Salty, Overpriced, Inattentive, Mild, Disappointing Lola Gaspar in Santa Ana
**Moved up YET AGAIN because people still keep leaving comments. So far, most commented post in Stick a Fork in It's young history...
***Originally published Dec. 15, 2008
I've been to many a restaurant opening in my day, and--even when allowing for opening-day jitters--one can usually tell the worth of a place in those first few days of service. The good ones inevitably prove to become classics--Old Vine Cafe, Onotria, and Veggie Grill come quickly to mind. Even if there were a couple of slip-ups here and there, something redeemed each place and its peers. Bad restaurants, on the other hand, tend to stay bad restaurants no matter how many tweaks the owners attempt after opening night. If you can't get something right the first time, it's telling of fundamental problems in the operations.
And this latter scenario, gentle readers, is where Lola Gaspar firmly sits in today.
I truly had high hopes for this downtown SanTana place, being that the guys behind Habana at the LAB in Costa Mesa were in charge of the menu. I guess the first warning sign of what was to come happened with the delays in the opening date. A voice message claimed Lola was to open December 5, seven days a week, from 10:30 a.m. until two in the morn. But the debut wouldn't happen until the 13th, a full week later. No es bueno.
It happens. But when milady and I stopped in last night, our waitress promptly informed us that not all the items on the menu were available. Uh, Lola people? Do not open a restaurant--even if it's a soft opening--if you're not ready to deliver. Restaurant Opening 101.
You can click here for pictures of the menu, which veers between Nuevo Latino platters and Mexican dishes. And this is where Lola Gaspar failed--badly.
We started with what should've been free--salsa. I understand the disturbing trend of salsa flights, so my first problem wasn't that Lola charged for a trio. Use that opportunity to show off a chef's talent, a rationale reason to charge for a condiment, but give people a chance to snack on something for gratis--offer a complimentary salsa and chips, even if it's a tad stronger than Pace. That was not the case at Lola's. The salsas that made up the flight--tomatillo, red, and habanero--looked pretty but flopped. The red salsa featured a funky taste my palate couldn't quite decipher, except that it was a new flavor in the annals of the millenia-old condiment, but not a welcome one. You can really taste the tomatillo in Lola's rendition, but no spice--you need a bit of a spark. And the habanero salsa? I welcome habanero salsas. I love habanero salsas. Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen in Orange, and El Bukanas and Conde Cakes in SanTana have habanero salsas, all tinted eerily yellow, that can burrow through steel. Habanero is dangerous, lingers for a while--even as I type, my stomach still radiates with the tiny habanero slivers I tossed into my potatoes this morning. When you even so much as smell a habanero, you're supposed to react like the fellow in this video:
What they offer at Lola's is not habanero salsa--it's pasta sauce. You know there's a problem with your habanero salsa when my gal, who cringes at the thought of pico de gallo, scarfed through the small ramekin of habanero, desperately searching for heat. You know there's a problem with your salsas in general when my mouth found higher heat by munching on raw onions than Lola's salsas--but I'm jumping ahead of the review here.
Lola's menu proudly lists its chips as "fried to order," but freshness doesn't matter when your chips come dusted with salt. A lot of it. Salt of the kind with big crystals. These chips possessed so much salt that my lips puckered right now at the thought of having to munch on them ever again. The fryer broke down so we couldn't eat more chips--opening night jitters, I understand, but why did the waitress--who spent most of her night gossipping with other customers--mention this to use about 10 minutes after we asked for them?
Our dinner worsed. Milady ordered the Lobster BLT based on this comment left by a reader. It was delicious...but the sandwich had turned lukewarm, forgotten by the wait staff (I say this with confidence only because my girlfiend has worked at restaurants for 15 years and knows an inattentive staff when she experiences one). The carne asada in my carne asada flatbread was burnt to a crisp but lacked the juicy interior that any wab worth his Northgate Gonzalez Supermarkets understands is crucial to this most-proletarian of meats. Even if the carne asada on this dish was up to my standards, the bleu cheese on the actual flatbread would've overwhelmed the flavor. Tone down the cheese, nail the carne asada and you might have a winner.
The carne asada taco trio were fine, taste-wise, although I couldn't discern any of the mojo-achiote-lime-olive oil-jalapeño-garlic seasoning Lola's menu claimed this so-called "street taco" possessed. But anyone who ever orders this, or any, of Lola's tacos is a fool. They're simply not gourmet enough to justify an exorbitant $9 cost (and note to Lola's owners: unless you're serving an exotic meat like duck, lobster, and fish, taco prices should be uniform regardless of meat. There's no reason why your chicken, carnitas, and carne asada tacos should cost $7, $8, and $9, respectively, especially since carnitas take more time to prepare). What, because the tacos come in butcher paper and in individual containers, presented on a flatboard upon which sits a mound of red onion, cilantro, and pickled carrots, I should pay more than a taco from the lonchera that tastes 10 to the nth power better? Even worse, Lola's tacos are three-bite tacos--I understand and hate that rising food prices have led to taco inflation, but three three-bite tacos for nine bucks is a crime worse than what Papi Pulido proposes for his Renaissance Plan. And, full disclosure: I'm not above paying mucho cash for gourmet tacos. Taleo Mexican Grill in Irvine charges $17 for just two, but they're big, come with beans, and are damn good and worth every penny at least once in yor foodie life. And head chef Nic Villareal doesn't have the gall to call his dish street tacos--fuck, if you want the real deal, walk down Broadway, hang a left, and you're at Tacos y Mulitas Ruben.
We never tried dessert--oh, we ordered a red velvet cupcake, but it wasn't until 20 minutes after our order that the Lola waitress told us they didn't have any. She kept apologizing, kept excusing everything to opening-night jitters, but please. I remember being one of the first dinner customer at Old Vine Cafe, and being wowed even then. Both the chef and the owner greeted milady and I--they had no clue who I was other than a customer ready to chow down. I still do at least once a month--it remains that delicious. At Lola's, the guy who runs the place never bothered to speak with any customer that wasn't an Artists Village dignitary.
I'll leave ustedes with this anecdote--after dropping $70 for the two of us (which also included two Maker's, a caipirinha, and a wine, so the prices at Lola's aren't particularly extravagant save for the tacos), milady and I headed across the way to the Gypsy Den because we were still hungry. In the dozens of restaurant openings that I've attended, I've never done this. Lola Gaspar might improve in the coming weeks, but this correspodent won't return unless Edwin says so--and I ain't even sure ol' Edwin should swing by. There is no redeeming value at this point--none.
Final word to the Lola gang: you never charge money for tortillas at a restaurant in SanTana. It's like an Argentine place charging for chimichurri, an inexcuseable culinary sin and--in the most Mexican city in America--a downright insult.
*Pictured: Gaspar de Portolá, the other infamous Gaspar in Orange County. Also, Taco Man. His thumbs-up does not constitute an endorsement.
Lola Gaspar, 211 W. 2nd Street, SanTana, CA; (714) 972-1172. Stay away--at least until they stop charging for bloody tortillas.