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.
I may not make it far with the Yelp! crowd, but I didn’t expect to anyway since I find myself often (ok, always) at odds with the opinion plurimus populus. Of course, this willful defiance is quite purposeful, but I diverge…
Vito’s… Hmm… Let’s start with “chewy” as a description, and–the last time I recollect, which was as recently as November 2009–there was absolutely nothing “chewy” about New York pizza. Oh, where to begin? Where to begin? Oh, yes, we began with “chewy”. *NY native clutches Madison Avenue pearls*
As I ascended the steps to my suite, I spotted a rather scrumptious fellow (Bronx Tale fantasies ran wild) with undoubtedly Italian features, wrapping up a delivery transaction with my immediate neighbor. I was compelled to ask from which company he delivered, and he was quite enthusiastic in his jovial response. He then went out of his way to get me a menu; as we struck up pleasant conversation, he lauded Vito’s Pizza as authentically New York (a challenge that always leaves me prey), and he had the New Jersey accent to back it up. I wasn’t entirely sold. New Jersey? It’s close but not close enough. Not close enough for a New Yorker who has thoroughly scoured the Village for the world’s finest pizzeria. But after two plus hours of mental anguish and Yelp! reviews and menu combing, I settled. My heart had been set by lunch time on a rival eatery, but I couldn’t take the thought of my neighbor knowing a serious NY pipeline and of me, sadly traipsing back to my usual.
(Being “out of the know” is just not an option for the uberLA. The last thing you want is to be at Le Dome and to have someone’s receptionist talking to her equally expendable friend about how she went to “____” last night, and you haven’t heard of the place. If you had heard, of course, you would be sighing or laughing or entertained or yawning or stra*gling or all. Anywho…)
So I venture to Vito’s with high hopes and a humble attitude. I mean, after the reviews I had read, I was almost certainly ready to bow down.
I pull up; there’s parking. Tuesday night but still LA. Non-competitive parking? Rarely ever. But I’m thrilled with the concept of having my choice of spaces in the city. I notice the “writer” *yawn* in front of Vito’s, the only one in 55-degree weather sitting outside, with his laptop and his pizza.
I walk in. Italian cuties galore. I’m about mid-film now. The servers and regulars were all smiles. I thought to myself, “Maybe this is real. This is it. This is Mecca.”
In fact, as I drove away, I didn’t even bother to scarf down a “test” slice as usual. I was so convicted in this pizza’s goodness that I looked forward to savoring it, so much so that I grabbed sorbet from Whole Foods as an after-treat; this was going to be an experience.
So as I’m leaving Whole Foods, I decide that I can’t delay gratification any longer and that I must sample the cheese pie I had ordered from Vito’s, and I was impressed with the immediate burst of flavor. Eureka.
And then I began to chew. And chew. And chew. And chew. And then my jaws hurt, but I was still chewing, and this wasn’t even the end-crust. New York? Seriously? I will go to my grave saying that I’ve never ever ever had “chewy” pizza in New York City. Never. Period.
The next day, I decided to give the Vito’s pie a try–cold–for breakfast. (Many of the Yelpers whined that their delivery orders were late, which left their pies cold. I would argue that they were better off having it cold anyway.) It was surprisingly delish! The chew-factor had toned down to a 3 instead of an 10, and I was much more on-board.
While I enjoy the concept of eating righteous food in dark, chlorophyll-saturated hues, when I eat pizza, I want unadulterated pizza. Now I’m no post-trans fat New Yorker (That is not said b/c I’m pro-fat; I’m pro-freedom of choice.), but I remember folding slices and holding their pointed tips over accompanying paper plates to let the grease drip off. I even recall rubbing flat slices against plates/bags in an effort to reduce the oil on my pizza. To me, this was New York pizza: dripping grease, thick cheese, hearty yet thin crusts. (I allow for greater variation in sauce.)
So how Vito’s comes close to New York, with its oil-reduced, jaw-breaking slices is beyond me. Many on Yelp! say they are from the “East Coast”, but that term is obviously useless. New York and Boston are both on the East Coast, but their pizza styles are strikingly different; so, beware, coastal claims are dubious. You know the Yelper is on the path of at least remote truth when he/she starts naming places by NYC borough, and one of these boroughs is a neighborhood in Manhattan or Brooklyn. (Anything from the Bronx requires a health inspection. Queens? For Jamaican food, yes, but we are focused on pizza here. And Long Island is hardly “the City”. LIRR’s need to go ahead and bite down on this truth.)
I also ordered the meatballs, which were flavorless and inedible. After two bites, I threw my money in the trash. Very disheartening.
I’m sticking to Vito’s top rival. But if dentures are in your horizon anyway, and you prefer eye candy with your din din… buono appetito.