Forgive me if my pen quivers and the computer shivers. I'm still wondering if I dreamed Maria's Ramada, a terrific little Mexican restaurant practically in my own backyard. And I wonder, if when I rub my eyes, the place will vanish along with the delicious baked baby goat I was served there. Could I really have missed Maria's Ramada, standing off Santa Monica Boulevard on Kingsley Drive, just minutes from my home, for 20 years?
Go inside the mustard-colored stucco box building and you are in Mexico. It's a makeshift pitched-roof hut constructed apparently of anything handy--corrugated tin roofing, bamboo poles, redwood planks, garlands of garlic, fake plants, bird cages and plastic flowers. Over the cash register is a gallery of celebrity photographs of Maria's customers, including Muhammad Ali.
"The place is decorated in the style of the ramadas of my village, except that this ramada has walls," said Maria Domingas Dorn, who is the presence and force behind Maria's Ramada.
Maria's food--and her menu--is based on the cooking of her native seaside village between Mazatlan and Guadalajara. The cooking is rich with spices and sweetish sauces. And for the enormous portions served, the prices can hardly be beat. The bill for two persons sampling a very good, frothy wine Margarita, four different entrees, flan and coffees was a paltry $24.35.
The menu, too, seems to go beyond the expected. And one of the dazzlers is the baked baby goat, called cabrito al horno caldo on the menu. I would definitely recommend it, particularly if (should you wonder what goat tastes like) you like lamb. Tender to a point of falling away from the bone, baby goat is virtually without fat. The sauce (skimmed of fat) is superb. Maria uses dried California and chipolte chiles, cinnamon and cumin in the very rich, dark brown, full-bodied sauce.
I loved Maria's beans topped with melted cheese, which you get with all the entrees. Maria takes pride in cooking everything from scratch, including the beans. "If a chef tells me he wants to cook it his way, I tell him, 'It's my way or you can pick up your last check on your way out.' How can it be Maria's restaurant without Maria's food?"
I found the chicken mole very good with a sweetish chocolate sauce and very moist-tender chicken. The chile relleno was also homespun and good, but not the best I've had. The tamales were so-so; not exciting and rather heavy with meat. For those who like short ribs there is a very good cocido. There is also menudo served daily, and, among the unusual, sliced kidney sauted with onion and tomato, boiled beef tongue and even rolled flank steak.
What are her popular items? Maria's "special" consists of a taquito, an enchilada and a small spencer steak. The size depends on the hand cutting the meat that day. Some of her long-standing customers seem to like ropa vieja (meaning "old clothes" because of the shredded effect of the beef that has simmered for many hours).
I had never seen the Mexican version of bouillabaisse (caldo siete mares on the menu) elsewhere. Hers is filled with crab, clam, fish, octopus, shrimp and abalone, with the fish varying with the season. In pescado a la jardinera, a whole fried fish is served with an assortment of vegetables. Actually the fish dishes are quite fresh, as Maria, herself, shops for the fish. "If it's not fresh, I throw it out."
Maybe it wasn't a dream, after all?
Maria's Ramada, 1064 N. Kingsley Drive. (213) 660-4436. Open seven days for lunch and dinner, Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to to 9:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to midnight (dinner menu only). Major credit cards accepted. Reservations suggested for large parties. Street parking with caution. Dinners (rice, beans, tortillas and soup) $5.50 to $8.