The Mrs. and I are celebrating four years of not having killed each other, and so we wanted something that was nicer than the run-of-the-mill stuff we have up here in tha getto of North Hollywood. Mrs. Ubergeek loves Mexican food and we figured legions of tourists can't all be wrong, so I made a reservation at Border Grill in Santa Monica.
It didn't start well. Despite my having made the 19.30 reservation on Wednesday and confirmed today, they had somehow lost it. This happens sometimes, and I'm OK with it usually, but today I got the cool stare, the unsubtle review of my clothes (khakis, button-down, blazer) and "Are you sure you didn't call Gaucho Grill?"
Nevertheless, they had tables open so we were given a choice of a large table right next to the kitchen, or a small table near the front. We chose to sit near the front.
"Would you like a bottle of sparkling or still water?"
I hate hate HATE the Great Restaurant Water Ripoff. The water in Southern California tastes great, there's no reason to spend $8 on a bottle of water. We order tap water while we peruse the menu.
"Which cocktail would you like to start with?"
Nice assumption there. Good thing we actually did want cocktails -- the Mrs. had a strawberry margarita, which she pronounced quite ably made, and I had a michelada, which was quite good though it was missing the Worcestershire sauce and made with light beer, not dark.
We started with the scallop ceviche, thin slices of scallop in lime, cilantro and jalapeño with thinly-Frenched red onion and avocado. The ceviche itself was very good -- the avocado totally made the dish and I will be serving avocado with my ceviche from now on -- but the chips alongside were stale. We weren't there to eat chips, though.
The Mrs. ordered cochinita pibil (Yucatan chicken stew with sour-orange sauce containing a lot of achiote, fried bananas, black beans and rice) and loved it -- there was not a scrap of solid food on the plate when she was done.
I ordered carnitas, which came on a plate with guacamole, salsa cruda, three handmade corn tortillas, onions with cilantro, jalapeños and citrus slaw. The carnitas were damn near perfect -- juicy and slightly fatty and tender. The guac was on the upper end of the scale of guacamole (the lower end being the weird bizarre avocado shake concoction they make at Guelaguetza). The corn tortillas disappeared quickly... but the citrus slaw was inedible. It was bitter, chewy and so salty that one bite sent me through an entire glass of (tap) water. Still, there was plenty of other food on that plate to eat.
We skipped dessert (we have a real weakness for the desserts at Urth Caffe, overpriced though it may be) and ended up with a bill for $66 plus tip... not as bad as I expected, but not cheap either.
The service was a little rushed -- I think they were one waitperson short tonight -- but extremely competent. The person who tried the Great Restaurant Water Rip-Off and the "Which cocktail will you be having tonight?" wasn't actually our waiter. At some point as we were stuffing our faces with the food, Susan Feniger came by to make sure everything was OK. She tried and apologised for the slaw, said perhaps it got salted twice, but by that point I was full so I politely declined her offer to bring some more.
Would I go there again? Definitely. There are a couple of things on the menu that look really, really tasty -- lamb tacos, an impressive-sounding vegetarian plate, and chicken chilaquiles.
Is it the kind of place I'd go to weekly or monthly? No... I can get great carnitas for a third of the price, cochinita pibil for half the price and much better ceviche for half the price, all here in NoHo. But it definitely wasn't the tourist trap I was fearing.
(P.S., the Mrs. would like me to add that we saw Richie Sambora with some woman who was very obviously not Heather Locklear, and Seth Green, seated within shouting distance. In case you need to find someplace a little less pretentious and quite a bit better-tasting than the Ivy to take out-of-town tourists to go celebspotting.)