Strip Mall Rat: On the Corner of Venice and Hauser
There's not much going on around this stretch of Venice Boulevard. The bisected street hasn't quite hit Culver City, and isn't close enough downtown to simmer with Pico-Union's Central American spices. Sure, Tacos Leo is nearby and you can find a serviceable pupusa at Con Sabor down the street, but the Venice Plaza strip mall at Venice Blvd. and Hauser Blvd. is an often-overlooked run of nail salons, beauty salons and a weary check cashing place. But tucked right into the mix -- or in one case, around the corner and out of sight -- are a couple of dine-in Mexican restaurants and a faded dessert shop.
The lines aren't exactly forming out the door at Darling's corner walk-in, despite the perpetually open sign that hangs above the doorway. Instead, there's a sleepiness to the small room and whoever happens to be manning the place. The donuts are unspectacular, the sort of over-sugared dough bombs that get snapped up in your office's break room, if only because hey, free donuts. The ice cream comes from a solitary cooler that houses the same round cardboard tubs of commercial ice cream you can still sometimes find inside of Rite Aids.
The West Coast does not share the same love of a good, cheap soft serve machine as the east coast does, and so what we're left with on a warm spring day is the hardened scoops of icicled vanilla and pushy chocolate. There are a few faded posters hanging from the glass that advertise juices to provide a fresh morning jolt, but if you're walking into Darling's for a watery carrot drink, you're already starting your day off wrong. Still, for a quick stop off on your way to points elsewhere, Darling Donuts & Ice Cream is a serviceable morning possibility. And if you show your face around enough times and your mornings will be rewarded with cheap coffee and the occasional free donut hole, although they're cash only. 5431 Venice Blvd., Mid City; 323-857-1869.
El Bronco Taqueria
By far the most noticeable dining destination in the Venice Plaza, El Bronco Taqueria is a merge of two storefronts, each with a large yellow and red sign to lure the eye. There are also hand-drawn pictures of tortas and tacos on the glass that are decidedly less enticing, but blame the artist, not the owners. Inside, El Bronco is a wide, yawning rectangle with a mix of booths and tables clustered around the room. The walls are cheery and the staff is friendly, which helps to liven up the low-volume atmosphere.
All of the ordering is done at one end, where a run of pre-made soups, stews and warm, hearty fare is ready to be ladled and served. Customers tend to cluster around the albondigas and beef soup, which arrives in thick chunks punctuated by soft potatoes and half an ear of corn. The burritos are shoe-sized and filling, if unspectacular, and none of the tacos jump off the plate. Still, the family vibe at El Bronco Taqueria pervades the room, and if it weren't for the gigantic space you'd almost feel as if you're dining in someone's home. Plus, they've got a smoky chipotle salsa that's not bad; just stay away from the Americanized burgers and breakfast items. 5427 Venice Blvd., Mid City; 323-939-7026.
Turn the page...
If it weren't on the sign out front, you'd likely never find Doña Felix. The scant room is around the corner from El Bronco and at the far end of the Venice Plaza strip mall, pushed back behind a beauty salon. If more than two cars park in this section of the parking lot, you'd never even see it. The place is basically a doorway and a couple of stuffed-in tables, with a bit more legroom on the patio out front. On most afternoons, the music plays loud from the open kitchen, and kind owner behind the register will recommend just about anything to you, which beats having to decipher the faded menu board.
The carne asada is served warm and thick here, a bit heavy on the salt but still sizzling from its ride on the grill that's ten feet away. At $1.75 each, a few of these tacos and the fiery salsa roja would satisfy anyone for a weekday lunch. On Saturdays and Sundays, Doña Felix breaks out the menudo and birria, two menu items they feel strongly enough about to include on their awning. The stewed goat is indeed soft and subtle, without a lot of the overwhelming funkiness that can sink other iterations of the dish. Despite its location and limited seating, Doña Felix Restaurant is actually the most approachable dining option in the entire strip mall, and they gladly accept credit cards for a small fee. 5405 Venice Blvd., Mid City; 323-965-9350.
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