All right, so it's high time that I write up this baby. I was invited by our esteemed web hostess to write a review of local Pico favorite Lares. We were at a party. There was an awkward exchange. She divulged her secret hobby of chronicling the culinary delights of Pico Blvd. Oh, that's fun, I remarked, Lares and all that. No, she said, what's Lares? I found myself inches from her face. WHAT? You haven't covered LARES?!?! She had found herself a contributor.
Google Lares and you will find a wealth of commentators from Yelp, Chowhound, City Search, and all the other review sites I hate to love get down with the perennial argument in Los Angeles: what's the best Mex in town and who the eff does Lares think it is in the pantheon? Many claim that the old Santa Monica establishment hasn't been the same since "the fire." I google "Lares restaurant fire" and discover that on May 17, 2005, a kitchen fire forced Lares to close its doors. Post-fire, a Chowhounder with the apropos username "critical" reports that a recent trip to Lares yielded only limp quesadillas, watery cheese, rubbery shrimp, dry pork. Matthew R claims that the ceviche and margaritas ain't what they used to be. Even the most ardent fans of Lares concede that the service is sub-par. Defenders of the Westside point to Monte Alban, Juquila, and Don Antonio's as the last bastions of Mexican greatness beachside of Western.
Of course, note the date-stamp on these comments and you'll see that they hark from 2006. A lot can happen to a restaurant in two years.
Stepping into Lares, I feel like a world weary traveler in the 19th century happening upon an old hacienda on the high Mexican plains. Whitewashed walls supported by sturdy wood beams echo beer halls of a past age - for me, located in one of Juan Rulfo's ghost towns. Framed portraits of Emiliano Zapata and Frida Khalo evoke a recognizable enough history, matched by the opposing Lares family crest that adorn the restaurant entrance and interior. I later recall half melted candelabras, but I'm pretty sure that's a false memory. The scent in the oil however is very real: steaming meats and moles suffused with the crisp snap of frying dough. For all the negative web presence regarding Lares, the haters got nothing on the restaurant's atmosphere.
It is a surprisingly roomy Friday night on the first floor. While chips and a surprisingly bold salsa are set before us, I sense that speaking with the waiter in either Spanish or English would be comfortable. The choice is important to me. I don't like to be lingually handcuffed when I enter a Mexican joint. All the non-hispanic hispanohablantes out there understand. The waiter takes our order and within minutes - minutes! - our food arrives. Now, some may take this as an offense. The same thoughts pass through my mind: This shouldn't be fast food. I imagine real abuelas in rural Oaxaca who must take hours - if not days! - to slow cook a pig with fire, wood, sweat, and tears until it is melting off the bone for la familia. Nope, it's clear that things are ready to go in the Lares' kitchen. Especially when you're ordering the typical fare of enchiladas and tacos.
But enchiladas and tacos of great quality. Like the real start of any good Mexican meal, the chips and salsa are abandoned and I dig into a moist, non-rubbery, non-flabby enchilada that loves to love me. The carnitas are far from dry, rehydrated hunks: they are little pieces of Mexican heaven dancing all over my palette. In the past I enjoyed a few of the restaurant's regional mole slathered specialities, but it is clear that Lares can get down and dirty with an all-American gringo crispy as well. This economical taco-burrito-enchilada special is framed, like all loving combos, by a rich-but-not-too-rich side of beans and rice that I imagine was just spooned from a pot overflowing with heavy caldron steam. I surprise myself at the end of the meal by returning to the lure of the meal's origins: Lares' salsa is the most astonishing equilibrium of savory and spice that I've encountered in a long time.
While future trips will have to be taken to determine the current state of the restaurant's shrimp and margaritas, I can declare with confidence that Lares' basic fare can stand against any of the standards of the Westside with extra style to spare. The menu is varied enough to deter diner's boredom and breakfast is even offered, stretching the hours of Lares from 8AM to 1AM - 17 hours of potential Lares! The mid-range prices are typical of any Mexican sit down and some combos are down right deals. Not deals like Del Taco's $2.99 Two Bean and Cheese Burritos, One Taco, and a Drink Del's Deal deal, but still a deal.
I look forward to squeezing in a few more Pico Blvd Food posts before I move this fall. Maybe they have a Pico Blvd tucked away somewhere in the streets of Shanghai?
2909 Pico Boulevard
Santa Monica, California