Tamara’s Tamales

Bundles of joy: Tamara's main attraction

Bundles of joy: Tamara’s main attraction

Corn utopia:  Chips and two kinds of salsa

Corn utopia: Chips and two kinds of salsa

A food blogger’s dream, Tamara’s Tamales (13352 Washington Blvd. in Marina del Rey) is tucked away in a nondescript location, easy to miss but a joy to discover. It is also a vegetarian’s dream; the mother and daughter who run the restaurant were themselves vegetarians for several years, during which they reinvented family recipes, finding suitable substitutes for the traditional meat and lard. Our meal began auspiciously with the crisp, pleasantly salty corn chips, and a pair of great salsas: the slightly smoky, slightly sweet tomato-jalapeño and the bright, tangy tomatillo. For drinks, we ordered lemonade and guava, both made from fresh fruit juice. Then came our first batch of beautifully wrapped tamales, each husk delicately enfolding a moist, almost creamy blanket of masa. There were pasilla rajas, featuring fresh chilis, tomato, onion, cheddar, and jack cheese (so good that it was gone before we remembered to take notes); spinach-mushroom, often a losing proposition but here a winner, flavorful and just a little salty; the veggie special, with a motley but delicious combination of ingredients, including, improbably but triumphantly, parsnip and shiitake; and potato mole (the odd one out in its banana leaf wrapping), packed with tender chunks of spuds perfectly complemented by the subtly bitter hint of chocolate. Although advised that two tamales would be enough for each of us, we clamored for more, ordering green chili, with a vibrant red vegetable sauce, and black bean with white corn. We left feeling as stuffed as the tamales themselves but oh-so-happy. It may sound corny, but, Tamara, we’re glad we found you.

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La Sandia

Hoping for a Mexican restaurant with foodie flare, tonight we and our guest tried La Sandia in Santa Monica Place. Though the meal began auspiciously with fresh guacamole, showily mashed at the table in a volcanic-rock bowl and quickly devoured along with the crisp, corny nachos, the next two appetizers were disappointing: the roasted corn soup weighed down by too much cream; the mushroom huaraches by too many toppings. Our drinks were also a mixed bag. Though the freshness of the lime juice greatly benefited our margaritas, the vibrant fruit flavors in our strawberry and mango lemonades were not enough to temper the over-the-top sweetness. For our entrée, the iron skillet fajita with grilled market vegetables, the setup was DIY, the vegetables served in a small, hot iron pan, along with a covered dish of warm flour tortillas and, in separate compartments, Mexican rice, lightly fried with peas and carrots; slightly salty, slightly bitter refried beans; smoky, spicy salsa; fresh guacamole, again; and sour cream. The vegetables themselves, including cactus, onion, green and red peppers, and mushrooms, were all juicy and flavorful without undue charring (though the beans, sprinkled with cheese, were just too heavy). Judiciously assembled, this mostly tasty array made a fine combination. Still, the appetizers had so burdened us that by the time our fajita arrived, all we could do was sample it. We could not bring ourselves even to think of dessert. What’s more, we were put off by our youthful waitress’s losing struggle with her own rudeness. Our conclusion: La Sandia is a stylish restaurant, and there is much to like about the food, but there is an unfortunate tendency toward excess that makes the whole somehow less than the sum of the parts.

Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill

To lower our average daily food expenditure after last night’s extravagant outing, we took a trip to the nearest Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill, a Southern California fast-food chain that boasts of its “fresh, natural and organic ingredients.” It sounds healthy, but what we found is worth mentioning only as a warning to those who might be lured in by the chain’s progressive-sounding “philosophy.” The vegetarian chorizo burrito, a special offered on “Spicy Thursday,” was appallingly heavy, the tortilla wrap browned, as though fried, and the rice similarly treated, although it was hard to tell, since the filling, which also included pinto beans and sour cream, formed an indistinguishable glop. To make matters worse, the burrito, served on a paper sheet in a plastic tray, was too messy to pick up and yet impossible to cut into pieces without also picking up (and involuntarily eating) bits of wet paper. Our other order, a tostada, came with chicken on the first try, despite our instructions. On the second round, it proved to be a bland salad with flavorless dressing mixed with beans, rice, and sour cream in a greasy, inedible corn chip bowl. People looking for an inexpensive, vegetarian-friendly Cal-Mex fast-food option need not despair, however. In leaner years, we were on the Chipotle meal plan, showing up nearly every day for a rice-and-beans burrito with guacamole and pico de gallo. It was simple, satisfying, and nutritious, and if money is tight, you could do a lot worse, as our experience tonight grimly demonstrates.

El Texate

Having seen El Texate (316 Pico Blvd., at 4th St.) many times from the 7 bus, we were attracted by this charming little restaurant, which promised a foodie “find.” Tonight we were equally charmed by the tidy, colorful interior. Even the chips and tomatillo salsa, along with the tart, fresh lemonade, promised a great meal. Imagine our disappointment when the first bite of our nopal salad (cactus and mixed greens) revealed that it had no discernible dressing or flavor. The thick, tomato-based tortilla soup was also surprisingly bland, though at least passable. As for our entrées, maybe it was our mistake to skip the vegetarian burrito, which at least would have come with one of this Oaxacan eatery’s several intriguing moles. Nonetheless, we were scandalized by the cauliflower and chayote and only slightly less so by the chile relleno, all packaged with a lackluster, not fully-melted cheese and covered with the same soggy egg-based coating. (Of these, the thickly cut, tasteless chayote, a kind of squash, caused the most offense.) If only the food had been as pleasant as our sweet, helpful waitress. We left a nice tip, but we’ll never go back there again.

Serenata di Garibaldi

We were heartbroken last April when our favorite Mexican restaurant (and one of our favorites overall), Serenata di Garibaldi in Santa Monica, closed its doors. The food was consistently excellent and often sublime, from the creamy soups to the delectable desserts. And though Serenata lives on in two locations, the original, legendary restaurant in Boyle Heights (still on our summer to-do list) and a spin-off in West L.A. (10924 Pico, near Westwood Blvd.), all with similar menus and the same recipes, there is, sad to say, a difference. In West L.A., the food is still very good but not quite up to the level of the Santa Monica restaurant, which, admittedly, set the bar pretty high. Tonight the soup, a simple lentil, was dark and hearty if slightly salty. The vegetarian quesadilla, a crisp fried dome of masa filled with melted cheese and poblano peppers, resembled the Santa Monica version, though it was not quite as crisp and light on the outside or molten on the inside. Similarly, the chile relleno (served with warm corn tortillas) was pleasant without being anything special. We also tried a burrito, which we’d never had at the Santa Monica restaurant. Stuffed with pinto beans, guacamole, pico de gallo, and a flavorful mixture of carrots, potatoes, zucchini, and onions, it was big enough to be a meal in itself, tasty and filling but otherwise unremarkable. When it was time for dessert, at least, we came very close to our original experience (the West L.A. branch is where pastry production for all the Serenatas is based). The banana bread pudding, a chewy, fruity concoction topped with a dense scoop of vanilla ice cream, was thus a sweet ending to a bittersweet meal. For devotees of the Santa Monica Serenata, its West L.A. sibling provides a measure of comfort, to be sure, though not without reminding us of what we lost.