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Is Babita really worth it?

I keep thinking I should go out there. But everyone also raved about La Casita Mexicana, and I found that meal somewhat disappointing.

Part of it is that price point. I don't really mind spending money on food, but what are they doing to cochinta pibil that makes it worth $22? For less than half that price you can get a cochinita pibil plate at Chichen Itza that is not just good, but mind-blowing. You also get probably the best salsa in the world there.

So why is Babita charging $22? Do they use jamon iberico? Do they have some kind of even more magical habenero salsa than Chichen Itza?

Maybe that's simply not the thing to order there. But the fact that such a dish is on the menu makes me feel like the place is simply ripping its customers off, and that is not a feeling I can get down with.

Just curious what others would say about it.

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  1. I am not generally a fan of the conchinta pibil, I like the rellenos, and the ceviche as well as the guac. While not on the menu anymore, if you can ask nicely you can still get the chiles en nogada. Some people rave about the shrimp topolobampo but I don't always think he pulls it off -- sometimes yes, sometimes no.

    If you think it's pricey, go at lunch and get the conchinita pibil for under $20.

    With all of that said, if you have to order something and think twice about the $ you are paying for it, I would just advise that you don't bother. Babita, or otherwise. It just detracts from the culinary and eating dynamics.

    1 Reply
    1. I agree with your assessment of La Casita Mexicana..... Our meal was decent enough, the place is cute, so it was convenient for us as we were in the area at the time. But I'm just not sure it's worth the drive unless you're going to be in the area anyway......

      2 Replies
      1. re: Dirtywextraolives

        Which is pretty much unacceptable since Corzon Y Miel is right by it, and is a restaurant worth driving to...

        1. re: Stravinsky

          CyM was not there yet when we went to la casita....

      2. I find this a bizarre post. Sure you can get great cochinita pibil at another place, but Babita is a much higher-class dining experience than Chichen Itza. For the $13 difference, you are getting tablecloths, quality service, and a much more varied and upscale menu. You're not ordering at a counter and drinking out of plastic cups.

        Do you complain about going to Mozza because you can get a good plate -- possibly even a mind-blowing plate -- of pasta for a lot less somewhere else? Of course not.

        23 Replies
        1. re: Jwsel

          Interesting discussion on Babita. I too, have opinions. I have gone to Babita for years and mostly enjoy the food. Is it worth the drive, not anymore for me. Roberto (owner) is a hoot and quite engaging to speak with. His wife is a lovely woman. Typically I order the chiles en nogada as his is the best around. My issue has been and still is the service. Most nights, the lovely wife is the only person working the floor. To drive this far from Sherman Oaks and spend easily over 2 hours on dinner, is too long for what you are getting. I don't mind spending several hours on a meal, but I need to be served and well taken care of. I wish he'd move closer in and higher a waiter and bus-person. I'd go back in a flash.

          1. re: xoxohh

            +1 for the food and service at Babita. The food is terrific, the service not so much. The last time I was there -- well over a year ago, in fairness -- I was at a table for 8. There was another large party (8-10) dining also, in addition to their usual (very small) complement of tables. There was only one other waitress working in addition to the chef's wife, and they and the kitchen were completely overwhelmed. It took us over an hour to get our main courses, which came out piecemeal rather than all at once, so some people were finishing just as others were first getting their food. It's a special place, the food is great, but is it worth the schlep to the SGV (I'm also in Sherman Oaks, as it happens) if you can find something that even approaches it, especially for a fraction of the price? Probably not.

            1. re: medrite

              The dining "experience" at Babita sometimes can best be summed up as an existential exercise in the art of idle repartee with your dining companion.

              Otherwise, bring along Moby Dick. It's a good read. Especially the third time around.

              1. re: ipsedixit

                "Otherwise, bring along Moby Dick."

                Never needed to bring it to the Hump...they had it available there...

          2. re: Jwsel

            "Do you complain about going to Mozza because you can get a good plate -- possibly even a mind-blowing plate -- of pasta for a lot less somewhere else? Of course not."

            Yes, I would make that complaint.

