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The real deal is the music

Who needs food when you've got margaritas and mariachi shaking up La Fonda?

December 07, 2006|Leslie Brenner | Times Staff Writer

WOULDN'T it be swell if there were a fun place you could go for margaritas and Mexican food and hear some terrific mariachi music?

There is, of course.

La Fonda de los Camperos doesn't look like much from the outside. It's on a desolate Mid-City stretch of Wilshire Boulevard. Park in the lot on the corner, hop over the little fence, and try to find the door -- the place looks a little like a fortress. One Friday evening, I'm waiting for my friends in the entryway, and a patron knocks on the enormous, heavy wooden door. He's right -- it does sort of feel like a speak-easy.

People dress to come here; it's really festive. (In fact, there's a dress code: "Nice attire, no tank tops or sport shorts.") It's a marvelous place to bring family members who are visiting for the holidays, or just grab a group of friends.

You'll want to make a reservation, usually an hour before show time; depending on the night of the week, there are either two or three shows.

I ask the hostess if my party of five can get a nice booth with a good view, and she obliges. So when my pals arrive, we slide into a booth in the bar, order margaritas and munch on salsa and chips.

Before long, we're led to a corner booth in the large main room. More booths line the walls, forming a semicircle around the periphery, facing the stage; in the center, long tables are lined up.

Huge wooden Spanish-style chandeliers and a balcony give the place a California-meets-Sevilla feel. We order another round of drinks -- more margaritas (the frozen ones are better than on the rocks; they're a little less sweet) and Mexican beers -- and study the menu.

There isn't much to study, as it turns out: There aren't even any antojitos on the menu, not even guacamole. Among the 12 menu choices, all accompanied by rice and beans, the carne asada, which comes with a taco on the side, is the best bet. Other dishes, such as chile verde and camarones Veracruz, miss the mark.

But this place really isn't about the food. It's about the music.

In 1961, I later learn, a Jalisco-born, classically trained musician named Natividad "Nati" Cano, who had come to L.A. four years earlier and joined a mariachi ensemble that played at the Million Dollar Theater downtown, became musical director and changed the group's name to Los Camperos.

After touring with the group for eight years, he opened La Fonda de los Camperos as a permanent home for the group. Los Camperos has recorded 10 albums, and it was nominated for a Grammy for the last, 2005's "Llegaron Los Camperos."

In 1990, Cano received a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, and earlier this week, he was one of 12 Californians to receive a $50,000 prize from a new national fellowship program, United States Artists.

Obviously, the guy has chops, and so do his band members. The mariachis who regale the crowd the evening we visit are fabulous -- guitarists, violinists, trumpeters -- and most of them sing, beautifully. They belt out songs such as "Guadalajara" and "Mexico Lindo" as if their lives depended on it. Every few songs, a gorgeously costumed couple comes onstage behind them and dances, with soulful heel stomps and dips that swoop down to the floor. It's all wonderful -- loud, brassy and wild -- and completely riveting.

Soon it's intermission, but the musicians have no intention of resting. They spread out around the room, each positioning himself at a table where there's a birthday. Then, altogether, they serenade the birthday revelers (and the rest of the room) with an energetic rendition of "Las Mananitas," the Mexican birthday song. (A friend reports that she's been at La Fonda when they have sung "Happy Birthday" in French to French tourists and in Japanese to Japanese tourists.)

Then, back on stage pronto, for more songs, more dance. The energy is astounding.

And to think they do this three times a night!


La Fonda

Where: 2501 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

When: Shows at 6:45 and 9 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 6:30, 9:15 and 11:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 4, 6:30 and 9 p.m. Sundays. Seatings are one hour before each show, except Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, when they are 45 minutes before the first show. Reservations are required. Parking on the street or in the lot at Wilshire Boulevard and South Park View Street.

Price: Main courses, $15 to $20.

Info: (213) 380-5055

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