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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Old School Mexican Food Rocks at La Fiesta Brava on Venice's Rose Avenue

Long-time locals know that when you want an affordable, home-cooked Mexican meal, walk into La Fiesta Brava (259b Hampton Drive, Venice, CA 90291, 310/399-8005, open 7 days a week 10:30am-9:00pm for breakfast, lunch and dinner). Earlier this year, the restaurant relocated from its long time location on Rose. Now, it is just around the corner from where it used to be, almost across the street from The Rose Cafe.
Crowds fill the restaurant and the dining room buzzes with laugher and conversation. La Fiesta Brava is a fun place to hang out and enjoy a well-made meal.

For decades, mom and pop businesses have served the largely Hispanic community in the surrounding neighborhood.  

But Rose Avenue is changing.

Challenging Abbot Kinney's reputation as Venice's restaurant row, between 5th and 6th Avenues on Rose Avenue, half a dozen trendy restaurants with outdoor patios are filled with upscale diners.

Cafe Gratitude, Simon's Provisions ("Wine. Draft Beer. Provisions."), Hostaria de Piccolo, Cerveteca, Venice Beach Wines and Superba Snack Bar have attracted a hip crowd, eager to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere with servings of quality food and beverages. 

And then there is La Fiesta Brava. 

Opened twenty-three years ago by Samuel and Evangelina Camarena, the intimate dining room looks more like a living room with tables and chairs than a restaurant. A family affair, Samuel and Evangelina managed the restaurant with their kids, Jasmin, Nancy and Sam Jr. Four years after Samuel's passing, the family continues to run the restaurant with the kids juggling work and school. The night we were there, Sam Jr. was waiting tables, taking a break from his business administration classes at El Camino College.
Samuel and Evangelina came from Jalisco and the menu reflects the dishes they prepared at home in Mexico.

Not bound by any one regional cuisine, what they serve is what they like to eat. The menu features stews with beef, chicken or shrimp, seafood sautéed with a variety of sauces, burritos, tostadas, fajitas, shrimp cocktails, enchiladas, moles, tacos, quesadillas, Huevos Rancheros, flan for dessert and hamburgers and fries.

Many of the dishes sound familiar. Who hasn't had a fish taco? But the one served at La Fiesta Brava was unlike any I have eaten elsewhere.
The small plate arrived with the taco topped with shredded lettuce and a sprinkling of chopped tomato. The sea bass was grilled not breaded and deep fried. The piece of fish was longer than the plate was wide. Beautifully prepared the moist filet tasted fresh and sweet. Another pleasure of the dish was the price. At under $3.00, the fish taco was a bargain.

I am a sucker for shrimp cocktails, a legacy of having to accompany my parents to upscale restaurants when I was young. While they excitedly feasted on prime rib, spaghetti Alfredo and chicken Kiev, nothing on the menus ever appealed to me except for the shrimp cocktail. 

European style shrimp cocktails are elegant affairs, with shrimp hanging on the rim of a champagne glass served with a catsup-horseraddish sauce and a lemon slice. The Mexican version is a more primitive artifact. The one at La Fiesta Brava gave me a great sense memory back to trips I have taken to Tijuana, San Jose del Cabo and Playa del Carmen.
A large cut-glass goblet arrived at the table with a plate of lime wedges. A dozen sweet shrimp and fat chunks of avocado floated in a tomato sauce flavored with lots of chopped white onion and fresh cilantro. The sauce was good but I happily added to the flavor with a generous squeeze of the lime wedges and a good dousing of the housemade roasted chile ancho salsa. Delicious.

My wife ordered the garlic shrimp. Sautéed shrimps shared the large plate with generous portions of refried beans and rice. The garlic was pulverized and coated each shrimp in a spicy crust. The beans were sweet. The rice was moist.
Even though La Fiesta Brava does not have a liquor license, as Sam Jr. explained, they encourage guests to BYO. The "corkage" fee to bring your own wine or beer is $1.50. Yeah, you read that right. $1.50. This is a friendly restaurant!

We're looking forward to our next visit so we can sample more of the menu. The quandary is, we really enjoyed the dishes we ordered the last time. The solution is simple, we'll bring friends so we can order more and share everything.

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