In my last post I tried to break down any resistance you might have to dining at El Coyote, that L.A. bastion of 1930's style California Mexican cuisine, by positing that there are redeeming culinary qualities to be found among the julienned beets and Thousand Island dressing. Judging by the number of hits on the site and some e-mail, I'm not alone in my love for the place.
In part two of the El Coyote post, I'm here to tell you, for real, why El Coyote may just be the The World's Greatest Restaurant.
To me, a great restaurant is defined by so much more than the quality of its food. It's an experience. I can appreciate a $35 piece of seared ahi with wasabi butter on an architectural mound of rice and daikon, served under recessed lights on a cold marble table in a room so spacious and echoey that your "Mmm! Delicious!" bounces off five walls before reaching your date as much as the next foodie. In these places, it's "all about the food." But an evening meal with friends has the potential to encompass so much more of life: sound, smell, ritual, history, people-watching, conversation, true confessions, sex (yes, sex), joy and horror. El Coyote delivers all those things for me. Our weekly meals there are like church. In fact, since my wife and I don't go to church, it's exactly like church. We call it "Judyism." Why?
Here's the dish.
Though our schedules have changed recently, we used to go to The Dog every Thursday night. It went like this:
I wake up on Thursday morning, and generally the first thought in my head is "Mmm. What shall I have tonight? Beef rolled tacos? Or a tostada no veg-all with guac? Or am I feeling celebratory... No. 1 combo?" I think about it all day. I make a point not to eat a big lunch: maybe a little bit of sushi, the anti-El Coyote. We get calls from friends during the course of the afternoon -- they also woke up craving Dog food. "You guys Dogging tonight? Is there room at the table?" When our table gets full, we start screening calls. It's strictly first come, first served.
I leave work early; when I took the job, I told my employer: "One condition: Thursdays, I leave at 5:30. Non-negotiable." I drive home, narrowing down my menu selection in my head. Rolled tacos and a garden salad. But will the tacos be beef, chicken, or one of each? At home, there is already a small crowd of friends waiting for me. They're loitering anxiously around the front door, jackets on, keys in hand. "He's here! Let's GO, I'm starving!" We pile into the car. Somone rides in the back of the SUV. It takes too long to get there. Minutes seem like hours. Finally we pull onto Beverly Blvd., and there's the sign, exactly like a church steeple, beckoning us to worship. Its warm red neon is welcoming. It promises "cocktails." Happy hour revelers are already spilling out the restaurant, glowing, laughing, yelling, staggering obliviously in front of the cars lined up to get into the parking lot... They have already taken communion. Elvis, the chief valet, knows us; he won't allow us to have a ticket. He's been the valet for 10 years... he still doesn't look old enough to drive. We head towards the door -- oops, we forgot to let someone out of the back of the SUV. We fix that. We enter and Billy, the host, says hi. He expects us to call if we're NOT coming on Thursday. Our table is waiting. Large 8 (yes, we know most of the tables in the place by numeric designation), in the gold room, in the corner. We take our assigned seats automatically.
Our waitress Judy sees us from across the room, and seconds later she's brought our drinks. She knows what we all want: house margaritas, straight up, ice on the side, one with no salt. Judy is adorable. She calls the margaritas "vitaminas." Vitamins. From vita, "life." She's Guatemalan, and looks twenty years younger than she is. We comment on whatever pretty ruffly Mexican dress she's wearing that day. She's wearing costume jewelry that was a present from my wife last Christmas, and an apron she made for her the year before. We see Judy more often than most of our best friends. We ask about her dogs; she asks about anyone who's missing from the group. "Where is your friend with the funny hair?" We tell her the strange tales of our our life the past week. She responds, wide-eyed: "Ohhh!?... Really? No! Really?... Ohhh." I think she doesn't understand most of it.
Judy has been serving us for 13 years. She's our high priestess.
The tortillas and guac arrive. We usually skip the chips, a passing attempt at health made useless when we slather butter on the tortillas. Is there anything better than a steaming hot corn tortilla with butter? Who says the food at El Coyote isn't good?
Judy knows not to take our order til we've received our second drink. By now everyone has changed their minds about what they're getting. The room is getting louder. There's always a hen party across from us, a different set of secretaries just off work, bitching about their bosses. Maybe there's a celebrity. We've seen Drew Barrymore and Edward Norton, Dom DeLouise and Ruth Buzzi, Tim Burton and Lisa Marie (on Halloween; we were dressed as Jack Skellington and Sally -- somewhere, we have a Polaroid commemorating the event), Ricardo Montalban, among countless others. There's the table of regulars in "the bower," a table in the hallway. The same six, also there every Thursday, twenty years older than us. We think of them as a vision of ourselves at age 65. Finally they stopped coming. Someone must have died.
Halfway into our second drink, just when we are well and truly ravenous and a little tipsy, the food arrives. Kent shreds fresh cilantro and squeezes lemon into his Albondigas soup. Sa digs into a chicken Caesar salad. I went for the tostada after all, which requires dousing it in the hot salsa (did I mention the salsas here are all made daily, from scratch, even down to crushing the dried chiles for the salsa picante?), squeezing a half a lemon's juice on it, adding some Cholula. Finally we eat. Everybody cleans their plate. We talk with increasing vehemence about politics, gossip about friends. Maybe there's some friendly fondling under the table.
The margaritas at El Coyote have a truth-serum effect... you start telling people childhood secrets. Maybe you tell someone what you really think of them. Maybe you make a pass at someone. Once, Judy tells us, two customers actually "made the sex" on the patio just before closing one night, she bent over the table with one leg on a chair, he behind. I'm guessing there was a margarita close at hand.
We order one more straight up margarita... to share, like communion. We portion it out carefully. No one wants to get shorted. As we eat and drink, hosts and waiters and waitresses drop by and say or just smile and wave. Margie, of the owning family, pours us water and asks if everything is all right. We eat there twice a week so we know them all, not just Judy. Elegant Miguel, competent Siggy, cute Kevin of the ever changing hair, sexy Isabel, mi amor, fabulous-in drag Roberto, (his Carmen Miranda Halloween outfit not to be missed), Fran the token Republican who tells funny jokes, Casanova, Gabby. They're all family. Even the busboys -- did you know that Jose, the one who looks like a hispanic Jason Robards, personally made ALL the house margaritas here for decades? He'd come in every morning at 5 am to fill the big vat in a corner of the kitchen with the secret mix. He finally passed on the secret a few years ago, but you might want to say "thanks" next time you're in.
The margaritas have their unique, slightly psychotropic effect. The restaurant's year-round christmas lights are beautiful. It's someone's birthday, and the worst rendition of "Happy Birthday, Panchito" imaginable -- the wait staff must rehearse daily to keep everyone that far off-key -- never sounded sweeter. Ten minutes later, we're best friends with the birthday boy.
Finally the bill comes -- reasonable, though with steady price increases the past few years (including one just last week -- margaritas now $5.50), it's not quite the steal it was when margaritas were under two bucks and combos were $4.40. As we leave, we say hi to the table of gay men that are always just sitting as we're leaving. We shop for curios in the window: maybe we really do need that see no evil hear no evil speak no evil monkey figurine set. We finally exit... with one quick glance out onto the patio to make sure we're not missing anyone making the sex.
Elvis whips our car around before we even know we're there, and we make it home. The car knows the way. Maybe we party more at our house. We laugh and sing, maybe we dance.
The next morning, maybe we're a little hung over. But it was worth it, and we'll survive somehow. Maybe we'll have a big, late breakfast.
Some huevos rancheros would be nice.
Hmm... the Church of the Dog opens at 11:00 AM...