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Los Angeles: Skip the Tacos and Grab Dinner at La Serenata de Garibaldi

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Asada taco plate. [Photographs: Noam Bleiweiss]

It's hard to make a name for yourself by slinging Mexican food in Boyle Heights. In a neighborhood that already boasts Guisados, Mariscos Jalisco and El Tepayec (with their five-pound Manuel's Special burrito), standing tall amongst the competition is no small feat. Even neighborhood favorites like Antojitos Carmen have shuttered over the years, a testament to what it takes to thrive in such a food-rich part of town.

La Serenata de Garibaldi hasn't had those sorts of issues. As a slightly upscale alternative to the late night cafes, trucks, and tables that run along Cesar Chavez Avenue, this airy eatery has been pushing plates of fresh seafood, simple tacos, and stiff margaritas for more than 25 years. And people are still leaving with smiles on their faces.

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The heavy wooden doors of La Serenata ("the serenade") open out onto First Street in the heart of Boyle Heights, and across the street from the always lively Mariachi Plaza. Aging, mustachio'd crooners with their acoustic guitars always seem to find their way into La Serenata to strum adoringly in front of the date night couples, or turn an upscale tune for a table with parents, grandparents, and tiny children squirming in their seats. Everyone comes to La Serenata once they've got a little money in their pocket or an excuse to celebrate.

The main dining room is full of twisting columns, heavy wood chairs, exposed beams, and a dribbling fountain in the back that helps to set the mood. The adjacent bar is heavy and worn from decades serving margaritas, mojitos, and three dozen types of tequila. Under the hanging glasses, it's the sort of place you don't mind crowding around while you wait for a table to open up. Drink enough while you're over there, start talking to the bartender, and you may never leave your seat.

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Quesadilla, chips, and salsa.

If you do, it's because you smell the dinner plates as they pass you by. Or perhaps it's just the chips, warm and fresh from the fryer. There are little quartered slivers of quesadilla splayed on top as well, a simple, inexpensive touch that really livens up the pre-dinner snack. Plus, they're perfect for soaking up the deep, earthy salsa roja provided for the table. La Serenata is a salsa-heavy restaurant, with everything emerging from the kitchen with a little kick built in.

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Picadillo and chile relleno plate.

Or slathered in sauce, as is the case with the picadillo and chile relleno plate ($15), a massive dinner option that arrives with plenty of salsa to spare. The beef is chopped into wide chunks and stewed with white onions to give it some depth, perfect for scooping into a freshly prepared corn tortilla for a little DIY taco action. Across that ocean of salsa, the chile relleno is a hefty bite of poblano pepper, stuffed to the gills with fresh Mexican cheese and then fried. With only the faintest touch of heat from the poblano, the fried exterior and the warm, cheesy insides, La Serenata's chile relleno is reason enough to make a reservation.

For their part, the taco plate ($12) arrives as a simple trifecta of either carne asada, chicken, carnitas, or some form of seafood. The asada is warm and inviting, but lacks the well-grilled and salty edges of a hotter grill and a quicker preparation. Still, these are thick, juicy bites of quality beef that pair well with the sturdy salsa roja left over from the chips. The chicken is served moist and tender, but the pulled bites are breast meat only. Without any of the deeper dark morsels or the help of some marinade and the lick of a flame, these tacos fall flat. Of course, the palm-sized, just griddled corn tortillas are a hit, but if you're ordering a $12 plate of tacos just to nibble on the tortilla underneath, something's wrong.

Then again, ordering the tacos at all when at La Serenata de Garibaldi seems like a fool's choice. The ambiance, the clientele, and the menu all skew towards dinner, which means large, stiff drinks, plates of chopped meats or freshly grilled fish, and a sweet, delicate flan waiting for dessert. Plus, if you're lucky, a little serenade from one of the mariachi men that linger across the street.

La Serenata de Garibaldi

1842 E. First Street, Boyle Heights 90033 (map)
LaSerenataOnline.com

About the author: Farley Elliott is a writer and comedian living in Los Angeles. He writes about strip mall food for LA Weekly and covers the LA beer scene for KCET.

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