            I sort of think Mozza is a bad example, but absolutely, if I could get the same quality of pasta as Bucato or Bestia for $7-8 somewhere, I would definitely rail against them, and probably not bother going, or would at least avoid the pasta there.

            If Babita is just about atmosphere, I appreciate knowing. It's certainly not for me, as I don't really care at all about atmosphere.

            1. re: Stravinsky

              I agree with Jwsel. I love Babita and I love Chichen Itza. They are different restaurants with different menus and much different atmospheres. I can't specifically comment on the cochinita pibil at Babita because I've never ordered it there. Everything I have had at Babita though has been fantastic.

              If you just want cochinita pibil, don't want a cocktail, don't care about the atmosphere and want the highest quality to price ratio, stick with Chichen Itza. It's hard to imagine you'll do better. That said, criticizing Babita on that grounds stikes me as similar to complaining that a cheese steak sandwich at a white table cloth restaurant doesn't offer the same value as Boo's cheesesteak does. Probably very true, but that's why I'd order something else at the white tablecloth restaurant or not bother going there unless I wanted a drink too or the atmosphere.

              1. re: bg90027

                A cheesesteak must be the worst possible example here.

                There is a famous cheesesteak at The Bazaar. How similar is that cheesesteak to Boo's cheesesteaks? Only just enough that it can even be referred to as a cheesesteak. I am sure in terms of quantity/price, it is multiple times a Boo's cheesesteak, but the use of very high quality meat, the inventiveness of the dish, etc... makes it worth the money easily.

                So, are you saying that the food at Babita is to the food at Chichen Itza what the cheesesteak at The Bazaar is to Boo's?

                Or do they just add a white tablecloth atmosphere, and some nice cocktails to essentially the same food?

                1. re: Stravinsky

                  NO NO NO NO...why would you complicate a simple example with molecular gastronomy? I almost think you are trying purposefully to be difficult.

                  The food at Babita is wonderful and the menus are mostly very different with Babita shooting much higher than CI does. I love Babita, I just don't get the Cochinita Pibil there and wouldn't recommend you do so either.

                  1. re: bg90027

                    "NO NO NO NO...why would you complicate a simple example with molecular gastronomy? I almost think you are trying purposefully to be difficult."

                    I am not. You chose the example of cheesesteaks. It's almost elementary to see that the high-end version has some serious value added to it compared to Boo's version.

                    What is so great about the food at Babita otherwise? What does one get there that one cannot get elsewhere?

                    Most everyone else has said the atmosphere is the difference, not the food so much.

                    1. re: Stravinsky

                      You are missing the point when you offer up the Bazaar's cheesesteak as THE high end counterpoint to a Boo's cheesesteak. How many nice restaurants have a cheesesteak or a hamburger/cheeseburger on their lunch menu which is priced much higher than one could get at a less fancy place? Most of those sandwiches/burgers are just a basic cheesesteak maybe with slightly higher quality meat and aren't "worth" the added price based on the quality of food alone. However, they are but one item on a large menu and to judge the restaurant based on the quality to price ratio of that item versus one at a casual restaurant misses the entire point why the restaurant exists.

                      And yes, there is a difference in atmosphere difference between Babita and CI but Babita doesn't have a beautiful dining room. There is no ocean view or lovely patio. The reason people drive there from LA because the food is great, not because of the atmosphere. The chiles en nogales are the best in the city. The Shrimp Tompolobambo is great, as is the lamb shank. Everything I've ordered has been great and some people who I've taken there have told me that it was the best Mexican food that they've ever eaten.

                      1. re: bg90027

                        "How many nice restaurants have a cheesesteak or a hamburger/cheeseburger on their lunch menu which is priced much higher than one could get at a less fancy place? Most of those sandwiches/burgers are just a basic cheesesteak maybe with slightly higher quality meat and aren't "worth" the added price based on the quality of food alone. However, they are but one item on a large menu and to judge the restaurant based on the quality to price ratio of that item versus one at a casual restaurant misses the entire point why the restaurant exists."

                        I would never go to such places.

                        So if that is the category that Babita is in, I will never go there either.

