slideshow

What's Cooking at Santa Monica's New Tinga

Fruta with chilePhoto: Tatiana Arbogast

How do you make a good thing better? Add booze, a cozy seating arrangement, and diet-defying desserts. This strategy is working well for Bludso's Hollywood sequel and the same approach is employed at Santa Monica's new Tinga. The Westside expansion of Jerry and Chris Baker's Mexican concept on La Brea, with partner Michael LaFetra, took over the long-held home of Renee's Courtyard last month, unleashing renowned L.A. bartender Joel Black on a drink menu, while Baker vastly amplifies his menu with some extremely nontraditional dishes. Of course, when one of the distinct charms of his original taqueria is a tight, well-edited menu of spice-forward tacos with carefully considered details and a purist's approach to salsas, alarms bells begin ringing as one considers the many new dishes that appear to veer from the game-plan.

Filled with such non-traditional additions as falafel, pastrami-stuffed quesadillas and burros, chipotle corn dogs, jerk chicken wings, taco sliders, fried chicken and waffles, bacon guacamole, and affogato for dessert, we have to wonder: Is this a direction any Tinga fan was looking to go in?

Still, through Baker's pronounced spicing, nuanced regional salsas, and detailed edges, most of the new fare, no matter how out of water some of it seems at first, mostly stays within the brand's flavor profile and delivers. What emerges is a more gluttonous menu of belly bombing cuisine that reflects the chef-owner's favorite tastes and varied influences. Geographically and culturally more disparate, the menu appears to appeal to L.A.'s palate much more it does Mexico's.

And perhaps Tinga's original appeal never necessarily lay in rooted authentic cooking, so much as it was an expression of two Mexican food lovers eager to pinpoint what speaks to them about the cooking and deliver those highlights back to diners in a well-engineered, concentrated form.

In the end, while one can now enjoy the restaurant's tacos and original dishes on The Westside for a dedicated night of good Mexican food, Tinga's expanded offerings make for a gut-busting evening that fits its neighborhood's thirst for nightlife. Paired with strong sips like Black's spiked horchata (a boozy update on the restaurant's espresso-laced "dirty horchata"), barrel-aged Negronis and "Tinga Tu Madres," and vanilla bean and pilloncillo-sweetened "Smoking Hot Mez-Ican," with tequila and mezcal, this sum of decadent eats and good booze can leave you waddling and swerving out the door if you dally too long and order too much.

Which path you choose will depend on your own cravings and sense of adventure. Check our slideshow look at some of the dishes being offered at Tinga Santa Monica.

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