywhere that’s open. Bar dining is preferred since service is only an arm’s length away, but on warm LA evenings, Lula’s patio is perfect for sipping margaritas.
Lula is serious about margaritas, serving them in good solid bar glasses. There’s only a need for stupid fancy stemmed margarita glasses when the shape of the glassware is required to identify the drink. Not at Lula. From across the bar you can tell it’s a margarita – strong with tequila. Not strong like, “Oh, these maragaritas are strong.” More like, “Holy f!@#ing tequila! These margaritas are strong!” I like that. Mas margaritas, por favor! Just as a side note - if you'd ever like to see a Korean girl get very brave and start sassing is Spanish, buy me a drink ;)!
In the back corner behind the bar, there are a few enormous glass containers with little spigots at the bottom – infused tequilas. I see lemon, orange, lime, and another citrus that looks like mutant runt grapefruit. These must be the ingrdients for the margarita specials. A little too fruity for me, so I stick with house, rocks/no salt. Perhaps after I’ve gotten over my tequila-induced traumas of the college years, I’ll do a shot of the grapefruit.
Chips and salsa are standard around LA Mexican restaurants, but Lula’s salsa is worth mentioning. It’s a little runny, making it hard to actually get salsa on a chip and into mouth without leaving a little trail of salsa drips along the table. I’m not quite sure what makes it taste so good, but I suspect it has something to do with whatever ingredient is giving it a slightly off-orange color rather than deep red (tomatoes) or green (tomatillas). Perhaps its a mix of both.
You’d think me an expert judging from the sheer number of Mexican meals I’ve eaten, and the gusto with which I approach margaritas, but no, I am pretty much just your average Tex-Mex quesadilla and guacamole girl. But I’m broadening my knowledge, and have been learning that the thing with Mexican food is that it’s really made up of little micro-cuisines from the different regions of Mexico. It’s just like American food (which, it could be argued, isn’t even a real cuisine anyway) – that’s made up of California (thank you, Ms. Waters!), Tex-Mex, homestyle southern, Carolina BBQ. Okay, so that was a bad example. A better example is Italian food, and the way that Mario Batali (I must secretly be obsessed with this guy - lol!) talks about how each of the regions of Italy have their own distinctive style of cooking. Romans cooking is different from Neapolitan cooking is different from Ligurian cooking (where the f@#$ is Liguria anyway?).
Mexico is made up of little regions, and most “Mexican” restaurants serve up a conglomeration of foods from all the regions, and typically, restaurants taint the authenticity by “contemporizing” the foods. Do Mexican people really eat a hard corn tortilla shell taco that has a chubby flour tortilla glued to the outside with refried beans (aka “chalupa”)? Maybe they do in the local Mexico City branch of Taco Bell, but that’s about it. Not that Kay and Dave's Cantina, El Cholo, and Tia Juana’s are defiling Mexican food, but...anyway. LA does have some Mexican restaurants that do focus on a specific region. Oaxacan seems the most prominent, but I am sure there are many restaurants that focus on a single region, but just don’t identify themselves that way. It’s easier to find customers who are in search of Mexican rather than “Baby, I am seriously jonesing for some Jaliscan.”
Lula has no focus. But what Lula does is at least try to educate me on the wide range of regional Mexican cuisines by indicating the origin of each item. Oaxaca comes up often, and there’s even a little section dedicated to the land of seven moles. Lula only represents two of them, mole negro, and a mole oaxaquena from Susana Trilling. A little suspect – since Trilling sure doesn’t sound like Spanish to me. I have been to Guelaguetza for Oaxacan, and have yet to develop a relish for mole, so at Lula, I leave them alone.
Many of the seafood based items are from Veracruz, and many people, yo tambien, are familiar with huachinango (red snapper) veracruzana. Lula also has calamari tostada (not fried calamari) and enchiladadas de langosta (lobster) from the Veracruz region. I’m not quite sure how stuffed spicy jalapenos made it here from Veracruz, but this antojito is one of my favorites – enormous fresh jalapenos stuffed with cheese, battered, the deep-fried. They are piping hot when they get to the bar, so the cheese is beyond oozing – it’s soup. We let them sit for a bit to cool down, and though they are already drowning in tomatilla chipotle sauce, we give them another dunk in the sal
sa that came with the chips. Incredible. Alright, so they’re basically giant jalapeno poppers. Buffalo wings are from Buffalo. Jalapeno poppers are from Veracruz.
Puebla, the region that gives us a reason to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, is also the reason we have chile rellenos with roasted tomato salsa. These are poblano peppers, one stuffed with cheese, and the other with beef, and look like the jalapeno popper’s protective older brothers. Tasty, but if I had to choose a cheesy pepper, I’d pick the kick of the jalapenos.
Things I’m familiar with come from Mexico City, like chicken tamales in a red chile sauce and carne asada. There’s also a squash blossom that’s stuffed with cheese, but I didn’t know they had blue cheese in Mexico.
Who knows where guacamole orginated – it has no regional identifier, but who cares? The guacamole is delicious. Corn quesadillas are labelled as coming from central Mexico, but the quesadilla el norte is region-less like the guacamole - giant flour tortilla overflowing with Jack cheese and diced poblano peppers, and with a smear of guacamole, it’s the quesadilla that’s familiar to us en el norte. I could inhale the whole thing myself, but catch myself and politely share. I could have eaten the guacamole with a fork straight from the plate, too. :)
The Tijuana Caesar salad is label-less, but we all know that Caesar salad came from Mexico, right? While it’s obvious that most of the foods that have no idenitifier are americanized Mexican items like the cheese and avocado burrito, some things are actually labelled “contemporary.” These are the things that I would expect to see on a menu at Border Grill or Ciudad, and have never ordered them – crepa de camarones (thick blue corn tortillas with shrimp), tuna tostada, and pechuga de pollo (chicken breast with blue cheese and jalapeno pepper jelly). They’re a little too fancy for me.
Lula has brunch on the weekends, and though I’ve been there at the appointed time, I don’t think I’ve actually eaten the Mexican brunch fare: omelettes with jalapenos, huevos rancheros, chorizo and the like. Sunday late mornings I’m still trying to nurse a hangover with...another margarita!
I really like Lula, and prfer it to El Cholo. The margaritas are strong in both places, but perhaps I’m just slightly put off by El Cholo’s popularity. The fact that Lula has good food, a good vibe, and doesn’t brag about itself makes it much more attractive.