There is a place in the world for restaurants that do a limited repertoire flawlessly – the burger joint that doesn’t offer fifty
different combinations of toppings and buns, just one perfect burger. Most Mexican restaurants in the South Bay are in this category, and I have joked that you could take the menu from almost any restaurant and use it to order from a different one without anybody noticing.
So when a local Mexican restaurant goes outside the comfort zone of tacos, burritos, and enchiladas and offers more regional specialties, it’s worth noticing. Lupita’s in Redondo Beach is an example, offering Oaxacan mole, barbacoa, and other dishes. The results have been mixed, with some unusual items done very skillfully but common items inconsistent or poorly executed.
Any meal starts with chips, usually warm and fresh, served with two salsas, a thin, mild version with chunks of scallion and
cilantro and a thicker one that has some smoky heat. Even the hotter one is a little mild by my standards – the smoky burn becomes noticeable after a few chips laden with the stuff, but I like something a bit more assertive.
We started one meal with margaritas from the bar – a decent standard that tasted like it was freshly made and a more interesting tamarind version with a chili-lime coated rim. The drink menu here isn’t huge – this is a restaurant with a few tequilas, beers, and wines, not a nightspot – but the pours are generous and the drinks we tried were well made.
We also tried two of the appetizers – spinach empanadas and beef taquitos. I usually like empanadas, corn-flour turnovers that in this case were filled with spinach and cheese, but these turned out very oily. My guess was that the oil wasn’t hot enough and they weren’t properly drained before serving, and the use of Monterey jack cheese rather than a lower-fat queso de Oaxaca may have contributed to the problem. Whatever the reason, I ate the filling but left some of the crust aside.
Things were even worse with the taquitos I ordered on a different visit – the corn tortillas were not crisp at all and sodden with oil. This was a shame because the beef inside had a very good flavor and mild but interesting spicing, not the usual shredded but otherwise unadorned protein. Except for the chips, everything I have had here that was fried has had the same problem.
Had these been the only items I had tried, I would have never returned – but on other visits I tried both mundane and unusual dishes and had very successful meals. The standard items – a shrimp burrito in a zingy green sauce, burrito al pastor (marinated pork) and a red chile tostada, all had a more rich, full flavor than is typical around the South Bay. The al pastor, a cultural contribution from Lebanese emigrants who moved to Mexico in the late 1800’s, had elements in the spicing reminiscent of Middle Eastern cuisine, hints of cinnamon, citrus, and garlic melded together with chillies and vinegar. There was a similar tang to the shredded beef barbacoa, not a barbecued dish but a stew that had simmered for many hours in a broth with cloves and other spices. The red chile too had a full roasted chile flavor – though they don’t list red chile tostadas on the menu they will make one, and it’s an exceptional light meal.
I also tried a Oaxaca-style entrée of chicken in black mole, the thick sauce made with chocolate and over a dozen different spices. The version served here is not a spicy as the ones I get at Oaxacan restaurants on the East Side, but the flavors are authentic and very satisfying. There are other unusual items here that I have tried to order repeatedly only to be told they are out – on my fourth attempt to get the pork ribs in chili sauce, I was told that they no longer serve them.
Unfortunately the service here has not been as consistent as the food – on one visit I had a server who was efficient but not particularly friendly, on two other visits the same server was friendly and helpful, and on another visit I had a different server who was awful. He failed to bring silverware or napkins even after bringing food, forgot my wine order, and left dirty dishes on the table long after taking my dessert order. It’s a shame service is so inconstant, because so much here is well done.
The list of things they do right definitely includes their flan, which is the best I‘ve had in the South Bay. There is plenty of vanilla bean in the smooth, eggy custard, and the caramel sauce was applied with a light hand rather than drenching it. The presentation was pretty too, slices of strawberry and mango creating a pretty and appetizing plate.
Lupita’s has both ardent fans and detractors in the South Bay, and now that I have dined there several times I understand why. If you go there on the wrong day and order the wrong thing you can get indifferent or incompetent service – if you order what this pace is best at, you can get one of the best Mexican meals the South Bay has to offer. All the elements of a great restaurant are here, and I can only hope they get them together because I’d like to be able to recommend it without reservations.
Lupita’s is at 234 S PCH in Redondo. Open daily 11:30 AM – 10 PM, free parking in lot, alcohol served. Wheelchair access good, OK for children. Phone 310-372-5540.