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Viva La Serenata

La Serenata de Garibaldi, 1842 E. 1st St., Boyle Heights, (323) 265-2887. Cuisine: Mexican. Rating: **

March 12, 2000|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Just the thought of La Serenata de Garibaldi's camarones in cilantro sauce, plump gorditas filled with rock shrimp or fish enchiladas in tomatillo sauce is enough to get L.A.'s Mexican seafood aficionados out to Boyle Heights. Very few restaurants draw their clientele from all over the city: Wolfgang Puck or Celestino Drago should be so lucky. For more than a decade, La Serenata de Garibaldi has been a beloved Los Angeles institution. But for nearly two years, fans have had to get their fix elsewhere while La Serenata was closed for remodeling.

Somehow the newer Santa Monica branch didn't perform as well as the original, so the more casual cafe La Serenata Gourmet, near the Westside Pavilion, was where most of us went for fish tacos, quesadillas and chilaquiles. Finally, after numerous delays, La Serenata in Boyle Heights reopened in mid-January. It's been packed every night. There is a lot of catch-up eating to do, after all. In fact, don't even think about venturing there without a reservation.

Gone are the vibrantly colored walls that resounded with noise and laughter. The restaurant has doubled in size and is a tad quieter. The sturdy chairs painted in the sizzling colors of Mexican folk art have been stripped back to their natural wood. The color palette is now soft creams and taupe, the better to show off the stately row of carved stone pillars and the wooden beams overhead. The love of fine craftsmanship is evident in the mosaic fountain against one wall, the iron lanterns with milky hand-blown glass shades, the sepia-toned photos of vintage Mexican scenes and the fine magic-realist painting against the far wall. Instead of rows of tables that made the old La Serenata so cozy--and clamorous--now there's elbow room.

The restaurant has added valet parking, too, but I miss walking through the kitchen from the parking lot in back. The new back entrance bypasses those enticing kitchen smells, the avocados piled high on a counter, the sauces simmering at the back of the stove. From a window in the dining room, you can, however, watch a woman take a wad of masa and press out tortillas in a wooden press. A basket of the steamed, fresh tortillas is irresistible.

When you're seated, the first thing out of the kitchen is a plate of chips and wedges of cheese quesadilla, along with a bowl of intricately spiced red salsa with a wallop of chile. Leave me alone with this and I could polish off the whole thing. Before you order, listen for the specials. A waiter in black apron/vest and bow tie will announce the fish for that day--often Mexican sea bass, mahi mahi and halibut. A hint: While the camarones (described as "giant" shrimp) are always perfectly cooked--never mushy--they don't have all that much flavor. That's why I often prefer the fresh fish of the day.

Once you choose a fish, you can then select an accompanying sauce. What Nobu Matsuhisa is to Japanese cooking, chef/owner Jose Rodriguez is to Mexican: a genie of sauces. He has at least a dozen up his sleeves. Complex, mysterious, with a sneaky backlash of heat, they're as individual as a thumbprint. Some, like the Veracruzana, are definitely regional, but the others, I suspect, are personal recipes of a passionate cook who has fiddled and refined these recipes to suit his own idiosyncratic taste.

The cilantro sauce sparkles with the silvery taste of the herb. The avocado sauce with which Rodriguez naps his perfect rendition of chicken flautas is a gorgeous green with a kick of chile verde. I'm partial to the chipotle sauce, a puree of the smoky roasted chile smoothed with cream. And whenever molcatejete sauce is on offer, I'll order this chunky mix of roasted tomatoes, chiles, onions, diced avocado and the Mexican herb epazote, made in the traditional granite mortar and pestle, or molcajete.

The best dish I've ever had at La Serenata is, I think, the Mexican sea bass with huitlacoche, the fabled corn fungus that's just as much a delicacy as France's black truffles or China's exotic mushrooms. Black and ornery looking, it grows right

out of the corn kernels and has a funky, alluring taste that's as unique as it is delicious. That sat on top of the perfectly cooked, flavorful fish like shavings of black truffle. Around it was a dusky dark red chile salsa that packed some heat.

The prettiest plate I was ever served here has to be another special, a row of snowy scallops flanked by a band of creamy black beans and a startling green Mexican mustard sauce. The presentation of the fisherman's cocktail is lovely, too, ladled from a large clear glass bowl into individual smaller ones. It's essentially a juicy chilled tomato soup laced with nuggets of scallop, shrimp, avocado and sweet onion. It's both sweet and hot, which seems unlikely, but is appealing in this context.

Anything made with fresh masa is terrific, including the empanadas--plump turnovers stuffed with fish or chicken and napped with one of the subtle sauces.

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