If you live in the southern end of the San Fernando Valley, your Mexican restaurant of choice might just be Casa Vega, which has been a local favorite since 1956. But if you live in the middle part of the valley, a few miles down north of Ventura Boulevard, your destination for fajitas and molcajetes is most likely one of the branches of Salsa & Beer — with three locations in North Hollywood and one in the Lake Balboa section of Van Nuys. And for good reason.
Salsa & Beer is more than salsa and beer. It’s a wildly cheerful restaurant with a menu of oversized dishes described in phrases of equally huge proportions. At Salsa & Beer, more is more, and even more than that.
I didn’t really have a sense of the weirdness of the descriptions looking at the QR code menu; there’s something about a menu on a smartphone screen that reduces it to postage stamp excitement. It took my server a while to dig up one of the old color menus from the past to give me a real sense of the grandeur and glory of the Salsa & Beer experience.
The prices had all been crossed out – there were also no prices on the QR code menu, which I was told was updated. So, I didn’t really know how much my meal was going to cost. (Hope this has been fixed by the time you read this!) But since the restaurant was packed with fans, I thought nothing was that expensive. With rare exceptions, Mexican food is a great culinary deal. And we are grateful for that in these difficult times.
On Salsa & Beer’s old, photo-rich menu, fajitas aren’t just fajitas, they’re “Sizzling Famous Fajitas.” Margaritas aren’t just margaritas, they’re “Our Famous Homemade Margaritas”. Tortas aren’t just tortas, they’re “Our Famous Mexican Torta Sandwiches”. The enchiladas are “homemade”. Camarones are “specialties”. Starters are “especialidades de la casa”. And, there is a “Sizzling Cream House Specialties” section.
Almost everything came with rice, beans, pico de gallo, guacamole, tortillas, soup and salad. So much food I barely had room to squeeze a bottle of Dos Equis – served with a lime, of course, which makes it even better.
The thing about all the overdone language is… nothing served here disappoints. Especially given my experience in Cancun the week before. I had been to a beach resort wedding, where the restaurants included a fancy Italian joint, an even fancier steak house, a sushi bar with lots of nut rolls, and a fish shop. The closest thing to Mexican food was the breakfast buffet, where they offered quesadillas alongside bacon, eggs, and pancakes.
Basically, I went to Mexico and had no Mexican food. But then, Dos Equis was in the draft. It was as close to local life as possible. And it sure was good. The cold draft on a hot day by the beach always does.
At Salsa & Beer, I was able to indulge in the cuisine I had missed at the wedding. And fortunately. The quesadillas here put those at the breakfast buffet in Cancun to shame – in this case they were made with beef, chicken, carnitas or steak, with lots of cheese, topped with more cheese, guac and sour cream.
There are other quesadilla options – one with cheese alone, another with chipotle chicken which was heavy on the chipotle sauce. There’s a combination of three taquitos, the essence of crispiness, six of them (two chicken, two beef, and two potato) – an appetizer that’s a meal in itself. Ditto the nachos – one cheese the other beef – with beans and salsa and sour cream and guac. In other words, big piles of food, which disappeared at an incredible speed.
There are more salads than you might expect – a simple Caesar, a chicken Caesar, a chipotle chicken salad, and a ranch dressing salad with tortilla strips for crunch. There are eight variations of fajitas, including three different steak, chicken, and shrimp combos; and a bunch of others who have split combos based on individual tastes.
I was craving the shrimp fajitas; I probably felt deprived of shrimp after being at a resort where they were low. And the shrimp fajitas made me a happy camper, with so much shrimp I could barely finish them. Barely, but I managed. It’s a sin to leave shrimp on the plate.
The “Sizzling Molcajetes” – a hot pan that really sizzles when it comes, the ingredients for a thick, smoky sauce of roasted tomatoes and chilies are worth thinking about. There is a choice of chicken, carnitas, beef and steak. But even more than the good flavor of the dish, it is the gala spectacle it offers. A sizzling dish comes to the table, and everyone at nearby tables turns to admire the smoke and buzz.
And I have to tip the 14 burritos, a great selection of choices including a molcajete burrito and a fajitas burrito. And a beef burrito with cream. And a grilled chicken burrito. More than Salsa & Beer, this place is Big Food & Beer. With indoor and outdoor seating.
After being in Mexico and not feeling like Mexico, Salsa & Beer took care of it. And then some!
Merrill Shindler is a freelance food critic based in Los Angeles. Email [email protected]
Salsa & Beer
- Evaluation: 2.5 stars
- Address: 6740 White Oaks Ave, Van Nuys (Lake Balboa), 818-609-8877; 11661 Sherman Way, North Hollywood, 818-503-1220; 12516 Vanowen St., North Hollywood, 818-765-2001; 11720 Vanowen St., North Hollywood, 818-358-3643
- Information: www.salsaandbeertogo.com
- Kitchen: Mexican
- When: Lunch and dinner, daily
- Details: Full bar; useful reservations
- Prices: About $18 per person
- Suggested dishes: 10 starters, 5 salads, 6 sizzling cream house specialties, 8 sizzling “famous” fajitas, 5 homemade enchiladas, 4 “famous” tortas, 4 sizzling molcajetes, 3 shrimp specialties, 14 house specialties, 2 taquitos, 4 flautas, 6 Carbon tacos, 12 Combinations, 14 Burritos
- 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 write on it.)