                        I have not missed any point. It's a reference point that is relative to my own dining habits.

                        1. re: Stravinsky

                          I will make one last attempt and then I give up. The reason to go to Babita is that the food generally speaking is better than the food at Chichen Itza (at least in my opinion) and there are many items on the menu that are well worth the higher prices at Babita. That said, I've never ordered the Cochinita Pibil at Babita, mainly because there are other items I am more interested in eating but also because I know that I can get an exceptional Cochinita Pibil at CI for half the price. I generally shun burgers and cheesesteaks at higher brow restaurants on similar grounds. If I choose to go there, it is other menu items that I'm interested in.

                          So I really don't know what you mean by you never go to "such places." If such places is intented to mean places that would charge higher prices for items like Cochinita Pibil that are available at cheaper, less sophisticated restaurants, then why did you bother starting the thread? You knew from the start about that. I still think we've been largely talking past each other though because I know you are a huge fan of Josef Centeno's cooking and assume it never bothered you that the burger on his lunch menu at Lazy Ox could be purchased cheaper elsewhere if you went to eat there for his pig ears, bone marrow and more sophisticated offerings. I really don't see what's different about going to Babita and just not getting the Cochinita Pibil.

                          1. re: bg90027

                            When Josef Centeno makes a burger, you most definitely cannot purchase that same burger elsewhere for less. Not even a burger of the same quality necessarily.

                            Maybe it's just a perspective of my own that is problematic, idk.

                            There's a $20 burger at a place called ARC in OC that I semi-regularly indulge in. If I could get the same 14oz patty of prime beef, tenderly packed, with lardons, and wrapped in duck fat, with the carefully dressed greens, fresh tomatoes, onions, and house-made cornmeal dusted bun for $10... I would never go to ARC.

                            But I can't. I can go to In-n-Out for a $5 double-double. But does that even remotely approach the quality of the $20 ARC burger? No.

                            What about other, burgers at high-end restaurants? Nope, not even there. It's a unique creation that can't really be found elsewhere. Just like Jose Andres' cheesesteak at The Bazaar.

                            So I don't think twice about the $20 price tag for a burger at ARC.

                            But if some place existed that made the same burger, for the same quality, at less than half the price, I would become mighty suspicious that perhaps ARC had been ripping me off somewhat, and I would probably stop going there.

                            Perhaps that's just an irrational quirk I have.

                            We're past the point of arguing whether Babita's cochinita pibil is like that.

                            The reason I mentioned the dish to begin with is that, if they aren't putting in the effort to make a $22 rendition of cochinita pibil as different from the $10 version at CI, as the ARC burger is from an In-n-Out double-double, or The Bazaar's cheesesteak is from Boo's cheesesteak, then it sets the tone of the place as the kind of place that 1. Doesn't put maximum effort into all of the food it serves, 2. Feels comfortable having menu items that are essentially there just to rip off customers. (Or 3. It's a place where you can eat food that is the same as at a place like Chichen Itza, but in a "higher end" atmosphere, so you simply pay twice the price for the improved atmosphere, and/or service).

                            Whether 1, 2, 3, or all of them, it instantly puts me off going to the place. But it gets rave reviews, so I was curious about why it does so. I started the thread to see if people would say, "yeah CI's is just as good or better", or if people would say something like, "The cochinita pibil at Babita is a whole different dish; a work of art, elevated to new heights by creative technique and ingredients!".

                            Most people seem to be indicating it is the atmosphere as opposed to the food; worse, some have suggested that it is kept open merely because it is in a good location. Hardly anyone really seems to have raved about the food with the kind of passion that chowhounds usually do when they are talking about dishes they truly love. (The food comments have mostly been, "the food's good". Not the descriptive detailing of the elements of fantastic dishes you usually see).

                            A few people have mentioned a particularly good lamb shank, and shrimp. I am also tempted to try to chiles en nogada, although the version at La Casita Mexicana was such a letdown that I am not sure I can handle ever ordering the dish again...

