Located in the area of the city that I lovingly call “LA-prime”, El Carmen boasts carrying some 100+ brands and varieties of tequila. With this, the bar lives up to its self-title: a tequileria (tequila bar). One can be entertained by looking up at the ceiling of El Carmen’s dusky room and seeing decorative masks worn by luchadores or by taking in the Almodovar-style, dramatic backdrop.
If it weren’t for the fluorescent signage atop El Carmen’s edifice, one may not even see the non-descript red door and the no-nonsense bouncer clad in black, checking IDs outside. But, on the other side of the door, the roar of a jam-packed, small capacity watering hole confronts new entrants like a life-or-death decision. Every inch of the space is people-crammed.
While striking indeed, the bartender was cold and calculated in her service. She clearly forgot that the whole customer interface was part-and-parcel of her job. She prepared the drink and joked about me with the other bartender (yes, gesturing in my direction and loudly laughing to unmistakably register her snarky comments). The deal was closed; this would definitely be my first and last drink of the evening at El Carmen, though I had planned to enjoy next the Holy Grail of margaritas: El Carmen’s signature blood orange margarita. However, there was no way I would be ordering more sass.
I managed to find a corner of the bar, occupied mostly by wait staff picking up drinks and delivering orders, yet nothing short of disappearing altogether seemed to sit well with one waitress, who often returned to punch in orders and ensure that she got in a brush against my face with the menus. I made the mistake of asking her if she knew of any spaces available around the bar. “Just what you see!” she huffed in a “duuuuhhhh” tone. “I’m sorry. I just thought you may know since you canvass the room,” I sheepishly replied and went back to gulping down my cadillac margarita, so I could get out of this den of negativity.
“Sensitive me” just turned away as tears welled up in my eyes and the sudden shock that I was actually having to fight back the waterworks in a bar because of the “service” overcame me. It wasn’t a sad tearing up; it was that frustrated cry that comes on when rage is bottled.
As I exited, the bouncer was most obliging when I passed him a note w/ my name & info on it, addressed to the manager. “What can I do to make your night better?” he asked. I thanked him for his courtesy and told him that I just wanted to ensure that the message got to the manager or owner. A week later, I had heard nothing.
I used to love El Carmen; it was a place to kick back & take in nachos buenos y margaritas fuertes. Apparently poor service is now an interchangeable term with the bar’s name.
If you are looking for an alternative experience that provides a similar, lively bar atmosphere in Los Angeles, try Antonio’s on Melrose, where the namesake and owner greets guests individually, regardless of status. I imagine Antonio’s motto to be something along the lines of “every customer is special,” as he demonstrates in his welcoming of each guest.
Or the uber-fun El Conquistador in Silverlake, where adults are happier than six-year-olds at Disneyland, is an easy unwind. Everyone appears wide-eyed and friendly here, as stiff margaritas pour out from the bar, and the atmosphere—a festive hodgepodge of decorations, complimented by staff who are mostly literal family members—takes on an afterglow that hypnotizes entrants. ¡Viva la fiesta!
For an LA original that bears a steep history as told in the black-and-white prints that adorn its walls, El Cholo on Western (also on Wilshire in Santa Monica and on South Fair Oaks Avenue in Pasadena) is a mid-city gem. Take a cab.