It was to be an epic night. Not one, but two friends were bringing their new boyfriends for the inspection. (I'm not sure what role I'm supposed to play in this, being male, by the way -- it smacks of Sex and the City to me.)
One was from NorCal and was "into food" (whether that was foodism or chowhoundism, I wasn't sure) and so whatever we did had to be something that he couldn't get up in NorCal. When confronted with the "can there possibly be anything worth eating that is not available in San Francisco" attitude, I typically run straight to Mexican food, which L.A. does best -- but the problem is that there are surprisingly few elegant sit-down Mexican restaurants.
I had considered and rejected the La Serenata group because of two bad experiences we'd had at La Serenata Gourmet on Pico Boulevard in West L.A. -- loud, bad service, overcooked food -- and decided that it was time to give the original Boyle Heights location a shot, with the added benefit of being able to say, "Look, we're going into the barrio for dinner."
This process lasted until almost 3 PM on Saturday, at which point I called to try and get a reservation, figuring it would be jam-packed and showing up as a group of 6 would lead to long waits... but there were plenty of tables available.
We headed down the 101, got off at First Street, promptly got lost because one isn't allowed to turn left during the construction of the Gold Line, and pulled into a parking space that was only a few doors down from La Serenata di Garibaldi.
It's definitely got street credibility -- right across from Mariachi Plaza, and not in the best-kept neighbourhood, but we (hardened residents of North Hollywood) weren't too scared. The visitors, however, were a bit skeeved out... especially when I translated the sign on the taqueria across the street, with its sesos and huitlacoche and cabeza.
We were welcomed in, seated, given a wine list (some good names on it, some cheap L.A. Cetto wines, and nothing over about $45), and given chips, red mole (excellent) and quesadillas.
We skipped the wine in favour of margaritas, which were a too sweet -- probably my fault for just ordering "margaritas" instead of giving specific instructions as to tequila, etc. A few people also got beer, and I got a michelada (this place's recipe was lime juice, salt, clamato, habanero sauce and Negra Modelo).
There were four specials: salmon in salsa de molcajete, halibut in salsa de huitlacoche, mahi-mahi in salsa de chipotle, and grouper in red mole. Two people got mahi-mahi, one got halibut in mild salsa, one got giant prawns in salsa de molcajete, one got the grouper, and I got the halibut in huitlacoche.
The salsa de molcajete was fiery-hot despite being described as "medium", and one of the people couldn't eat it and had to switch plates with the halibut in mild salsa... but it was really, really good. The fish was all perfectly cooked, and my huitlacoche sauce, which looked like mole negro, had a slow burn and lots and lots of the corn fungus on it. Absolutely delicious.
With each dish came a plate of seasoned rice (not the yellow garbage so common in Mexican places), a small dish of frijoles de la olla (with lots of epazote -- I wanted an entire quart of these beans), and handmade corn tortillas, which they brought more of when we ran out, without our having to ask.
Dessert was by couple -- on my recommendation, we and another couple got flan, and the third couple got flourless chocolate cake. The cake was pretty boring and was VERY heavy -- that couple did not finish it -- but the flan, as always at La Serenata restaurants, was a revelation. Creamy, impossibly rich, with almost a smoky dulce de leche on it.
Service was wonderful -- our waitress was clearly excited by the food, guided us well on matching fish with sauce, and was unobtrusive but available when needed. The hostess came by several times to make sure we were taken care of, and anything we needed, we could ask anyone for.
The bill for six people, including two pitchers of margaritas and three beers, tip and tax, was $258, or $43 per person. Well worth it.
I can't imagine why the place would be only half-full at 7:30 on a Saturday night, other than that it's in the "hood", and Boyle Heights is not on most people's radar as a place to find chow (though I am definitely going back to explore the chow wonders of Mariachi Plaza). It should have been jam-packed, it should have had people loitering outside on the sidewalk for lack of a place to sit even at the bar. As it was, this scored some major chow points for Los Angeles in the eyes of our visitor from SF.
I strongly encourage you to get over the fear of East L.A. and have a great dinner.
La Serenata di Garibaldi
1842 E. 1st St.
Los Angeles, CA 90033
Locations (not reviewed) at 10924 Pico Blvd. in West Los Angeles and 1416 4th St. in Santa Monica.