                            1. re: Stravinsky

                              The "proof" is only going to revealed if you try Babita. Since it seems unlikely that your family will lose the roof over their heads because you ate here it seems as though there is only one more thing to do on your part to put this exercise out of its virtual misery. Fish or cut bait.

                              1. re: Stravinsky

                                Finally! You've explained yourself, and I get it..... What took so long?

                                1. re: Dirtywextraolives

                                  Sometimes explaining oneself simply takes longer than one imagines it will.

                                  The art of explanation is a mysterious one.

                                  1. re: Stravinsky

                                    Oh most definitely! Seriously though, after reading that last comment, I wholeheartedly agree now....makes sense to me, especially in this time of my life when it kills me to spend mucho bucks on a meal that leaves me less than satisfied, or worse, feeling ripped off.

                                    1. re: Dirtywextraolives

                                      Given Babita's location too... funnily enough, it has a lot of competition. Nevermind La Casita, there's Corazon y Miel, Bizarra Capital, and Colonia Taco Lounge!

                                2. re: Stravinsky

                                  I have nothing against Centeno's burger although you clearly hold it in higher regard than I do. I do reject philosophically the entire concept of the ARC higher end burger though. I think certain foods aren't meant to be elevated, and a burger is one of them. It can be delicious for under $10 and using prime beef and duck fat isn't going to make it enough better to justify the added cost. In my opinion, its a waste of ingredients that have a higher and better purpose in a more elegant dish. At that price point, I'd rather order something else.

                                  Likewise, I've never had Cochinita Pibil at Babita. Never even considered ordering it. Whether they make an effort or not to elevate, I couldn't say. I'd rather order something else there.

                                  I understand your perspective a lot better so thanks for explaining. I just don't really share it. It's hard to make a better Cochinita Pibil than CI does. Its their specialty, its not Babita's specialty. CI also has a much different cost structure so its not a sign that Babita is ripping you off if their Cochinita Pibil is more expensive. I wouldn't make broad conclusions off of that. I just would order something other than Cochinita Pibil when/if you go to Babita.

                                  1. re: bg90027

                                    "I do reject philosophically the entire concept of the ARC higher end burger though. I think certain foods aren't meant to be elevated, and a burger is one of them. It can be delicious for under $10 and using prime beef and duck fat isn't going to make it enough better to justify the added cost. "

                                    Often, I too have rejected this concept, as many places simply fail at it.

                                    ARC is the highest level of it, and truly nails it though.

                                    There are other places where it doesn't conceptually work out though.

                                    But as someone that is into food, I URGE you to try the ARC burger if you are ever in OC. I genuinely think it may change your whole worldview on this. If nothing else, it will be a taste experience you will not soon forget.

                                    Now, if you wanted to conceptually deny that what ARC is serving is a burger... that would be a different debate I suppose haha =P

                                    "CI also has a much different cost structure so its not a sign that Babita is ripping you off if their Cochinita Pibil is more expensive."

                                    They might not be, but the question that arises for me is, "why do they have this on the menu at all?" If they aren't elevating the dish to new heights (or at least ATTEMPTING to do so), then why not simply leave it off the menu? It communicates something about the general philosophy of a restaurant to include dishes that they aren't going to do the best, nor are they going to try and elevate.

                                    Think of it this way, how do I know that the chiles en nogada aren't the same, or worse than La Casita Mexicana if they aren't taking the time to make their Cochinita Pibil better than CI's (or simply trying to make it different in a new, creative way)?

                                    It says something broadly about the philosophy of a restaurant to me. It could be a flawed thought process, or approach to the world, but I have found that, in general, it serves me pretty well.

                      2. re: Stravinsky

                        IIRC, Babita does not have cocktails. Just beer and wine.

                        1. re: mc michael

                          I could have sworn we had margaritas there once but after doing a search to confirm I think you're right that its just beer and wine.

                2. LA can't do haute nouveaux Mexican to save the genre from extinction. Babita is no exception.

                  Thanks to Bayless, Babita equivalents are omnipresent in Chicago, but in LA (including SGV and adjacent), it makes more sense to hit El Coraloense than Babita/La Casita/Corazon y Miel. You're right: cochinita pibil at Chitzen Itza is no worse, it rings up at 1/3 the ticket, which means Babita, just another dive in SGV, is about as futile as it comes.

