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Where Mariachi Is the House Specialty

At the Guadalajara Grill in Baldwin Park, music becomes the centerpiece.

July 23, 1998|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sprawling cosmopolitan city of Guadalajara is renowned as the birthplace of mariachi music while, 35 miles up Mexico's Highway 15, the dusty little pueblo of Tequila is renowned as the birthplace of . . . well, you know. And if that combination sounds to you like the ingredients for a great Mexican restaurant, you're not alone.

In fact, that's exactly what longtime restaurateur Tony Hernandez--who was born in Jalisco, not far from either town--was thinking when he established the Guadalajara Grill three years ago.

"My brother was the one with the idea," says Pablo Hernandez, one of three brothers who own and manage the Baldwin Park restaurant, cantina and mariachi showplace. "He wanted to open a restaurant with mariachis. That was his dream."

Not that it was an original dream, mind you. Strolling mariachis have long been as much a feature of Mexican restaurants as faux adobe architecture and ceramic cacti. There's even an unaffiliated Guadalajara Grill in Tijuana that uses a logo almost identical to the one the Hernandez brothers employ. But you stand about as much chance of hearing mariachis there as you do of hearing Lawrence Welk's old Champagne Music Makers play the Conga Room.

What makes the Hernandezes' place unique, then, isn't its name or even its music, but rather the way it showcases its musicians. Here the mariachis take center stage--literally--filling a raised rectangular platform in the main dining room, where they play before a bright mural of Guadalajara's landmark cathedral and alongside a wall adorned with photos of famed Mexican entertainer Pedro Infante.

The house band, the talented eight-man Mariachi Arriba Guadalajara, plays two hourlong shows Monday through Thursday nights, three slightly shorter sets Fridays and Saturdays and six shows on Sundays. There is no admission charge for any of the performances.

In between the weekend sets, a DJ plays recorded salsa, merengue, rock en espanol and ranchero music, but that's just for atmosphere. The mariachis are the draw here; even the tiny dance floor fills when they take the stage.

"We played some different things in the past," says Pablo Hernandez. "We had a salsa night. We did some ranchero festivals where people could come and sing on stage. It was pretty good, but it didn't really work. That's why we're going to stick with mariachis."

Occasionally the stage is turned over to other acts, as when Mexico's Mariachi Vargas headlined the restaurant's third anniversary celebration in May. More commonly, however, the house band is joined on stage by members of the audience, an egalitarian mariachi custom as old as the music itself. Not long ago, 8-year-old Tatiana Bolanos, whose powerful voice brought executives at Sony records to tears when they auditioned her for a contract, left her family's table to give an impromptu performance. But this isn't karaoke; professionals only need apply.

The club got its start as part of a widely lauded revitalization project launched by Fidel Vargas, Baldwin Park's boy mayor, who helped the Hernandez brothers get together the money they needed to move into a vacant restaurant adjacent to the San Bernardino Freeway. Soon the modern mini-mall they shared was booming, with four restaurants, a grocery store, a number of small shops and even a Marriott hotel drawing customers.

Apparently they weren't drawing enough, however, because today the mall resembles a ghost town; most of the stores are empty shells and only the Guadalajara Grill is doing any measurable business. Even the 29-year-old Vargas is gone, having passed up a run at reelection last year to return to Harvard for graduate school.

The Hernandez brothers have worked much of their adult lives in the restaurant and fast-food business, experience they say has taught them what does and doesn't work. Still, the Guadalajara Grill's menu is predictable as Mexican restaurants go, and while the food is good, it's not spectacular.

But then this a restaurant that serves up feasts for the ears, not the stomach. And that, ultimately, is what sets this place apart from the rest.

BE THERE

Mariachi Arriba Guadalajara plays at the Guadalajara Grill, Mondays-Thursdays, 8 and 9:45 p.m.; Fridays 8, 9:45, 11:30 p.m. and 1 a.m.; Saturdays 7:30, 9:30, 11:30 p.m. and 1 a.m. and Sundays, 11:15 a.m., 12:45, 2:15, 6:30, 8 and 9:45 p.m. 14610 Garvey Ave., Baldwin Park. (626) 337-8168.

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