Photo by Dhanraj Emanuel
La Puerta560 Fourth Ave.Downtown619-696-3466www.taco619.comOpinionated foodies might say that eating well in the Gaslamp is a crapshoot. And I'll concede that I eat there with much less frequency than other restaurant-heavy areas. But there are some admirable Downtown chefs who should be supported by our foodie community—we want them to stick around, after all, and draw more talent to the neighborhood. Plus, no one wants all those Gaslamp-going conventioneers and tourists to go back to their cities and talk smack about our food.
I'm not saying that La Puerta, a Fourth Avenue bar and restaurant, is necessarily one of those places that tourists will go home crowing about, but it gets me to the Gaslamp more than before—and that's saying a lot. It's also telling that another Mexican restaurant, just next door, with a pleasant, modern decor and some similar menu items, was empty on a recent Friday afternoon while La Puerta was nearly full by 4:30.
In the bar, there's just one TV, muted, and a music soundtrack that, at least in the afternoon, is tuned low enough that it doesn't impair conversation. True to its name, the restaurant has one large door that's open to the sidewalk, though I wish it had a couple more windows; this winter heat wave keeps the interior on the almost-uncomfortable side of warm until the sun sets.
But there's no lack of frosty coolers, all playfully named, to help weather the heat. I like the Whole Lotta Love, a straightforward and delicious version of a margarita with Reposado tequila, agave nectar and fresh lime juice. From 3 to 7 p.m. daily, during happy hour, the drinks and most appetizers are half-off. My Furlough Friday and other budget-minded friends and I usually sit up at the long, wide bar, though there are roomy booths that are equally comfortable, located under lights strung across the ceiling that give the space a backyard-barbeque feel. Also included on the happy-hour list is all tequila by the glass, an exhaustive lineup of standard and top-shelf sippers in styles ranging from young, bold Blancos to smooth Anejos, oak-barrel-aged for a minimum of one year.
I'm finally enjoying the merits of tequila; for some years, just hearing the word would take me back to misspent and queasy nights in Tijuana's touristy dance clubs. I couldn't take a sip of it without hearing echoes of the eardrum-piercing whistles wielded by the clubs' invasive tequila-popper pushers. Now that I'm older and slightly wiser, I've seen, through subsequent sights, smells and tastes, that both tequila and Tijuana are much, much richer and more wonderful than that narrow teenage experience.
La Puerta's fresh guacamole is excellent, amply portioned atop a deep dish of great, greaseless chips. The guacamole's mixed with pico de gallo and Serrano chilies, then topped with cubes of mild panela cheese, which add a little protein and make it more of a meal. My friends are crazy about the carne asada fries. I've never been big on the dish in general, but La Puerta swaps heavy clumps of melted cheese for the creamier texture of a homemade cheese sauce. And no afternoon snack session here is complete without the tostaditas—mini tostadas topped with beans, pickled onions, avocado, lettuce and tender cochinita pibil, slow-roasted and citrus-marinated pork. If you're looking for more than a snack, the simple street tacos ($9 for three, accompanied by beans and rice) are excellent and, while I've not tried them, friends rave about the TJ Dawgs—bacon-wrapped hot dogs topped with tomatoes, onions, jalapeños, ketchup and mayo.
But here's a final caveat: I've never ventured into La Puerta later in the evening, when the crowds flood in and the DJ starts spinning. By the time Gaslamp bar-goers have pulled their party clothes on, I'm usually home or have moved on to someplace that's a little more my style. But by the light of day, La Puerta is an appealing, enjoyable and most importantly, tasty, option.
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