El Coyote Cafe (Pt. I)
7312 Beverly Blvd.
Los Angeles CA 90036
Google Local Info, including maps, directions, and other reviews.
A lot of foodies I know have already stopped reading.
"El Coyote," they say. "Blecch. How can you even eat there?" Or, "Why, when you can get such good authentic Mexican in L.A.?" Or, "Well, the margaritas are strong... they have to be because you gotta be drunk to eat the food," or, most damning of all, "They put canned beets on their tostadas!"
Here are my answers to that. First off, I eat there simply because it's probably my favorite restaurant in the world. I not only eat there, I often eat there twice a week. And El Coyote is authentic: authentic early 20th-Century California-Mexican cuisine, of which I'm a big fan. Don't get me wrong, I love "authentic" Mexican food, too, but El Coyote is a different beast altogether. Comparing it to Serenata de Garibaldi or Guelaguetza just because the both serve tortillas makes as much sense as comparing In 'n' Out Burger to Nick & Stef's because they both serve meat and potatoes. And damn straight the margaritas are strong... and delicious. And even damner and straighter there's canned beets on their tostadas. My wife loves 'em... with blue cheese dressing, motherfucker! You got a problem with that?
My point is El Coyote needs to be taken on its own terms. No less a foodie luminary than Jonathan Gold (and for those of you who don't know it, all L.A. food bloggers are Jonathan Gold-wannabes) says that he's eaten more meals at El Coyote than any other restaurant on earth, and that Los Angeles is "unimaginable without it."
Okay, enough defensive El Coyote apologism. I'm posting to tell you who love the restaurant, but always order the same thing, or those of you who ate the tostada once, freaked at the beets and have only gone for drinks since, how to Work The Menu. There's some good eating to be done at what my household lovingly calls The Dog (from Howling Dog)
Here, at last, is the dish...
The guiding principle with working the El Coyote menu is to remember that the kitchen is very accommodating with substitutions. Use this to your advantage. The menu can be daunting, with bizarre entries like "Scratch Margaritas," (that doesn't sound appetizing at all), Enchilada Howard (we love to ask "is the Howard fresh today?"), and "Mexican Spaghetti" (it's actually fideo, a plenty "authentic" Mexican dish.) But don't be frightened. El Coyote is a Mexican restaurant, and has almost all the ingredients you'd expect in a Mexican restaurant; they're often just disguised with 1930s-friendly Americanized names. Don't see "carne asada"? It's there: it's just called "fajita steak." Machaca? It's "shredded beef." Flautas? They're "rolled tacos." The only thing you won't find buried in the menu is seafood. A bias of the owner, I'm told; I'm guessing she got some bad shellfish back in the ice-box 1930's.
So, a theoretical order from those "in the know" might go something like this: "I'd like an El Coyote Pizza with guac, a Garden Salad with ranch on the side, and a number one with a shredded beef taco -- suave, no grasa -- and a steak fajita enchilada, frijoles de la olla, and no cheese on the beans. And I'll have a scratch margarita straight up with rocks on the side."
Now that sounds like a pain-in-the-ass order, and your head is probably spinning. But the waiters and waitresses know what I mean as well as your local In 'n' Out knows what "Animal Style" means. And you will too, once you check out my Secret Menu of El Coyote delights:
El Coyote Pizza - This is what most folks think of as nachos deluxe. Where the nachos are just chips, cheese, and jalapenos, the Pizza includes beans and salsa. Guac and sour cream optional.
Albondigas Soup - Take this, authentic Mex snobs. This fresh-made meatball soup is one of the best versions in town. Even better? Ask for some cilantro, lemon slices and Cholula hot sauce on the side. Some cilantro leaves, a squeeze or two of lemon and a couple of dashes of Cholula hot sauce (available if you ask for it... same with Tapatio) make it a truly awesome appetizer.
Ignore the confusing menu. ANY taco, whether in a combo or not, can be made with these fillings:
Shredded Beef (Machaca)
And they can come in three different wrappings:
Special warning here: if you just order "soft" tacos, the tortilla is grilled in little oil, making it ultra-greasy. If you want a traditional "soft" taco, order it steamed or "suave, no grasa"). The rolled tacos are made fresh when you order 'em. Crispy shell, a little bit toothsome... try the shredded beef. It's tasty.
The same choices as tacos. But you can add to the mix:
Chile Con Carne - Anywhere else, this would be called "Chile Colorado con Puerco." Here it's called "Chile Con Carne," or, simply "Howard." Seriously. The Enchilada Howard, named after an old regular, is just an enchilada smothered in the pork chile colorado.)
In fact, for burritos, just tell 'em exactly what you want in it. My current fave is ordered like this:
"A burrito with black beans, lettuce, tomato, fresh avocado slices, pico de gallo, and salsa verde, mojado." This nets you the beautiful beast pictured here.\
There are three varieties, all of which are made with vegetable oil; no lard.
Whole Pintos (or "frijoles de la olla").
The whole beans and the new black beans are particularly delicious. The combo plates tend to come, as Jonathan Gold puts it, "welded to the plate with great leathery straps of cheese." Ordering the beans "sin queso" lets the tasty flavor of the freshly-made beans come out.
Combination Salad - My wife's fave... canned beets, limp shredded lettuce and all.
Fiesta Salad - made with grilled chicken.
Caesar Salad - they make a delicious, tangy Caesar here. Order it with chicken, and it's a full, healthy meal. Or ask for Caesar dressing on any of the other salads.
Tostada - this is what inspires so much fear in the average diner. Shredded iceberg lettuce, Veg-All Three Bean Salad, canned beets, and Thousand Island dressing on top of beans and a crispy corn tortilla. Now as long as you're not expecting a real tostada, this can be pretty tasty. But it can also be tweaked to something more recognizable. Order it with "no vegetables" and "no dressing, " and add guacamole, or your favorite meat, some lemon slices, and extra hot sauce. Squeeze the lemon, drizzle some hot sauce, and you're in biz.
Chicken Taco Salad - This is more like your standard El Torito style gringo tostada, with the big upright flour tortilla, the "good" lettuce, shredded three-cheese blend, and grilled chicken. Try it with fajita steak instead of chicken... or some Howard! Yum!
You can order 'em strawberry, mango, Cadillac, whatever you like, but 95% of the margaritas consumed here are of one variety:
House Margarita - It's what made the place famous. It's delicious and refreshing, with its slight splash of pineapple juice. True it's not $1.95 for a double anymore like when I first came here, but it's still a good deal.
Scratch Margarita - If you really wanna get fucked up and fast, this is the drink for you. While the house margarita is made in a giant vat each morning and pumped into the bar -- hence the slight effervescence -- the scratch margarita is made fresh when you order. It's stronger. Much stronger. You can smell the thing coming about 20 feet away.
So, go back and read my would-be order above. All make sense now? Good. Go forth to El Coyote and blaze through the menu like the intrepid adventurer you are!
Oh, and be sure to get a margarita or two... the food really is better if you're drunk.
I still have more to say on the topic of El Coyote. I'll save it for another post. Or maybe two.
El Coyote Photo by Hughes Hall