Great Mexican food and yummy, salty margaritas: I find, in L.A., it is very hard to reconcile these two seemingly well-matched priorities. Either the food stinks and the drinks rock, or vice versa. Tons of great Mexican restaurants content themselves with just beer and wine.
El Compadre on Sunset, and Antonio's on Melrose work okay, but there must be something else out there. Where do you wet your whistle and tweak your tongue -- south-of-the-border style?
Dear Dr. Wollman:
Yours is one of the true philosophical questions of the age. How often have we all nibbled on delicious Texcoco-style barbacoa while gazing longingly at the tawdry tequila mill across the street? Or gummed our way through the subpar enchiladas rancheras that bore the same relation to the top-shelf margaritas we were drinking that a filter does to a Camel cigarette? I once worked near a Silver Lake cantina whose food was so soft and so bland that it actually inspired nostalgia among many of its habitués for New York City
Mexican food, yet has endured even longer than Jerry Brown's political career. And some of the best tequila bars in town serve no food at all.
Still, I would submit that the problem is far less acute than it used to be, and it is possible to procure a fine margarita without having to endure the indignities of canned peas on your tostada. Border Grill in Santa Monica has both great margaritas and one of the most serious Mexican kitchens in town; so too do both the Valley and the Hollywood locations of Loterìa Grill. Malo's splendid cocktail program may be more advanced than its kitchen, but one does not eat badly there. The Olympic Boulevard location of Guelaguetza is a great place for drinks and botanas. Downtown, Yxta has a fine tequila list and decent, upscale cooking. And on the Eastside, there's Tamayo, whose food may be but a shadow of what it was in its glory days but which remains a stunningly beautiful dining room with better-than-passable cuisine.
Still, perversely, I'm going to suggest Rivera, the modern pan-Latin restaurant a block from the Staples Center, where the tortillas come embossed with wildflowers, the chiles rellenos are stuffed with goat, the posole is garnished with foie gras, and the best margarita, which they call a Donaji, comes in a glass rimmed with crushed, spiced grasshoppers instead of the usual plain salt. Between the roster of John Sedlar's dishes newly expanded and split into four micromenus, and the detail of bartender Julian Cox's original cocktails, it is possible that no restaurant has ever spent as much effort exploring the intersections between liquor and Mexican food. If you ask nicely, they may even seat you in the intimate back dining room, a space lined floor to ceiling with glowing bottles of custom-made tequila.
Rivera: 1050 S. Flower St., #102, L.A.; (213) 749-1460.