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Review: La Serenata di Garibaldi, Boyle Heights

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It was to be an epic night. Not one, but two friends were bringing their new boyfriends for the inspection. (I'm not sure what role I'm supposed to play in this, being male, by the way -- it smacks of Sex and the City to me.)

One was from NorCal and was "into food" (whether that was foodism or chowhoundism, I wasn't sure) and so whatever we did had to be something that he couldn't get up in NorCal. When confronted with the "can there possibly be anything worth eating that is not available in San Francisco" attitude, I typically run straight to Mexican food, which L.A. does best -- but the problem is that there are surprisingly few elegant sit-down Mexican restaurants.

I had considered and rejected the La Serenata group because of two bad experiences we'd had at La Serenata Gourmet on Pico Boulevard in West L.A. -- loud, bad service, overcooked food -- and decided that it was time to give the original Boyle Heights location a shot, with the added benefit of being able to say, "Look, we're going into the barrio for dinner."

This process lasted until almost 3 PM on Saturday, at which point I called to try and get a reservation, figuring it would be jam-packed and showing up as a group of 6 would lead to long waits... but there were plenty of tables available.

We headed down the 101, got off at First Street, promptly got lost because one isn't allowed to turn left during the construction of the Gold Line, and pulled into a parking space that was only a few doors down from La Serenata di Garibaldi.

It's definitely got street credibility -- right across from Mariachi Plaza, and not in the best-kept neighbourhood, but we (hardened residents of North Hollywood) weren't too scared. The visitors, however, were a bit skeeved out... especially when I translated the sign on the taqueria across the street, with its sesos and huitlacoche and cabeza.

We were welcomed in, seated, given a wine list (some good names on it, some cheap L.A. Cetto wines, and nothing over about $45), and given chips, red mole (excellent) and quesadillas.

We skipped the wine in favour of margaritas, which were a too sweet -- probably my fault for just ordering "margaritas" instead of giving specific instructions as to tequila, etc. A few people also got beer, and I got a michelada (this place's recipe was lime juice, salt, clamato, habanero sauce and Negra Modelo).

There were four specials: salmon in salsa de molcajete, halibut in salsa de huitlacoche, mahi-mahi in salsa de chipotle, and grouper in red mole. Two people got mahi-mahi, one got halibut in mild salsa, one got giant prawns in salsa de molcajete, one got the grouper, and I got the halibut in huitlacoche.

The salsa de molcajete was fiery-hot despite being described as "medium", and one of the people couldn't eat it and had to switch plates with the halibut in mild salsa... but it was really, really good. The fish was all perfectly cooked, and my huitlacoche sauce, which looked like mole negro, had a slow burn and lots and lots of the corn fungus on it. Absolutely delicious.

With each dish came a plate of seasoned rice (not the yellow garbage so common in Mexican places), a small dish of frijoles de la olla (with lots of epazote -- I wanted an entire quart of these beans), and handmade corn tortillas, which they brought more of when we ran out, without our having to ask.

Dessert was by couple -- on my recommendation, we and another couple got flan, and the third couple got flourless chocolate cake. The cake was pretty boring and was VERY heavy -- that couple did not finish it -- but the flan, as always at La Serenata restaurants, was a revelation. Creamy, impossibly rich, with almost a smoky dulce de leche on it.

Service was wonderful -- our waitress was clearly excited by the food, guided us well on matching fish with sauce, and was unobtrusive but available when needed. The hostess came by several times to make sure we were taken care of, and anything we needed, we could ask anyone for.

The bill for six people, including two pitchers of margaritas and three beers, tip and tax, was $258, or $43 per person. Well worth it.

I can't imagine why the place would be only half-full at 7:30 on a Saturday night, other than that it's in the "hood", and Boyle Heights is not on most people's radar as a place to find chow (though I am definitely going back to explore the chow wonders of Mariachi Plaza). It should have been jam-packed, it should have had people loitering outside on the sidewalk for lack of a place to sit even at the bar. As it was, this scored some major chow points for Los Angeles in the eyes of our visitor from SF.

I strongly encourage you to get over the fear of East L.A. and have a great dinner.

La Serenata di Garibaldi
1842 E. 1st St.
Los Angeles, CA 90033
(323) 265-2887
http://www.laserenataonline.com

Locations (not reviewed) at 10924 Pico Blvd. in West Los Angeles and 1416 4th St. in Santa Monica.

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  1. I've been going to the East L.A. Serenata for years - starting when they were in their original, funky restaurant - and I've never had a disappointing meal there. (And have always had disappointing meals at their Westside branches.) One problem with your margarita no doubt is that they don't have a full liquor license - wine and beer only. It was a wine, or maybe soju, margarita. Which to my way of thinking is an abomination.

    Another good thing to do with San Francisco guests is Asian food. As much as they'd like to pretend they do, San Franciscans don't enjoy even close to the quality or variety of all types of Asian food that we do here in Los Angeles.

    1. I have always enjoyed dinner there, and am ready to yet another, maybe even next Friday night.
      Yes, margs are wine or soju-based, not tequila.
      Btw - per your comment, those L.A. Cetto wines from Mexico are really good. Have had them there as well as at Senor Fred in Sherman Oaks.
      Their sauces are terrific, and you can mix and match the sauces with any fish of preference. This location is the best in my estimation, yet access these days is a bit difficult and is sometimes easier from the 5 Fwy, State St. offramp coming in from the east. Also has valet parking off the sort of grungy alley in the rear, which can be very helpful and provides a sense of security for those less-adventurous ones among us.
      Once the gold line is up and running, take the gold line and you are there.

      1. The Fish is always dependable, they also have some of the Best Chili Relleno's which work well with their Meat dishes.

        1. Got to agree! The fish is always superb. So are the calderos and they're so generous you'll enjoy them again for lunch the next day. Go back for lunch and enjoy the fantastic sopes and epanadas. And thanks for the review of the flan. We've never had any room left over for dessert after the generous portions they serve.

          I've been when it's busy on weekends and had to wait even for a reserved table and I've been when you can breeze in without any reservation at all. But no question that this restaurant with a gracious dining room, good service and exceptional food is waaay under recognized. Lucky for those of us who appreciate it, I suppose.

          1. Great report -- thanks so much for sharing in detail.

            I had started to head to the two Westside locations at various times but something else always sounded better at the time.

            Now, I'm glad I waited so I can try the original location, hopefully soon.

            1. The coconut flan, if they have it, is out of this world good. I tried a chocolate flan the last time that I was there that wasn't very good. They have very good aguas frescas as well.

              I've been less impressed with my entrees there.

              1. D.U. - finally think I have the answer as to why the place was only partially full on a Saturday night - Mexican Independence Day celebrations on Cesar Chavez, and all over the place. I think Serenata is thought of as more of a special family party place.

                1 Reply
                1. re: carter

                  Hm... I can never remember when Mexican Independence Day is, only that I always seem to be in Baja for it, so I get the best (awesome fireworks shows on the playas) and the worst (produce so picked over that they start putting out mouldy fruit out of desperation).

                2. I hate to be contrarian, but my visits to LSdG have always left be rather underwhelmed.