                  Alternatively, one could do Rivera and Loteria for the proper figurative tablecloth service. For mole and whatnot, Rocio's is far more complex and interesting than Babita's, at 1/2 the cost. Again, no tablecloth, but.. whatevers. The tablecloth is just polishing the turd.

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: TonyC

                    What about Taco Maria in OC? Curious what you think.

                    It's very funny (and also somewhat tragic) that Chicago is the home of nouveaux Mexican cuisine.

                    Rivera is certainly doing something much different than one would find at Chichen Itza. So is Corazon y Miel I would say. I don't really see Corazon y Miel as being strictly Mexican fare. But then again, maybe I just don't know where else to geta good Pan con Chompipe.

                    CyM seems more like an alternative to Animal/Bäco Mercat than an alternative to Chicen Itza/Rocio's Mole Los Dioses to me.

                    1. re: Stravinsky

                      Never been to Taco Maria. Costa Mesa for Mexican doesn't make much sense personally when Boyle Hts/Bell is within biking distance. It's a great thing, I think, to be able to NOT always have to eat Mexican food in a hole-in-the-wall. Guerilla Tacos really need to open a B&M.

                      You're right re: CyM and Rivera, of course. Which again reiterates the fact LA [mostly] can't do mid-priced haute Mexican to save its life. Unless, unless.. you count Red O... ^__^

                      1. re: TonyC

                        Taco Maria is worth the drive.

                        Surprising, but true.

                        1. re: TonyC

                          Taco Maria isn't just mexican, it's that haute nouveau Mexican you're talking about and more skillfully done than Rivera or Red O. Just check the Yelp photos. If it were in LA people would be falling all over themselves to get in.

                          1. re: Porthos

                            Don't doubt what you're saying, and maybe Mexican restaurateurs -- someone NOT Sedlar -- will heed the underlying message in this thread. instead of more guisados in tacos tossed together somewhere in BFE SGV (read: Colonial "Taco") or Whittier, LA city deserves this just as much OC, and somewhere NOT on Beverly.

                            alas, it's 82 miles r/t to/fro CM from Silver Lake and then there's this stigma: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/922221

                            1. re: TonyC

                              Did you actually read that post? Taco Maria is cited probably several dozen times as being one of the cures for that stigma.

                    2. Oh my gosh I am glad to see someone else rave about Chichen Itza as much as I do. There is not a better sauce out there. Have you had their panuchos? I'm obsessed.

                      Very curious to see the responses to this thread, have not been to Babita for the same reasons as you.

                      6 Replies
                      1. re: set0312

                        Not only have I had Chichen Itza's panuchos, but I won an eating contest there for eating 14 of them in 20 minutes! haha (On the same day, someone won another contest for eating two pins of the grilledh habenero salsa and had to be hospitalized...)

                        I would rank Chichen Itza as one of the top 10 restaurants in LA personally. It was the first place that I discovered that seriously blew my mind in terms of LA food. It remains one of the best restaurants in the city to me.

                        Those guys could easily 'sell out' too. They could do what Zarate did, and move the place to 7th Street, and double their prices if they wanted to. But they stay there out of a sense of community.

                        It's pretty inspirational.

                        In terms of price-to-quality ratio, it must be the #1 restaurant in LA. I have never had a bad experience there. I truly love that place.

                        1. re: Stravinsky

                          Actually, they didn't sell out, but they did pull a Mo Chica... It didn't work because they ahd a bad parking situation and the neighborhood couldn't support it. While Babita is surrounded by areas with with a fairly affluent traditional Mexican Neighborhoods. Areas were Latino business owners like their cars, Andalusians, tequilla and mixotes, strong and EXPENSIVE.

                          Anyway, yes, people mention the autmosphere but it's no different to how many 'meh' restaurants in Santa Monica survive. The community supports it. There are very clear reasons why Babita, has and will survive while others flail.

                          --Dommy!

