Thursday, September 16, 2010

Bicentenario de México – Margaritas anyone?

This article started out as a review of the new La Sandía restaurant at the Santa Monica Place mall, but somehow I felt the need to throw in the following two paragraphs as background:

Today is Independence Day – if you’re Mexican. And even more, today is the bicentennial of Mexican Independence from Spain. On September 16, 1810, Miguel Hidalgo, a Mexican Priest from Dolores, Guanajuato, rang his church bell to gather his pueblo. Once gathered, he gave an inspiring speech about the need to free themselves from Spanish oppression. In response, the people began shouting their support, and the war of independence began. Hidalgo was eventually captured, tried, sentenced and executed by the Spaniards, but the movement carried on, and 11 years later on September 27, 1821, Mexico was free of Spanish rule.

Much like the 4th of July, Mexico’s independence is celebrated on the day the movement began, not the day it ended. Every year on September 15th Mexicans gather for festivities that include traditional music, foods and fireworks, leading up to El Grito de la Independencia, the cry of independence at midnight, lead by the President of Mexico, who rings the bell of the National Palace in Mexico City. Across Mexico, los presidentes municipales (municipal presidents, or for us Americans, mayors) do the same at their municipal palaces (city halls). Each president (national and municipal) repeats a cry of patriotism (based upon Hidalgo’s original speech) from the balcony of the palace to the assembled crowds below, and the patriotic crowd chants back.

Yeah, yeah…a rowdy rabble of uncultured seditionists. I bet that’s what King George III said about that little letter he got from John Hancock, et. al. shortly after it was sent on July 4th, 1776. “Hedley? Dispatch the following message to Mr. Hancock and his rowdy rabble of uncultured seditionists.” And with a wave of his royal highness’ hand, Hedley is shot by the king’s guards.

Crowded plazas? Food sold from carts? Fireworks forcing me to cover my ears (I was once separated from my family in the parking lot of Six Flags while leaving during the fireworks show…I have a small problem with the noise and the lights if I’m too close)?

Personally, I’ll celebrate at La Sandía, recently opened on the Dining Terrace of the newly renovated Santa Monica Place. Most Mexican food restaurants in the US serve food a true Mexican wouldn’t even be able to identify as Mexican, but Chef Richard Sandoval was born in Mexico City, and he knows Mexican.

The place is huge…much larger even that it appears when you first walk up. I think the ceiling is three stories above your head, and tables are not crowded together as happens in some other restaurants. The menu was authentic, with fair prices (we got out of there at about $50 per person, including drinks and tip). The wait staff was friendly, enthusiastic and attentive, visible enough when you need them, but at the same time unobtrusive. I don’t think any of them spoke Spanish, though…just the bus boys.

Prior to going I had heard their margaritas were bitter and watered down, but I started off with a blended strawberry one just the same. I thought it was sweet, and I was tipsy by the end of the first round. 

The queso fundido (melted cheese) was a great companion to the drinks. The plate arrives with the cheese still sizzling, a small side of guacamole and two salsas. Disclaimer: I have been eating very hot (peel your tongue type hot) peppers and salsas since I was a little kid, so cautiously take my opinion when I say the standard salsas were very flavorful, but not very spicy. I requested a hotter sauce and was supplied with a habanero based salsa. I ended up mixing this sauce (whose spice I preferred) with the standard sauce supplied with the home made tortilla chips (whose flavor was amazing) to apply to most of the rest of my food.

As a main course I ordered the Taco Platter, choosing chicken tinga as my filling. The rice and refried style black beans were savory accompaniments, and the chicken tinga (shredded meat simmered in a tomato and chipotle sauce) was great, but I think the amount of lettuce in each taco overpowered the flavor a bit. I ended up pulling the lettuce out and eating it on the side as a flavorful salad, making the tinga flavor of the taco stand out more.

As a chaser I ordered another appetizer: the grilled steak huaraches.  Huarache in Mexico is a sandal or flip-flop; this dish gets its disagreeable name from the shape of the masa, or batter, which is a corn-based batter fried like a pancake to make a thick tortilla like bread. The huarache is topped with caramelized onions, cilantro, refried black beans, cheese, red sauce and a medium rare slice of skirt steak. Quite delicious, if you ask me.

My only two complaints:

1) They only take reservations for between 2 and 6. Their reasoning was that there is too much mall traffic and if someone shows up as a walk in at 7 or 8 and sees an empty table, they wonder why they cannot be seated. I think this is a stupid argument because everyone I know understands the concept of “reserved.” I am calling to make a reservation specifically to assure a table in the event the restaurant is very busy. I am thinking ahead to avoid standing at your door for an hour while I am hungry and with a group of friends. People who don’t think ahead are welcome to wait that hour. Avoid having to explain empty tables by setting aside half of the restaurant for walk-ins, and anyone arriving late for their reservation loses their table.

2) I so totally over-ate!

So celebrate Mexican Independence: go to La Sandía in the Santa Monica Place.

Sorry about the pictures; I'm not a bad photographer, but these were just snapshots with a point and click digital camera.

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