Returning from a recent holiday in Cabo San Lucas, I found myself with an unusual hankering for Mexican fare. Normally, when I travel to Mexico, I can’t look at a taco for a couple of months afterward. A sampling of the Cabo restaurants surrounding our hotel'one of the finest I’ve ever occupied, by the way'might help explain my cravings upon returning home. There were Subway, Pizza Hut and Burger King restaurants to the north. A tad to the east were Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Hard Rock CafÃ©, McDonald’s, Harley-Davidson CafÃ©, Dairy Queen, Domino’s (Tuesday is two-for-one pizzas!), Houlihan’s and Johnny Rocket’s. A stroll to the west led us to Kentucky Fried Chicken and the San Francisco Coffee Company. I was a bit surprised not to encounter a Taco Bell, but I think I recall seeing one on the way to the airport. Also en route to the airport was Charlie Trotter’s new restaurant, called “C.” But dining there would have cost more than the rest of our Cabo vacation combined, so we passed.
I did manage, however, to land some authentic local cuisine during my stay in Cabo. I enjoyed incredible sea-bass tacos at The Office restaurant right on the beach, where I also developed a serious habit for breakfasts of machaca. I savored every bite of the grilled sea bass at Mariscos Mazatlan restaurant and was also bold enough to order gigantic oysters on the half-shell. Then, at Mocambo seafood restaurant, I’m pretty sure I ordered the sea bass'along with a daring appetizer of raw shrimp, something I’ve never even done in a sushi restaurant. The waiter, thinking I didn’t understand him, kept repeating to me in Spanish, “But these shrimp â€¦ they are raw, understand?” To which I finally said, in my less-than-flawless Castilian, “Yes. I understand that the shrimp are raw. They’d better be raw! The rawer they are, the better! That’s how I want them!” The next night, we walked out of the one restaurant we’d been told by everybody was the most “authentic” Mexican eatery in town, a place called Mi Casa Restaurant and Cantina, because it reminded us too much of Larry Miller’s Mayan restaurant in Sandy.
So, by the time I returned from Mexico, I was really hungry for Mexican food. And that’s how I found myself at Salt Lake City’s new L.A.-CafÃ©. The restaurant advertises “Authentic Mexican since 1951.” Sounds perfect, I thought, although I was skeptical about the L.A.-CafÃ©’s salad of mango-glazed salmon, seared and served with mango balsamic vinaigrette ($8.95) having really been around since 1951.
Well, it turns out that the grandmother of L.A.-CafÃ©’s owners opened the original in San Bernardino back in 1951, and they’ve been serving her recipes in that restaurant ever since. Now, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, they’ve decided to open a second location right here in Salt Lake City, where there are no shortage of Mexican restaurants.
Table service at L.A.-CafÃ© is as quick and friendly as can be and begins with a pile of freshly made tortilla chips'surprisingly thin, light and crisp'and a bowl of homemade salsa “rojo.” Those chips are free, whereas chips and fresh guacamole appetizer is overpriced at $6.75, even acknowledging the high price of avocados. Instead, opt for the lime-infused Gulf shrimp ($8.95) appetizer, battered and served with a creamy tomatillo “ranch” dip, which I advise perking up with a dab or two of bottled hot sauce.
My favorite appetizer at L.A.-CafÃ©, though, turned out to be an item not on the appetizer menu. I suggest starting with a simple chicken taco ($2.75). It’s a corn tortilla, flash fried in oil and formed into a taco shell, stuffed with stupendously tender and moist, subtly spiced shredded chicken, then topped with cheese and salsa “cruda.” My companion said it reminded her of the fabulous fish tacos we enjoyed at The Office in Cabo. And indeed, the fish tacos at L.A.-CafÃ©'made with firm-fleshed tilapia'did come close to those stunning Cabo sea bass tacos. At L.A.-CafÃ©, the tilapia is also served as a specialty entrÃ©e: Two filets crusted with tortilla chips, sautÃ©ed and spritzed with a zippy lime and cilantro sauce ($11.95).
L.A.-CafÃ© is a very clean, modestly appointed place, with black-and-white photos of Grandma, her family and the original L.A.-CafÃ© restaurant on the walls. About the only other dÃ©cor is potted plants, which ultimately adds up to a mostly bland ambiance. Unfortunately, the carnitas ($10.95) I’d so looked forward to'having found none in Mexico'were as bland as the scenery. The menu states that the slow-cooked pork carnitas are marinated in pineapple juice, but they could have been cooked in tap water, and I don’t think I could’ve detected the difference.
A much, much more satisfying choice is a foot-long chili verde burrito ($7.95) which also comes in a half-foot size ($5.95) for wimps. However, we ordered a side of rice and it came, instead, inside the burrito. It may have served its purpose better there anyway, since an actual side of rice and beans were as bland as the aforementioned carnitas. The refried beans, always best when soft and creamy, were a solid sludgy slab of smashed pintos with a thick glob of melted cheese on top. Very unappealing, and I’m a guy who loves refried beans. The rice? Well, let’s just call it undistinguished and leave it at that.
As “authentic” Mexican food, L.A.-CafÃ© is hit-and-miss. But it’s still better than a lot of what you’ll find to eat in Cabo.