                          1. re: Dommy

                            My father has a great saying, "when the location sells the food, that's business; when the food sells the location, that's art". I am interested pretty much exclusively in eating at places that constitute art in this sense.

                            Its sounds to me like Babita is more of a business though.

                            Which is fine. Good to know even. I'm glad I made the thread to be able to determine this, as it is something that I suspected. Confirmation is useful though.

                            1. re: Stravinsky

                              I think Babita is about art, but people's tastes in art vary.

                          2. re: Stravinsky

                            14 panuchos. My word. You sir are an extraordinary man.

                            But yes, it really is a great place. The owner is always hanging around--it has one of the best/most eclectic crowds I've ever seen in Los Angeles.

                            Some of their daily specials are fantastic. My only interesting Chichen story is one time I was interviewed by a Swiss TV station about LA diversity! That was an experience.

                            1. re: set0312

                              It was quite the thrill. I actually entered the contest with another friend of mine, and he was out ahead of me until the very last minute, when I managed to eat three panuchos in the time he ate one (he just went a bit too fast). I ended up catching him right at the last second.

                              It was quite the contest!

                              The funny thing is, looking at the other contestants, we both originally expected to be completely decimated...haha

                              The Swiss TV station story is still cool.

                              I really love CI. I find the atmosphere there is as pleasant as any of the hip joints in town, though a lot of people seem to dislike it.

                        2. I agree with your sentiment about La Casita. I don't find their prices too outrageous, but I don't find most of their items on their regular menu sparkles. The only dish I find myself ordering again and again there is their Pipian... the best in the city... I think for them, they had to cater to the neighborhood, which actually does need more of an upscale place to take Abuelita on her birthday (Think how Casa Sanchez has survived). I very much look forward to their new place in Baldwin Hills. I've had them prepare some wonderful dishes, on special... I look forward to a restaurant where they feel like they can stretch their wings...

                          But comparing la Casita to Babita... no compare... Babita is trying and achieving something much higher... I would not order the Cochinita there. Cochinita is not Alta Cocina... But I always order their Chile en Nogada (I think his is the best in the city because he lightly batters the chile so the walnut sauce really clings). Also his Mixote Lamb Shank is just stunning. A step above Enrique's pork shank (But with a mark up to match). But the one thing that makes me the MOST happy there is their soups. Always perfectly composed and wonderfully flavorful. The kitchen of La Casita could never excute such wonderful soups...

                          Yes, you can get cheaper similar plates elsewhere. In fact, you can some better dishes cheaper elsewhere (I think La Flor's Cochinita trumps CI's by FAR!). But there is a reason why Babita is still there and stays busy despite its prices and honestly some dated dishes (That strawberry sauce. bleh and don't get me started on those little tostada bowls :/). But there comes times when you want a nice glass of wine with your meal. When you want to take a client out to a nice lunch (Which was most of my initial visits to Babita) or when you just don't want to wait in line and stand up eating your meal. don't deal with noisy kids. or having a mariachi blast in your ear. Babita is more than a choice of it has this best dish. It's an overall package...

                          --Dommy!

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: Dommy

                            It seems like every defense of Babita involves reference to "the dining experience", not the food.

                            It's quite useful for me, though I think it means I will probably never end up there unless through some magical act that happens to land me there at some point.

                            I will ignore the blasphemous comment about LFdY versus CI for now.

                            1. re: Dommy

                              La Flor does a better tamale than CI. In my humble opinion, that is all. Although when dollars are tight, you cannot beat the price!

                            2. I'm finding OP's resistance to Babita puzzling. This is not a glamorous restaurant. The outside looks like a dive. There are no multiple servers all bringing out dishes at the same time, nor is there a super crazy wine list littered with dozens of triple digit bottles. If anything, people have pointed out the service can be spotty. On the other hand, people have also repeatedly pointed out that the Chile en Nogada is a stand out dish. I thought so too, as was my limited experience with the chicken and shrimp elba and shrimp topolobampo. The balance of flavors and cooking of proteins are excellent.

                              1 Reply
                              1. I may have gone on an off night, but I did not enjoy my experience at Babita. Not expecting to go back.