Saturday, May 30, 2015

Old school dining

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 
These are the kind of restaurants where nachos roll off the salamander, and frozen margaritas flow from behind dark wooden bars bedecked with wrought-iron, or pictures of toreadors. Dark eyed beauties in rebozos smolder from the depths of velvet paintings.

Wall mural, The Talpa
TVs mounted high in the corners blaze not with the futbol game you see at east side taquerias, but with good ole American football.

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
The Mexican rice is garnished with cubes of vegetables right out of a Birds Eye bag. There's not a lot of fresh cilantro here, no nopales, and certainly no chipotles.

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
A unique L.A. old school joint is Casablanca, on Lincoln Boulevard in Santa Monica, a bit schizophrenic, with a Moroccan-inspired decor evoking the classic Bogart movie, and a menu specializing in seafood, especially squid, or calimari. It also features an encyclopedic selection of tequila.

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
Fading autographed photos of starlets are displayed alongside snapshots of smiling fishermen holding up trophies, or thick-gut bearded fellows astride Harleys. Gilbert's El Indio has many friends, and they've all sent in their pictures. Gilbert's also serves complimentary pickled carrots that everyone seems to rave about.

The booths at Don Antonio
Don Antonio's is a little different, with one dining room outfitted like a grotto, with dark lumpy stone walls. I prefer the second dining room featuring curved tufted vinyl banquettes suitable for a "Mad Men" location shoot. There are murals on the wall, and red votive candles.

Don Antonio's Cadillac Margarita
Don Antonio's "Cadillac Margarita" includes a shot of Grand Marnier on the side - and that's an $8 Happy Hour offer that can't be beat.

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
The best measure of excellence at these places is probably the part of the menu apart from the combinacione list - the hearty stews of pork chile verde, or chile colorado; or the seafood dishes of camarones al ajo or pescado veracruzana. The Talpa has a mean pork in tomatillo salsa, and a great posole.

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.


Jenny said...

Glennis, all this food looks amazing. You gotta try La Barca on Vermont.

Ellen Bloom said...

Thank you, Glennis, for writing about the Los Angeles Mexican restaurants of my youth. Orange cheese rules! Best of luck to you on your next adventure in my second favorite city. I look forward to your posts from the Crescent City.

Sean Colgin said...

Always wondered about Gilbert's. Casablanca has the best flour tortillas on earth.

Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

I had someone nail me on my website for using orange cheese on some sort of decidedly unauthentic, but still quite tasty Mexican dish. I wanted to say, "Where did you eat Mexican food as a kid? Because if it wasn't in Mexico, my guess is you got the orange cheese." LOVE places like these. I'm a sucker for guacamole and bean tostadas and chicken flautas.