updated 2007: heavily edited for being boring and irrevelent.
i actually do sort of like both of the places i'm attempting to review, and i feel almost bad that after the experience is over, i just don't have the energy to write about them. but i have nothing else to talk about so...i will stick to the issue of mexican food, which you can actually find on the island.
although, it's not really mexican food as i know it. at least it's not taco bell, which i don't really count as mexican. i lived in los angeles for quite awhile, and i don't think i saw much of this sort of mexican food when i was there. i was completely spoiled for choice--i could get lowly but tasty tacos made from tripe or tongue from randomly fabulous vans parked on the side of the road, or beautiful green corn tamales in the heart of hollywood, or even piquant cochinita pibil in a hip little joint by the beach. in fact, i could go from east to west of the city on a mexican culinary journey, and tasty treasures would come up in spades, no matter the neighbourhood--fish enchiladas in tomatilla sauce from boyle heights, scallop burritos from eagle rock, pupusas in hollywood, zucchini and mushroom tacos in the fairfax district, verde de espinazo in palms for goodness' sake....dang. i could have wept when i found out there were only two mexican restaurants here. i probably did.
eh. i got over it. there's nothing really wrong with them--carmen's cha cha cha and marty's mexican bar and grill--not really. i suppose you'll find the same variety almost anywhere, except um, mexico. it took me a long while to get to either carmen's or marty's, but when i did i was pleasantly surprised to find that neither sucks hard. or even sucks mediumly. there are little niggly things which make both suck softly in different ways, but i'm getting to that.
carmen's is located across the street from the cathedral, on the ground floor of an office building. (i used to take art classes in what is now the kitchen. whatevs.) it is brightly painted with large tables and booths throughout; i imagine that this is the sort of place large groups and families like to come to, to sample traditional mexican fare.
there are basically a few items on the menu--tacos, enchiladas, burritos, and quesadillas--but all can be modified to be vegetarian, or with grilled chicken or beef. for the most part, all the cooks are quite good with their grilling technique, so the chicken and beef is well cooked, charred slightly, with a smoky flavour and firm but yielding bite. there is always a generous portion of either meat, along with lettuce, tomato, salsa, and a spanish-type of rice and refried pinto beans. however, sometimes the meat can be overcooked and dry, and sometimes the (iceberg) lettuce and tomato are just weak and watery. i can't really complain, these items are shipped months in advance from another hemisphere. i am actually thrilled to have iceberg lettuce around. really.
when i come here, i tend to order two things: the carne asada plate, with grilled beef, and served with rice and refried beans, homemade flour tortillas, salsa, guacamole and sour cream. the meat comes in strips, unlike in the other dishes where they are cut down to unchokeable-sized nuggets, and at some point i remember you could ask for it to be cooked to your liking, but lately no one has asked. so usually you get it well-done. the rice is fluffy, not sticky, and although orange, not particularly flavoured; the refried beans are cooked in house. the homemade tortillas are very good, served warm and tucked in a napkin, as is the homemade salsa (even when the tomatoes aren't particularly good). you get a very stingy portion of both sour cream and guacamole with your dishes, although you can order more on the side. the guacamole isn't made fresh, its a commercial product; i've never actually tried it because i'm allergic to avocadoes, but some people seem to like it.
the other thing i order often is the burrito, which is a brick-sized monster of meat, beans, rice, salsa, sour cream and guacamole--basically everything in the carne asada plate--wrapped in a big flour tortilla. i don't know what it is, but mushing everything together seems to make it tastier, more interesting; you never know what you are going to get with each bite, as there is no way you'd fit the whole thing in your mouth. the only quibble is that the last time i was here (a couple of months ago), the meat was padded out with chunks of jicama; it was an interesting textural counterpoint, but i kind of felt it was just added filler to reduce the amount of meat (and therefore reduce costs), and not because it added anything to the dish. i'd prefer less meat and no chunks o' root vegetables, please.
the nice thing about carmen's is that although the menu is rather basic, you can actually call ahead and order some of carmen's specialty items--i haven't actually tried this, but i am interested in trying her mole, enchiladas verdes, and chile rellenos.
service here is brisk, and cordial. these are not a lively bunch, nor would i call them friendly, but they're not surly and i don't really care. portions are humungous, food comes out quickly, drinks are refilled often, and the atmosphere is such that you could eat here alone and not feel uncomfortable.
marty's, on the hand, is not really a place anyone goes to eat alone. in fact, i'm not sure the majority of their clientele goes there to eat. half the space it occupies is bar, half of that is a dance floor, and it's usually heaving at night. although, i have to say, i've never eaten here during the day, mainly because i don't have the time. and, despite its rather extensive menu, i've only eaten a few dishes from here. most of the menu consists of "southwestern" or "tex-mex" inspired foods--blackened this, salsa-covered that, serve it with guacamole and roberto es su tío.
i have to say, though, they really know their way around a taco. the fillings are basic, but the tortillas and veggies are always fresh, and the meat o'choice well cooked. most of the tacos are the hard corn shell, lots of veggies and meat variety, but i am particularly fond of the baja-style fish tacos made with deep-fried battered fish chunks (wahoo, i think, maybe marlin), and shredded cabbage inside a lightly fried corn tortilla. on more than few occasions the shell has been a little too oily, but the fish is always crispy on the outside, flake tender on the inside, and ungreasy. i also quite like the regular fish taco, which has grilled wahoo with all the accoutrement inside a soft flour shell. deeeelish.
portions are healthy, but you'll be able to walk out of there instead of rolling sideways. service can be quite slow, and the air conditioning system will blast you with cold air intermittently, yet still managing to leave you sweating at times. also, the cigarette smoke from partioned bar area still makes its way to the dining area, and it is heavy enough to have you smelling of stale stogies when you emerge from the restaurant. foodwise, however, i'd have to give the edge to marty's; it's just not my style. service is friendly, flirty, and it's definitely a place to enjoy with company, not on your own.
carmen's cha cha cha
192 F.C. archbishop flores st.,
across the street from the cathedral,
marty's mexican bar and grill
fujita road, under the giant inflatable parrot,