I always find willing volunteers to go with me to La Serenata de Garibaldi -- especially to the original restaurant in Boyle Heights. Long cited by critics and Mexican-food lovers alike as the best Mexican seafood restaurant, if not the best Mexican restaurant, in Los Angeles, it is a widely beloved and passionately defended institution. La Serenata Gourmet on Pico near the Westside Pavilion and La Serenata on Fourth Street in Santa Monica have flourished, but it’s always said the original is the best. For a couple of years, however, the original was closed for renovation.
Now La Serenata de Garibaldi on First Street, down the block from where the mariachis gather, has reopened its doors -- brand-new doors in a handsome new facade the color of ground cumin. The remodel is lovely: restrained and tasteful, with prettily hewn wooden beams, tile floors and white walls hung with atmospheric paintings by local artists.
The silverware and tablecloths and huge, heavy plates are all new to this formerly quite modestly appointed restaurant. So is the appalling service. One night, four of us waited a good 15 minutes for menus and water while we watched the host and half-a-dozen waiters chat and flirt with each other in a mostly empty restaurant. Another night, I called and was told reservations weren‘t necessary. Once there, we were seated by a very large party and asked to be moved. All the other tables, we were told, were for people who had reservations -- people who never actually materialized. Appetizers were forgotten and orders came out wrong, errors for which there was apology but no attempt at remedy.
All of which might have been superseded in memory by wonderful food.
And yet, with the sole exception of a memorable plate of chilaquiles at lunch one day around 10 years ago, I have never had anything at La Serenata even remotely deserving of the superlatives generally attached to it. I’ve witnessed friends and acquaintances go moony at the mere mention of fish with cilantro or chipotle sauce, and I‘ve ordered these dishes on many occasions, each time concluding that I must have come on an off-night. But, recently, I have taken the most ardent La Serenata fan I know, and she, for one, agrees with me. With several exceptions, the food is not good. It is, in fact, significantly worse than I remembered.
The exceptions: The wedges of quesadilla served with the chips and salsa stir the heart for the meal to come. A fish quesadilla (for two) is a sphere of thick, crispy, chewy masa drenched in a good tomatillo sauce and filled with fish and lots of oozing, melted white cheese. And the soup served with each entree is often tasty: One night, a fava-bean soup had the depth of flavor of the kitchen’s best sauces.
People have been known to drive for miles for the seafood, especially the sauced fish and shrimp. The customer selects a fish and a sauce; this mix ‘n’ match menu usually includes four fish -- salmon, Mexican sea bass, mahi mahi and halibut -- and about a dozen sauces. The sauces can be quite good: The chipotle has a lot of smokiness and bite. The bright-green cilantro is at once spirited and mild, and pleasing to the eye. And a molcajete sauce featured as a special one night really was fabulous, a complex, intriguing mix of chiles and spices and garlic and onion, and a splash of wine.
What La Serenata‘s cooks don’t seem to understand, however, is that a sauce is just a gilding, an agent of enhancement. A sauce, however sublime, cannot disguise the fact that the quality of seafood here ranges from mediocre to downright rank. (The indifferent cooking -- usually overcooking -- doesn‘t help either.) While some of the fish might factually be fresh, there is no way of discerning that through taste or texture. The Mexican sea bass is watery. The salmon, an oddly perfect rectangle, is pale and muddy, with a side note of gaminess. The giant shrimp could bounce.
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We are cautioned that a bowl of fish soup will take 30 to 45 minutes to prepare. Fine, we’ll wait. What arrives is a bowl of chicken broth with a few vegetables, one rubbery green New Zealand mussel, two enormous brackish clams, a few shrimp and an inch-thick rectangle of tasteless, unidentifiable white fish. The only indication that this dish took 30 minutes to prepare is that the shrimp had to have been cooked at least that long.
There is far more to the menu: meats and chicken and classic Mexican dishes. If I ever return, I‘ll look there for possible satisfaction, although we did try the carne-asada plate, a thin flap of unseasoned, poor-quality meat --I’ve had tastier carne asada at countless taco and burrito joints at a fraction of the cost.
La Serenata has put itself in a price range where food quality and culinary skill must impress. Fish prices (from $17 to $24) are competitive with those of some of the better restaurants in Los Angeles, restaurants that buy top quality fresh fish and then prepare it carefully according to the specific qualities of the fish itself -- no customer mixing and matching. The newly remodeled and reopened La Serenata is prettier and fancier, but definitely not tastier, which raises a question: Just how long can a restaurant glide on reputation alone?
1842 First St., Boyle Heights; (323) 265-2887. Open for lunch and dinner daily, breakfast on weekends. Beer and wine. Entrees $10--$24. AE, DC, MC, V. Valet parking. Recommended dish: fish quesadilla.