My oxtail taco has alfalfa sprouts on it.
In many ways, this is just about everything you need to know about El Condor, the new Mexican spot in the old El Conquistador space, from the folks behind L&E Oyster Bar and Covell Wine Bar. How you feel about El Condor will depend on your level of outrage over finding alfalfa sprouts on your oxtail taco, especially in this place, which is hallowed ground for lovers of kitsch, the wonders of deliciously crappy Americanized Mexican food and the spirit of old Silver Lake.
El Conquistador, which had operated for 40 years until December, was a holdout from a weirder, gayer and far more funky Silver Lake. Festooned with spangled tchotchkes, staffed by a cast of beloved characters, the setting for tales of fun and debauchery from seemingly everyone who lived in Silver Lake or its vicinity over the past four decades, El Conquistador stood for something important. Or not important at all, depending on your viewpoint.
If El Conquistador had closed simply because its owners were retiring, the new tenants might not face such scrutiny. But the closure was reluctant; owner Jesse Pinto wasn't able to pay the rising rent in an area that has seen real estate prices skyrocket. To many, the shuttering of this restaurant was a neighborhood tragedy.
With El Condor, new owners Dustin Lancaster and Tyler Bell are trying hard to respect and honor the location's history. The name has undeniable similarities, and while the tchotchkes are gone, the bones of the place mostly remain the same. The architecture and Mexican tiling endure, as do the upstairs lounge and a small, dark room in back that looks like a '70s disco dive bar.
The new tenants are walking an even higher tightrope with the food, trying to present an ode to the cheesy, gloppy Americanized Mexican that has been served in this building for decades while upping the ante considerably in terms of quality.
So there's queso with chorizo or mushrooms, but instead of an oozing morass of fake cheese, El Condor serves queso flameado in a cast-iron pan, bubbling and stretchy and about as refined as a vat of melted cheese can get. All the usual suspects are here — tacos, tortas, enchiladas, quesadillas — but they get an upgrade in both ingredients and technique.
Spencer Bezaire oversees the kitchen here, as he does at L&E Oyster Bar, and his penchant for bright, contrasting flavors is only slightly muted by the confines of the genre. It's high-end lowbrow, a loving tribute to restaurants like the one that was here, but with a heavy dose of whatever it is Silver Lake stands for in 2014. Quality? Snobbery? An artisanal remembrance of things past? It depends on your outlook, I suppose.
The genre of high-end lowbrow has crept steadily into America's culinary landscape over the past few years. Chefs now have the freedom to cook what they want to eat rather than what they think pampered customers might expect, and that newfound power has translated to a reverence for the junk we all secretly (or not so secretly) love.
It's a fun sandbox to play in, combining stoner culture with a genuine affection for the crappy food at which America excels. Fast food–style burgers made with quality ingredients led the way, but they're being joined by other dishes. One of the most glorified desserts in America in recent years is engineered to taste like the milk from the bottom of a cereal bowl. Roy Choi's most lauded dish at his restaurant POT, is an ode to creamy, brûléed dynamite rolls, long the bane of sushi snobs everywhere.
Mexican food is perhaps a little tricker to put through this cultural blender. We've only just begun to see it get its due as a serious, complex cuisine, with chefs such as John Sedlar and Rocio Camacho presenting thoughtful, nuanced flavors in a more upscale context. In many parts of America, Mexican food has barely been taken seriously enough for it to already be reverse-engineered as fancified slummer food. (Burgers had to go through their phase of foie gras–stuffed, tomato jam–topped luxury before coming back to where they are now, in all their grass-fed, Big Mac–impersonating glory.) It would be nice to see America fully embrace serious, high-end Mexican before we see the sloppy, drunk-food version tarted up with more expense and fancier ingredients.
It also would be nice to see it done by a respected Mexican-American chef (Bezaire is of German, French and Japanese heritage and grew up in Altadena). I'm not advocating for the idea that only people of a certain background have the right to cook certain foods, but the elevated Tex-Mex at Bar Ama, for instance, works because chef Josef Centeno has a real, loving connection to the food of his youth along the Texas border. At El Condor, serving old-school Mexican with an ironic wink in the middle of hipster ground zero doesn't have the same honesty. In the right setting, I love trendy food as much as the next aging hipster. But something about El Condor feels a bit off.
Which isn't to say that the food is bad. Made on-site, the thick tortillas thrum with the comforting heft of corn. The salsa verde tastes of actual roasted tomatillos, all sweet at the edges and slightly smokey. And while the enchiladas have the sloppy, wondrous quality of their predecessors at El Conquistador, here rather than finding sketchy shredded meat within, the protein is served whole on top of the enchiladas, where you can taste its quality.
You can get a piece of cobia grilled just right, served with rice and tortillas, and it's just as good as most other $24 slabs of fish in town. The pork milanesa, available as a plate or in a torta, is crispy and tender and altogether satisfying.
Watch out for the market-priced seafood cocktail, however, which might be a jar brimming with sweet crab meat but might also cost you $25. And, yes, the tacos occasionally feature alfalfa sprouts, which add a nice crunch and freshness to the otherwise rich oxtail filling.
The margaritas are big and strong, and far less likely to give you a raging headache than the kind found at most cheesy Mexican spots. There's a nod to the much-beloved margaritas that were served here in the form of a sweet version named "El Conquistador," but it's worth spending the extra $2 for the upgraded "Scratch," made with fresh lime juice. (Or is it? This is one of El Condor's defining questions. After all, even the entry-level margaritas cost $10.) It's also well worth straying from the margaritas, for a smokey mezcal Oaxacan Old Fashioned, or a Negroni made with tequila.
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El Condor is what it is thanks to an odd confluence. It's a symbol of a very specific kind of gentrification, where old bohemia is replaced by a newer, more moneyed creative class. The restaurant's attempts to honor what came before it are the very things that make it problematic. But, taken on its own merits, there's a lot of heart and good cooking at El Condor, with service so friendly it is practically exuberant.
Which of these things will matter most in the end? I guess that all depends on your point of view.
See also: Our gallery of photos from El Condor
EL CONDOR | 3701 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake| (323) 660-4500 | elcondorla.com | Dinner, nightly 6 p.m.-mid. (bar opens 4 p.m.-2 a.m.) | Entrees, $10-$26 | Full bar | Valet parking