Before anyone mentions the food and drink at Esperanza Cocina de la Playa – achiote “beso” salmon, four ceviche and aguachile from Sonora, ensalada de cuerda of braised short ribs and much more – they talk about the design. Because there is nothing else in the south bay quite like Esperanza Cocina de la Playa.
Mexican restaurants abound. But not with a curvaceous Art Nouveau design by an Icelandic architect (Gulla Jónsdóttir), and an upstairs living room designed to look like “the cliffside apartment of Arturo Valdez, a legendary confirmed high-rise bachelor. range in Mexico. The lavish and intimate lounge reflects the ambiance of the hotelier’s exclusive parties that often host the country’s most popular telenovela stars.
In a land of low-end taco and tequila joints, Esperanza is upscale…without being overtly upscale. It is Manhattan Beach Boulevard, after all. This is not the land of disguises. (Is there a restaurant in Manhattan Beach that calls for a tie and jacket? Or even socks?) But going to Esperanza definitely has the feeling of a special night, maybe even a special occasion. Although the inside isn’t as swirling as the outside, the shelves behind the bar are oddly shaped, the lamp above makes the place look like an exotic lighting museum.
You don’t just drop by Esperanza – you plan a night out there. And it’s a night filled with goodies…at prices to match.
As a restaurant subtitled “Cocina de la Playa,” it’s no surprise to find much of the food at Esperanza built around seafood. But not as much as you might expect. There are Mexican fish shops like Coni’Seafood in Inglewood that hardly have a dish that isn’t from the Pacific. Still, if you’re fishless, you can have a great time at Esperanza. Not just with the food, but also with the drinks – which, like the dishes, end up on a very classy, leather-like menu. Just receiving the menu makes you feel like you’re in for something big.
I’m a beer drinker, first and foremost, especially with Mexican food. And I’m used to the usual selection of Mexican beers – which are definitely on the list here: draft Corona Extra, Modelo Especial, Modelo Negro… cans and bottles of Corona Light, Pacifico, XX Amber and Lager.
But there are also Mexican craft beers that are an uncommon offering, including Baja Brewing Escorpion Negro Black Ale on tap. And in cans and bottles, Tona Cerveza, North Coast Brew Dark Mexican Lager, Baja Brewing La Surfa Lager, Cerveceria de Colima Colimita Lager and more. A trip to Esperanza is a trip south of the border, with beer alone.
You shouldn’t be surprised to find a dozen margaritas, various micheladas, and a long list of tequilas and mezcals. (Interestingly, more than half of mezcals are listed under “Interesting Mezcals”. To me, all mezcals are interesting. To me, pulque, the first drink made from agave, would be really interesting. Been to pulquerias in Mexico. Busy places in back alleys. Not alcohol to drink if you want to live a dignified life.)
And, of course, there are various “innovative cocktails,” filled with the kind of ingredients that make you scan your cell phone: Golden falernum? Apple tree shrub? Shrub peach? I have no idea.
Dishes are easier to understand and analyze, but not without puzzles as well. Vegan picadillo? Broth Tajin mango chamoy? Pasilla suiza cream? Being a waiter here entails an advanced degree in menu obscurity.
That said, the food, when it arrives, is easy to recognize. Ceviches are made, in different ways, from sea bass and white shrimp. Guacamole is “traditional” in one form, and made with mangoes, elote, and pork chicharrones in another. The nachos are made with wild Mexican shrimp and Dungeness crab, a fancy touch. There’s a Caesar salad that can be tricked out with four proteins. There are six tacos – because nowadays no Mexican restaurant can open without an abundance of tacos.
But I must also add a note of consideration. It’s a Mexican special occasion not only in terms of decor, but also in terms of price. There is a scallop dish and three shrimp dishes that cost $42 each. There are three seafood fajitas, ranging from high $30 to low $40. The filet mignon and seafood combos are $55 and $60. What you get for the price is an evening of high end Mexican food in an upscale Mexican space.
It’s the exact opposite of our many low-end, funky, easy-to-wear taco shops. I’m impressed with Esperanza. But that’s not where I’ll go without plans. Like I said, “opportunity” is the word.
Merrill Shindler is a freelance food critic based in Los Angeles. Email [email protected].
Esperanza Cocina de la Playa
- Rating: 2.5 stars
- Address: 309 Manhattan Beach Boulevard, Manhattan Beach
- Information: 424-422-0057; www.esperanzamb.com
- Food: One of South Bay’s sleekest designs is home to another take on modern Mexican cuisine…and plenty of cocktails to match.
- When: Lunch, Saturday and Sunday; dinner, everyday
- Details: Notable for its swirling Art Nouveau design, this laid-back Mexican lounge offers an extensive menu of many cocktails and many classic Mexican fish dishes, as well as an abundance of tacos, a current necessity.
- Prices: About $45 per person
- Suggested dishes: 6 Tacos ($12 – $30), 8 Appetizers ($11.75 – $26), 5 Salads ($12 – $22), 7 Specials ($21.50 – $29.50), 11 “Tradiciones de Mexico” ($17 – $23), 12 “Platos del Mar” ($15 – $43)
- Credit card: CM, V
- What do the stars mean: 4 (World class! Worth the trip from anywhere!), 3 (Most excellent, if not outstanding. Worth the trip from anywhere in Southern California.), 2 (A great place to go for a meal. Worth the trip from anywhere in the neighborhood.) 1 (If you’re hungry and it’s nearby, but don’t get stuck in traffic.) 0 (Honestly not worth it to describe.)