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Serenade Your Taste-buds at La Serenata

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I love Mexican food, and really who doesn’t? I’ve met few people who don’t love the flavors of our neighbors to the South. That being said, not everyone likes the same types of Mexican food. By types I don’t mean Tex-Mex or Oaxacan—I mean that there are several different culinary categories of Mexican food to be found here in our fair city. There’s taco truck Mexican food, which on a good day can be yummy, greasy, cheap and is always strictly “to go.” There’s stand Mexican food like Tito’s Tacos or Cinco de Mayo, which is also inexpensive but provides a table or two to sit down and enjoy your meal if you so choose. Then there’s sit-down restaurants, like El Cholo, or Tia Juana, where they seat you at a table, hand you a menu and a friendly server waits on you; though these places are of a slightly more formal set than the stand or truck, they still serve tasty, classic Mexican treats in a homey, elbows-on-the-table kind of atmosphere. Then, there is the Mexican establishment less considered, the gourmet Mexican restaurant. I used to shutter at the thought of gourmet-Mex, because in my mind it was the antithesis of all that Mexican food should be. But I was wrong-- gourmet Mexican food is totally delicious and definitely has its place in the wide landscape of Mexican cuisine. In LA gourmet Mex can be found at Frida in Beverly Hills, and one of my favorites: La Serenata de Garibaldi in Boyle Heights, West LA and Santa Monica.

I love La Serenata for the obvious reasons: great food, nice atmosphere, and convenient location, but there's another bonus--it's also reasonably affordable for gourmet food. Depending on what and how much you order, two people can dine there for about forty bucks. And it's definitely worth it for a tasty and fun meal.

La Serenata just vamped up their menu making it chock full of options. You're pretty much going to recognize everything on it--burritos, tacos, enchiladas, chile rellenos, salads as well as meat and seafood dishes. What makes the food gourmet is that the flavors are a bit more refined, the dishes are lighter on the stomach, and the food is always elegantly presented. For example, their colorful chips are presented to you on a white plate, sprinkled with cheese and served with a side of red Mole sauce for dipping. Compare this to chips served out of a plastic red tray or a silver bucket alongside traditional salsa, and you'll see how La Serenata differs in both taste and presentation to most other Mexican restaurants.

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But of course, there's more to La Serenata than just chips and salsa; there are many wonderful appetizers and entrees! For something unique, start with the Salad Tropicale made with mango, onion, avocado, orange and mixed greens; it's sweet, savory and transports you to an exotic world. For your main course, I recommend the shrimp enchiladas which are stuffed with fresh shrimp, and topped with a slightly sweet and tangy green tomatillo sauce as well as cheese; the shrimp enchiladas come with white rice flavored with thyme and also black beans. If you are feeling particularly carnivorous, the pork medallions are also tasty, tender and smothered in a spicy red sauce. Also try one of their burritos, which are fancier than the type you are probably used to. They are stuffed with shrimp, pork, chicken, or steak, covered with a pink sauce and should be eaten with a knife and fork. Their jumbo prawns are also a delicious treat but are a splurge at $21.95.

Perhaps better than La Serenata's fabulous entrees are their delectable desserts. Although their dessert menu changes daily, you can usually count on a few staples. First, there is the guava cheesecake, which is light, sweet and fruity. Second, is their soft, fluffy Tres Leches cake--a Mexican classic. Then there is their key lime pie, rivaled only in taste by the key lime pie I've had in Miami. And lastly--and my personal favorite--their homemade bread pudding studded with chocolate and bananas. It's creamy, silky and totally sinful--especially when they top it with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce. Yes, their desserts are king, and are reason alone to try out La Serenata.

The ambience of La Serenata is not as luxurious as on might expect from a restaurant that boasts gourmet food. Nonetheless, it is still prettier than your typical Mexican establishment. The walls are painted a vibrant yellow and display beautiful works of Mexican folk art. La Serenata's West LA location is fairly small and can get very busy and noisy--particularly on weekends. The crowd is mostly twenty and thirty-somethings who come dressed in jeans--what else, this is LA after all. I recommend making reservations to guarantee a table.

Now I'm not saying that gourmet Mexican food is superior to good old "regular"--for lack of a better term-- Mexican food. God knows I love all of the culinary categories of Mexican food. In fact, today I ate at Cinco de Mayo, a little Mexican stand in Culver City. I'm just saying I like to switch it up, eat the whole enchilada, if you know what I mean. So I urge you, if you haven't tried the more upscale version of Mexican, give it a try. La Serenata is waiting. Just pick up the phone and make those reservations. It's as easy as uno, dos, tres!

La Serenata de Garibaldi
1842 E 1st St (Cross Street: State Street)
Los Angeles, CA 90033
(323) 265-2887

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10924 W Pico Blvd (Cross Street: Westwood Boulevard)
Los Angeles, CA 90064
(310) 441-9667

La Serenata de Garibaldi
1416 4th St
Santa Monica, CA 90401
(310) 656-7017

photo by accipiter1 via FlickR