Gilbert's El Indio has been on Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica for ever - or at least, for the last 35 years. It's one of several westside establishments that proudly proclaim their history serving "old school" Los Angeles style Mexican food. Down the road from Gilbert's there's Lares (since 1968), then further down there's the side-by-side rivals, Don Antonio's (1982) and The Talpa (1964).
"Old school" may mean different things in different places, but in Los Angeles it means the kind of Mexican food that white people were introduced to as they arrived here in the various stages of the city's growth - the real estate boom of the 1920s, the growth of the aerospace industry in the 1950s, and the pop/rock/hippie culture of the 1970s and 80s.
Sometimes called Cal-Mex, distinguishing it from Tex-Mex, this is the kind of Mexican food that arrives on a thick, white china platter swimming with refried beans and melted orange cheese, garnished with shredded iceberg lettuce.
My first memory of this kind of food is a joint called Jalisco's in Seattle. In the early '80s it was the perfect place to fuel young bodies working long hours in the theatre, and my friends and I would tuck into huge platters of enchiladas and chile rellenos, wiping the sauce from the plate with a limp corn tortilla. A chilled can of Tecate with a lime wedge crammed into the pop-top, and it was heaven.
Later, as a young family, we'd go to El Gallito, on the hump of Madison Street between Capitol Hill and the Central District. It was owned by a kindly man named Refugio, and the platters he served were generous and hearty. Even my then-picky son was contented eating the chips and Mexican rice.
|Chile relleno lunch special, Don Antonio|
|Wall mural, The Talpa|
Here, the flautas are stuffed with ground beef and fried into leathery cylinders, and the chiles relleno are fat-puffed and eggy, bathed in tomato sauce. Burritos are the size of a grown man's shoe and are served in a pool of viscous brick-red goo from a can, covered with orange cheese.
|At Gilbert's - orange cheese, and celery in the ranchera sauce|
Here, Happy Hour gives you $5 margaritas, and Taco Tuesdays offer $1.50 tacos. Here, you can always find a retirement celebration, with a group of middle-aged ladies getting sloshed on a carafe of margaritas, or a couple of old bikers crouched over their Coronas at the bar.
|Casablanca's Moroccan-inspired decor|
But there's always the list of combinacione platters - tacos, enchiladas and chiles rellenos, with rice and beans.
There are times when I love this kind of food, for the comfort and bland warmth it provides. And though my appetite is no longer what it was, there's something about being able to stuff yourself with rice and beans until you're full.
At Gilbert's El Indio, a stucco facade with a fake mansard overhang faces the sidewalk, but everyone enters through the back from the parking lot, where a plaster cigar-store Indian statue presides over a set of benches.
"We accept cash only" is the first thing you see when you plunge into the darkness from outside. The room is divided up with wooden lattice into booths. Day-glo serapes and glitter-sewn sombreros make an attempt at décor, but what really overwhelms the atmosphere is the thousands upon thousands of photographs hung from all surfaces.
|Halloween table decor at Gilbert's|
|The booths at Don Antonio|
|Don Antonio's Cadillac Margarita|
The food at these places is uninspired, but comforting. I tend to order a chile relleno, which always turns out to be a canned Ortega green chile stuffed with white cheese, wrapped in a puffy egg batter and sauced with a viscuous tomato, onion, and pepper concoction. It tends to be the same at all these places, with the only variation being the color of the melted cheese on top - white or orange.
|Posole at The Talpa|
I should really try these items, to give the kitchen a true test. But for some reason I never do. I always revert to the favored dishes of my younger years - those massive platters of sauce and beans and melted cheese. A comforting refuge, if you will.