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Restaurants | Counter Intelligence

The Artwork Is Bold, and the Food Isn't Shy Either

September 12, 2002|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wild, eclectic art crams the walls at Lares--nudes, flowers, faces, a spill of golden liquid from a tequila bottle. They're bold and brazen, painted with a strong palette.

They hint at what you are about to eat. Lares' food is assertive--big, meaty versions of Mexican dishes with boisterous sauces, the plates loaded with bulky food. The Santa Monica restaurant can be boisterous too, when margarita-happy customers join in with strolling mariachis.

You can wait for friends upstairs by the big, ornately carved wooden bar guarded by figures of Bacchus and strung with (imitation) margarita glasses. The long, airy room runs from the tall windows at the front, where the bar is located next to a TV always turned to some sports event in progress, to booths and a garden-lined glass wall at the back. The dining room downstairs is dark, almost claustrophobic, in comparison.

This is not a funky, carelessly casual place. The table salsa is excellent. The flowers on the tables are fresh. Starchy white napkins are carefully folded into the water glasses. The tables are covered with two cloths, pale green over white (you feel a little guilty spilling anything).

Waiters address longtime customers by name, and kids and families are as welcome as smart, young Westsiders.

The food suits this crowd. It's not what you would find deep in Mexico--think of it as some sort of hitherto unknown regional variation. One example: camarones a la diabla, big shrimp wrapped in bacon and coated with enough spicy sauce to swamp the boiled beans alongside (pinto beans with shrimp seems a bit odd). Though based on chipotle salsa, so many other ingredients have been added that it's more like American barbecue sauce than anything Mexican. That doesn't mean it isn't good, though.

Then there's the Sr. Maclovio especial. Waiters confess they have no idea who Senor Maclovio is or was, but it's obvious he liked meat. And he wanted the finest: filet mignon. The steak has been butterflied, filled with ham, folded, wrapped with bacon and grilled. The tomato-cilantro sauce that covers it is equally robust: tomatoes in big chunks combined with whole cilantro sprigs.

There's still more beef in a fried taco on the plate. You get beans too, but they aren't served loose--they're wrapped in an enchilada blanketed with Jack cheese.

The costillas de puerco are the sort of crusty, meaty spareribs you might cook at home, covered with a powerful, complex tomato sauce. They're garnished with long, thin slices of nopales (cactus), which could be mistaken for green beans. Vermicelli soup (sopa de fideo) is supposed to come with this plate. One night the restaurant was out of fideo and served me a broth with a meatball in it instead. Like the sauce, the broth was powerful, perhaps too highly seasoned.

Savanitas--thin slices of beef--arrive drenched with a tomato-chile sauce that is more like meat gravy than salsa. The beans on this plate are seasoned with spicy chorizo sausage. A few slices of avocado give your palate relief from all this strongly flavored food.

Lares makes excellent chile verde. The flavors of the pork and tomatillo sauce are subtly blended--they don't fight for attention.

The American touch is obvious in carne asada, an American-style steak, rather than the thin-cut beef that is grilled in Mexico. However, the meat is good enough to make you consider ordering a steak dinner. Lares serves New York, top sirloin and filet mignon steaks with salad and so forth. There's even surf and turf (steak and shrimp).

Next to the steaks, the simplest dish you could have would be carnitas. The chunks of pork are meltingly soft inside their crisp crusts. To achieve this effect, large chunks of meat are deep-fried, then cut up and finished on the grill.

Lares also serves enchiladas, tacos, tostadas and burritos, and it takes care of vegetarians with potato tacos and vegetarian fajitas.

The restaurant opens at 8 a.m. for breakfast, serving French toast, omelets and pancakes as well as huevos rancheros and chilaquiles.

Oh, yes--that wild art on the wall is mostly for sale, so you could leave with a painting as well as a thoroughly satisfied appetite.

*

Lares Mexican Restaurant, 2909 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 829-4550. Open daily, 8 a.m. to midnight. Full bar. Valet parking. Major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $15 to $28.

What to get: Sr. Maclovio especial, chile verde, costillas de puerco, carne asada, carnitas, camarones a la diabla.

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