I rarely write bad reviews of people, places or things. The only ones I can think of off the top of my head are my reviews of the horrendous customer service of the Rathbone Hotel in London and Christian Siriano. And I’ve been blogging for well over six years now. So obviously, I must have some strong feelings about El Chavo, a Mexican restaurant and bar in the Los Feliz/Silverlake area. Sigh.

When I first moved to LA in 2002, I began looking for cool places to go, eat, drink and socialize. Among the first places I found was El Chavo, which I immediately loved for the following reasons:

  • Funky decor (flourescent sombreros and Aztec art)
  • Quirky foul-mouthed live harp player and José Gonzales-esque live guitarist
  • Delicious and POTENT $5 margaritas poured out of mysterious white jugs
  • Spicy free salsa and chips
  • $10 appetizer platter for two allowed two people to get a margarita buzz and nosh for $10 each, total.

It had everything, and was also right around the corner from the wonderful Vista theatre. A great evening consisting of a movie, appetizers and drink could be had for less than $20 per person. I went there for years, enjoying myself most every time.

At some point in the last few years, I heard that it was purchased/taken over by Melanie Tusquellas, the owner of the lovely-for-a-champagne-brunch Edendale Grill in Silverlake. Edendale Grill is a little on the edge of my self-imposed class limitations — meaning that everyone there is a little more gorgeous, rich, Ivy-League-fraternity/sorority-ish than the people I normally hang out with. But it’s friendly and tasty, in its own polished way. El Chavo, on the other hand, was shabby and weird, which is much more my speed and a very odd place to impose the Edendale template.

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As the new management began taking over, some unpleasant changes began showing themselves. The cadre of affable Mexican bartenders was infiltrated by a dour blonde woman with an accent somewhere between France and Eastern Europe. After spending several minutes bent over with her back to us fiddling with a radio, her response to the ice-breaker question “how’s the new business going?” was a flat “I haff no idea.” Then she unforgivably replaced the delicious and potent mystery jug margaritas with “fresh made” ones that seem to consist of 27 parts scaldingly acidic Rose’s Lime Juice, 15 parts lemon-juice-from-a-bottle, a splash of tequila and a pound of kosher salt. A request for one of their delicious corn tamales was met with “Not at this bar, dining room only.”

The once interestingly decorated walls were stripped bare throughout the restaurant and painted over in huge featureless expanses with what looks like institutional latex in colors that dishearten me in a way that I can’t distinguish between missing the old style or their own intrinsic dullness. The dining area now resembles a boxy airport cafeteria rather than one of LA’s typical personality-infused Mexican eateries. The Dolly poster, sombreros and much of the art behind the “good” bar was left the same, but I can’t help wondering if those things will be next. The “good” bar is the original one, where you can still (for a limited time?) get the mystery jug margaritas and have only a one-in-three chance of getting “Ilsa the ice princess” as your bartender.

The “bad” bar is located in the newly opened other side of El Chavo’s first floor. It has the same cold, featureless feel as the dining room, although there are a few scattered decorations on the wall. The several times I’ve had to go in due to the “good” side being full of dinner-hour guests, it always feels as if I’ve walked onto a set for a Mexican Restaurant scene in an underfunded WB sitcom. The only margaritas to be had on this side are the scalding pH1 “fresh” ones. Why, oh why is this so? Can the magic mystery jugs not be carried around the corner? Is this an experiment to force patrons to become used to the non-jug ones? With all the bad changes going on at El Chavo, the singular reason to still come there for me is the tasty, inexpensive margarita, and this is being ruined, too.

Monday night was the death knell of my love affair with El Chavo. In celebration of a good day, I invited a friend to have a margarita with me and as we walked down the stairs into the restaurant we heard horrendous music booming from the “bad side”. It sounded exactly like a car alarm with an irregular beat behind it. We smiled knowingly at each other, sadly amused at how El Chavo was going bad and relieved that at least we could go into the “good side” for relative quiet and enjoyment. Then, to our horror, we saw that the “good side” was blocked off. Since we were already there, and I had my mouth all set for a margarita, we sighed and went on in.

A DJ had set up some turntables, and was blaring the loudest, most discordant music imaginable. It sounded sort of like Mr. Bungle raping the Shirelles. The room was populated by hipsters… an aesthetic manufactured by appropriating the culture of poor or so-called trashy people via ironic-but-expensive fabrics and designs purchased on Melrose. The only good thing was the young, cute bartenders (does this mean the longtime Mexican ones are out?), but they must’ve been well schooled by “Ilsa” because no mystery jugs were in evidence… only the acrid sting of concentrated Rose’s Lime Juice, bottled lemon juice and a hint of tequila. As my friend and I shouted our conversation to each other, shivering in the cigarette smoke wafting in the nearby propped-open door, I felt my teeth softening in the acidic margarita seemingly without benefit of numbing alcohol. Where one of the jug margaritas usually had me pleasantly buzzed, I barely felt anything after two caustic glasses of the new ones.

The food here is perfectly fine, the corn tamales are excellent (some of the best I’ve had in LA) and the jug margaritas are great if you can get em. The usual patrons have always felt “neighborhood-y”, pleasant and non-douchey, excepting Monday’s hipster overload. It’s sad to see my favorite aspects of a place I’ve been coming for 6-7 years going away, though.

I can’t say that I won’t dip back in on some occasion or other, after consulting my astrolabe, horoscope and the entrails of a two-headed snake to determine if I might chance to enter the ever more elusive El Dorado-like “good side” on a night when jugs are flowing and “Ilsa” isn’t working. But I am now actively searching for a new Mexican place with strong, tasty and cheap margaritas, fewer hipsters and no grim Eurpean blondes serving me Mexican food.

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