Most weeknights, the Santa Monica outpost of La Serenata, the “other” Mexican restaurant on 4th Street in Santa Monica, resonates with a post-tequila calm that pales next to the constant laugh track and cocktail shaker buzz at Border Grill across the street (even if not quite the same buzz as the new downtown location). But we mean that in a good, soothing fish tank sort of way.
Which is exactly what makes its weeknight Happy Hour such a rare commodity for a restaurant adjacent to the tourist-laden Promenade. That, and the fact that the Happy Hour was added begrudgingly to the menu last fall by the former chef-owner, Jose “Pepe” Rodriguez, who passed away late last year (his wife and son now run the restaurant). A man who was respected for so much more than his well-regarded restaurants.
Monica Godónez, our waitress during a recent Happy Hour, said Rodriguez was never keen on using the oldest marketing trick in the book to lure customers — even if that logic may have only applied to the Santa Monica location. That the Santa Monica restaurant has less than a half dozen seats at the bar might have something to do with it. Or perhaps, his conviction for quality.
“A few months before he died, we finally got [Rodriguez] to add a Happy Hour but it took us 10 years,” says Godónez, who often doubles as the cocktail-hour bartender. It was a style of management that suited Rodriguez, she says, a man she praises for his long term commitment to his staff and the local community, as much as his interest in the various cuisines of Mexico. The feeling of reverence for Rodriguez, still weighing heavily in the room, is clearly shared by the staff.
Perhaps the reason Rodriguez never fully embraced that Happy Hour menu was because he didn't particularly need to. The chips and salsa come with a “bonus” cheese quesadilla, so you could feasibly add a beer or margarita and count it all as a Happy Hour-worthy snack, something the restaurant has tried to curb. “We only give out one quesadilla per basket of chips so people don't get so full they don't order anything,” says Godónez.
Rodriguez, who grew up in Juarez, was particularly known for his commitment to seafood, but also the distinct sauces from different regions of Mexico. Which simply means the menu may require some local deciphering. “I'm from Jalisco, so I like our molcajete sauce — tomatoes, onion, jalapeño,” Godónez advised. “It gets that roasted, burnt flavor going that is so good, so very Jalisco.”
Godónez says Rodriguez was equally committed to starch diversity. “You can sum up this place by the beans and rice, really,” she says. “We have black beans and pintos, red rice and white rice, just like you find all over Mexico. Some Americans don't always understand that in Mexico, you simply move a few miles and all of the sudden the food is very different. They think all Mexican beans and rice are the same, sauces and salsa, too.” That they're not was something Rodriguez was proud to point out.
The number of rotating dishes on the Happy Hour menu is small, usually around eight items. But like the dinner menu, the list gets kudos for its lack of repetition. Meaning everything is not a variation of the same theme/ingredients as is the case on so many happy hour menus (cheese nachos, cheese sticks, cheese quesadillas), but a more geographically diverse representation of the dinner menu.
Things like a beef picadillo empañada with a tomatillo-dill sauce, or a simple sauté of mushrooms and onions (both $3; beer and house margaritas are $4 during Happy Hour). Portion sizes are small, so you may want to pony up and share a main course (we also recommend paying a little more for a better margarita).
Is this the most brilliant Happy Hour we've ever been to? Nope. But have another margarita and a real conversation with your bartender (No, a Super Bowl bar bet doesn't count). You'll be amazed how even a minutes-old personal connection makes something you otherwise might not have noticed — like that mocajete sauce from Godónez's home town — so much tastier. For that sort of appreciation, we have Rodriguez, a great man, a great restaurateur, to thank.
Happy Hour at La Serenata Santa Monica. $4 house margaritas and beers, $3 small bites. 3:30 to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.