Tinga Buena in Santa Monica calls itself a taco bar on its awning out in front but it’s much much more.
Tucked into the quirky space that used to be Renee’s Courtyard for several decades, it’s a cozy warren of dining rooms surrounding an idyllic vine-covered patio.
When you poke your head into the rooms, among which are three separate bars–each with its own special feel and personality– you get the sense you’re about to join a series of dinner parties (and by the way, the parties rage until 1:30 a.m.).
In one bar people are comparing notes on the tequila and mezcal flights that might include premium (and pricy) Don Julio 1942 Tesoro Paradiso or more wallet-friendly Lunazul Blanco and Sauza Silver. Barman Joel Black (formerly at Comme Ҫa) and chef-co owner Jerry Baker have sussed out a handful of rare mezcals such as the Oaxacan “Illegal Anejo” and “Pierde Almas Pechuga.” Black has created several killer cocktails like the magical “Drink and a Smoke”, a glowing red concoction of fresh berry purees, fresh ginger and deeply smoky mezcal and Corralejo Blanco tequila.
At the sleek, modern front bar, single diners nibble on “Las Picadores” (ie small plates) and aperitivos (also small). The bombas, ping pong ball-size rice orbs stuffed with chorizo and goat cheese is a don’t-miss goodie, as is the smoky grilled sweet corn off the cob laced with a devastatingly good combination of thick, tangy Mexican crema and mild chile poblano puree.
Baker’s brand of Mexican cooking at his tiny three year-old Tinga on La Brea was inspired by La Super Rica (Julia Child’s favorite in Santa Barbara). Here he branches out with more whimsy and a broader selection of his trademark Mexican-fusion/multicultural creations. The plump burrito bursting with guajillo-rubbed and pineapple marinated pork, ventures into Caribbean territory as do the appetizers of crispy-skin jerk chicken wings. Rich plates of pupusas—either filled with mushrooms or chorizo and potato hint of El Salvador. There’s the pastrami and cheese quesadilla with its inviting smokiness and a vegetarian favorite, falafel tacos.
As much as we love Baker’s brand of multicultural creativity, few things can improve on tradition. He plays it straight with ultra-spicy ceviche-style shrimp aguas chiles, the restaurant’s namesake chipotle-braised chicken tinga and a classic Yucatecan cochinita pibil served up in tacos or nachos.
If you can manage more, Tinga Buena offers desserts: Boca Negra a super dense chocolate cake spiked with mezcal and garnished with vanilla ice cream or churros with salted caramel sauce.
Tinga Buena, 522 Santa Monica Boulevard, Santa Monica, 310-954-9566.