The first thing that impresses me at Lola Gaspar is how short the waitresses’ shorts are. They make the outfits at Hooters look prudish.
To be fair, though, that was an awfully hot day, and Lola doesn’t have much — if any — air-conditioning inside the bar. On other days, I’ve seen them wear more.
Lola Gaspar is one of downtown Santa Ana’s early adapters. And now, just as the neighborhood starts to welcome a slew of new restaurants, this old gastropub seems to be stepping up its game.
When I first dined here a couple of years ago, I remember being impressed by the drinks but not so much the food. That’s changing. I returned recently for lunch, and after discovering an outstanding cheeseburger with house-made fries, I knew instantly that I liked this place.
At lunchtime, the ambience can be eerily quiet. The daytime menu is limited to sandwiches and gourmet tacos, and the crowd tends to be somewhat buttoned-up. Lawyers and whatnot.
That burger is made with decadently fatty beef, loosely formed and minimally cooked. The brioche bun is lavishly buttered and toasted, and it glistens with enough grease to quickly coat all 10 fingers and much of my face. As I take my first bite, a glob of gooey pepper-Jack cheese drips into my lap. Be careful with this thing. It’s a glorious mess — and the underside of the plate might be cloaked in grease as well.
The accompanying fries are the real deal. They’ve clearly never seen the inside of a freezer. They arrive darkly tanned and glittering with salt.
The same fries show up on the dinner menu, paired with a nicely charred steak. It’s just a workmanlike slab of skirt steak, but it is expertly cooked and satisfyingly tender.
The atmosphere at night is far more jubilant than at lunch. The tiny, high-ceilinged dining room accommodates only about 30 diners at a time, if you don’t count the few stools at the bar and the drinkers standing in the aisle behind them.
There’s a lovely, tree-covered patio on the promenade out front with another dozen or so seats, but frankly that’s not a very appetizing place to sit. More on that in a moment.
Every so often you’ll notice the staff doing shots with customers at the bar, most likely the regulars. Don’t misbehave, or they’ll throw you out. I’ve seen that, too.
The kitchen channels mostly pan-Latino flavors. There are whispers of faraway places such as Greece and Japan on the menu, too, but all the disparate parts seem to be woven together with a strong foundation of Mexican spice. For example, mussels are steamed in a deliciously spicy miso broth that surprisingly has more in common with pozole than it does with any sort of Japanese ramen. The chef and partner is Luis Perez, who spent time in the kitchen at Habana in Costa Mesa before helping launch Lola Gaspar in 2008.
The menu offers plenty of standard bar fare: bacon-wrapped dates, tortilla chips with on-the-spot guacamole, and a very good queso with chorizo. But the core of the menu aims much higher. Tacos are a big part of the mix here, and while their inspiration might have come from the street, they bear little relation to what you might find at a nearby taco truck. These are sophisticated, cheffy tacos not meant to be tinkered with.
When I ask a waitress which taco she likes best, she replies without hesitation, very matter-of-factly, as if there were only one answer: “The octopus.” And it’s a good call. Large chunks of grilled octopus are stuffed into tortillas along with crisp lumps of fried pork belly. The contrast of chewy and fatty and salty and land and sea is wonderful.
Another taco is filled with shrimp and chorizo, drizzled with something akin to Thousand Island dressing, and these, too, are very good. A third is filled with lamb that’s been braised with red chilies until the meat resembles barbacoa, richly aromatic and meltingly tender. It’s topped with a dollop of thick yogurt and mint, along with just a dab of red chili sauce — the way an artist might sign his painting. And while the meat itself is indeed very good, I’m not particularly a fan of yogurt and mint.
Every time I’ve asked the staff for a recommendation, one of the first things any of them mentions is the quinoa enchiladas. These, too, are good. I think they might be the first enchiladas I’ve ever seen that were garnished with micro herbs and flower petals. Two fat enchiladas arrive in a still-smoldering cast-iron pan, guajillo chili sauce bubbling around the edges. I don’t have a lot of empathy for vegetarians, but I suspect these would be very well received by anyone who voluntarily deprives themselves of meat.
The chef makes terrific, mildly salty mac ’n’ cheese using white cheddar and morsels of tender duck confit. A dish of braised kale is dark and earthy, topped with a bright little slaw of fennel and sour apple. And one of my favorite dishes of all is the molasses-braised pork belly topped with a sunny-side-up duck egg.
This isn’t really the place to drink wine. The choices are sparse, and the reds are served so warm that I have to wonder whether it’s heated on purpose. Fortunately, the cocktails are excellent. I’m stuck on the Rambler, which is sort of like a margarita with yuzu sour standing in for lime in a glass that’s been rimmed with chili powder and salt. But I also like the Mas Fuerte, which is balanced with rye whiskey and good, strong, smoky mezcal.
The kitchen takes a siesta midafternoon, so if you show up between 3 and 6, you’ll be limited to snacks like chips and guacamole. And on Sundays, all day, the kitchen serves only a two-course prix fixe menu. Luckily, the time I show up, the limited menu includes a choice between skirt steak with a guajillo chili glaze or a chicken leg in adobo. Both are excellent.
Now, about that patio. On a beautiful, warm summer night, of which we’ve had plenty lately, I enjoy sitting outside. But every time I’ve tried to do that here, the patio gets overrun by smokers. And I’m not talking about people who occasionally light up between courses. These are the kind of fiends who suck on cigarettes while they’re actually eating. They smoke like it’s a contest. Their overflowing ashtrays stink from a distance. And sometimes, because the door is always ajar, the stench of second-hand smoke completely engulfs the indoor dining room as well.
Rating: 2 stars
Where: 211 W. Second St., Santa Ana
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-midnight Mondays-Thursdays, 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Fridays, 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturdays, noon-11 p.m. Sundays.
Don’t miss: The Rambler, burger and fries, steak and fries, molasses pork belly with egg, quinoa enchiladas, octopus tacos
Best place to sit: In a booth
About the noise: Loud and festive but never intolerable
County health inspection: Repeatedly cited for improper holding temperatures and storage practices. Routine inspection in May required three re-inspections until the hot water was finally restored to the hand sink in the restroom.
Cost: Tacos and small plates $8-$20, light snacks $6, desserts $6.
What the stars mean:
0 = poor, unacceptable
1 = fair, with some noteworthy qualities
2 = good, solid, above average
3 = excellent, memorable, well above norm
4 = world class, extraordinary in every detail
Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service.
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register as well as the print edition of the Los Angeles Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.