A longtime favorite haunt for generations of volleyball players at Mothers Beach in Marina del Rey, as well as a margarita stop after a day at the beach, Baja Cantina has a new menu and a refreshed new look.
Baja Cantina opened its doors in September of 1975 in a building that was established in the 1940s as apartments to house men working on the oil wells in the area. The building was used as residences until the early 1960s when it steadily became home to several little businesses. The cantina was originally a hobby store and flower shop before it was transformed into a Mexican restaurant. Gradually, Baja Cantina expanded by absorbing the old location of the Brown Bagger, a breakfast and lunch spot.
Michael Dobson, who comes from a long line of Dobsons with deep roots in Torrance and Santa Monica and also owns nearby restaurants like the Venice Whaler and recently renovated the beachfront Pier House, took over the iconic taco stop in January on its 45thanniversary.
“Our family came here for years to celebrate birthdays, watch sports and have brunch,” Dobson tells L.A. Weekly on the newly transfigured outdoor dining space. “But we saw it going downhill in recent years and wanted to save it. I wanted to give it an update but bring more of what the old flavor was like and the family Sunday brunches. We’re keeping the sports and the indoor/outdoor Baja beach club feel. We want to bring back what it used to be. I’ve been coming here for 30 years and now I’m married with three kids. They went through three general managers a year. It was run as a hobby, not a business. I wanted the food to be a step up. It’s not fine dining, but it has to be good. Sunday football is starting up and we’re going to reopen the old taco bar where you can watch our tortillas being made. I want it to be like a cantina in Cabo.”
Part of that feel is converting inside space and the spacious parking lot into outdoor dining area that includes a beachy patio filled with sand under the palm trees. A new menu was launched this month and the cocktail program has been refreshed as well, adding an extensive tequila collection and agua frescas. Elotes have been added to the menu as well as a Yucatan chicken mole, made of corn tortillas filled with grilled chicken breast and topped with a mole negro sauce and queso fresco. The taquitos are blanketed with fresh guacamole and the tender corn husk tamales come with your choice of salsa verde or roja.
Faced with a multitude of challenges, like the dramatic increase in crime in Venice, a decrease in police presence and keeping a stable of restaurants afloat during a pandemic, the former aerospace engineer is still bullish on the hospitality industry. He’s also a partner in the Red O in Santa Monica, which was ground zero for the Memorial Day protests and riots, and is undergoing a remodel.
“Takeaway I think is going to be bigger than it was pre-covid and with that learning curve, it’s the only way for some places to pay employees,” Dobson says. “Even with outdoor patios, we’re getting towards winter and it gets cold out here. We’re going to tent our beach with nice lighting in case it rains. We’re building another wood deck that will also have a tent over it. There’s a shift from fine dining with the increasing rents and cost of product. Three years ago the minimum wage was $7.50 and now its $15. The white tablecloth places with super famous chefs were already struggling before the pandemic. Many say that restaurants are changing forever, and that bars will never reopen. I don’t believe that. Once there’s a vaccine, there will once again be a social scene.”