"This is the society we're living in," rants angry-guy podcaster/comedian Adam Carolla. "You can order iced tea and get something that tastes like somebody took a pillowcase of potpourri and boiled it."
Ask for iced tea at Alma, the latest addition to Consilient Restaurants' Henderson Avenue collection (along with Hibiscus and Victor Tango's), and you get a glass of watermelon-pineapple-basil "tea." That's the house brew. No other choices. Not even if you beg, bat your eyelashes and slip a nip. Welcome to the further L.A.-ification of our city's eating establishments.
Having waved the white flag (and too many five-dollar bills) at the tyranny of restaurant valet parkers hired to move your car 12 feet (the mandatory valet lot at Alma is directly behind the place), we must now bend to the will of imported chefs who don't cotton to traditional tea-leaf-and-tannin-based Texas-style iced tea, sweet or otherwise. Look, fellas, fruit teas aren't tea. They're watery juice. Watermelon-pineapple-basil tea is watery juice with a top note of vegetable soup.
We're not mad, just thirsty. And if Alma, which opened in February, could get its iced tea in as good a shape as the rest of its menu, it would be just about perfect. They make food that tastes good here. We ate a whole bunch of it and want to eat a whole bunch more. And we dug the service, which in our two dinner visits (they'll start opening for lunch in late June) was friendly, informed and crisp without being pushy. (On our second time in, waiter Joel remembered us, asking with a wink, "Will you be having the iced tea this time?")
Driving Alma's kitchen is chef Michael Brown, a high-profile restaurant star from Los Angeles (there you go) who was hired away from Rick Bayless' red-hot, reservations-only Mexican regional cuisine spot Red O on Melrose Avenue. Brown, assisted by Anastacia Quiñones, is sending out some fine regional Mexican dishes at Alma now—and you don't need a reservation or special financing to enjoy them.
Servings of most things are XL at Alma. Two or three diners could share the ceviche con hongos appetizer, an all-veggie take on seafood ceviche. Tiny cubes of jicama, fresh beet and wild mushrooms marinate in a bowl of light citrus juice. Instead of tostadas, the dippers are paper-thin slices of plantain fried in rice bran oil that adds a nutty flavor to the chips. You'll run out of the veggie ceviche before you run out of plantain crisps, which are piled high on an oblong tray. Add a side of creamy guacamole made from the slightly oilier fruit imported from Michoacán to keep from wasting the chips.
Entrées are sized generously too. Our enchilada con pollo was certainly big enough for sharing. Not a traditional rolled enchilada like you'd find in a Tex-Mex cafe, Brown's version is made of thick layers of tender handmade corn tortillas, each layer topped with Chihuahua cheese and shredded chicken, and the whole dish covered with a creamy tomatillo sauce. The same sauce envelopes the enormous seafood enchilada, which is overstuffed with fresh lump crabmeat and shrimp.
The "regional" flavors of the cochinita pibil may be the best example of a dish that sets Alma apart from other Mexican restaurants trying to expand beyond nachos and combo plates. A 10-ounce pork shank, marinated in achiote—a reddish-brown spice used to infuse woodsy flavors and colors into traditional pork recipes in the Yucatan and Oaxaca—is braised overnight wrapped in banana and avocado leaves. The result, served on black beans and topped with a salad of wild arugula and pickled onions, is a fall-off-the-bone tender chunk of pork, dense with dark, but not heavy, earthiness. It's easy to share, thanks to the little house-made corn tortillas that come alongside, so good for wrapping and sopping.
Tacos de carne asada, also on the hefty side, feature the same velvety handmade tortillas to fold around slivers of grilled Texas Wagyu rib-eye steak, charred onions, watercress and avocado. Like the enchiladas and the pork dish, the tacos sting with fresh herbs such as micro-cilantro leaves that add something new and punchy to every bite.
From the sides, we doubled down on our order of "street corn." Fresh white kernels, stirred into lime juice, mayonnaise, queso fresco and chili powder, are spooned into tiny corn-husk baskets and served three at a time on an iron skillet.
Two desserts inspired us to eat sparingly the second time to leave more room for sweets. Pastel de queso is a thick goat-cheese cheesecake topped with candied pumpkin seeds. Dios mío. A spoon-licker. Watch the blackboard over the kitchen for the special "chocoflan," a hard-to-master layered dessert of caramel custard flan, chocolate cake, coffee-whipped cream and drizzles of Kahlúa sauce. It's sized for splitting, but you won't want to. For something light as a finisher, go for bayas con crema, a mini-platter of seasonal berries scattered over a sweet mint cream, Cointreau and bitter Oaxacan chocolate.
If you can take your eyes off the plates, everything about Alma is pleasing to see. The décor is simple and elegant with white paper lanterns the shape of small moons, comfy white-leather-upholstered chairs and blue and white cotton kitchen towels rolled around the silverware. The main dining room downstairs faces west to an outdoor patio on the Henderson Avenue side, but there's a more intimate upstairs dining area that offers more tables, another sit-down bar and a "den" at the back with couches, a fireplace and antler chandeliers. Green succulents decorate the tables. The patio is fenced with a low wall of spiky snake plants.
Clientele during our visits was a good mix of neighborhood residents, families with kids and after-work diners peeling off suit coats and pocketing iPhones to enjoy chats and drinks with friends on the patio. There were pretty young girls in short-shorts and cute guys in flip-flops. There were ladies in nice dresses and young parents enjoying date night. Even deep into the evening the atmosphere was casual, upbeat and blessedly absent the hipster-on-the-prowl vibe of so many other Henderson Avenue grazeries. "Relax, this table is yours for the evening," said our waiter as he removed our empty dessert plates. How strange not to feel the shove by a server to "flip" our four-top before we were really ready to leave. (His tip got bigger for that nice touch. We didn't overstay either.)
Even without reservations, there doesn't seem to be a long wait for tables here (yet). And besides, there are two bars, upstairs and down, that lessen the strain of a wait when it is a busy night. Alma's bartenders specialize in from-scratch cocktails, most starting with tequila or pisco, a Peruvian rum, in the $8 to $10 range. The wine list offers reds and whites from Spain, Portugal, Chile and Argentina, recent vintages, from $7 a glass for a 2010 Chilean chardonnay to bottles of Argentinian Brioso "Susana Balbo" Bordeaux blend (2006) for $93.
Now if they'd only add real iced tea to the menu. Really, Alma, that fruity, salad-y, watery beverage just has no soul.