For a stretch of West 3rd known best for windows filled with pricey purses and gluten-free faux-nuts, El Carmen is a welcome breath of dive air. Its dark, red-lit interior still manages to be welcoming, though that might have something to do with the bartender calling you sweetheart as she mixes you a proper cocktail from the seemingly endless wall of tequilas behind the bar. Carmen’s Paloma is a personal fave, a refreshing mix of tequila, mezcal, fresh grapefruit juice, and grapefruit soda.
If you happen to find yourself in need of a Westside drink between 5 and 7 p.m., however, better to take advantage of El Carmen’s killer happy hour and order one of their stiffly sweet margaritas, a classic mix of tequila, cointreau, and freshly made sour, and five bucks at that. Or, if you’re in more of a cerveza mood, a cold can of Tecate will run you a whopping three. On the night this writer stopped in, we stuck to the former, the rims of our glasses lined happily with salt. Our bartender was all smiles too, tossing each bottle into the air, not for show it seemed, but rather for just plain fun.
Originally opened down the road as a taqueria in 1929, El Carmen moved to its current location in 1951. Now owned by the restaurateurs behind, among others, Bar Lubitsch and (the recently closed) Good Luck Bar—two more densely-packed-with-kitsch Los Angeles bars that manage to be simultaneously hip, charming, and cozy—El Carmen pays homage to its Mexican roots. The walls are papered with vintage movie posters and pulpy dimestore novel covers—all in español, of course—and if you look up at the ceiling, you’ll find Lucha Libre masks staring down at you. Oh yeah, and the food.
During happy hour, the full food and cocktail menus are available, but the short selection of magic hour offerings is both too good and too cheap to pass up. Nachos ($5) are piled high with melted cheese, black beans, sour cream, fresh salsa, and house guacamole, and there ain’t no shame in the simple comfort of a cheese quesadilla ($4) after a long day’s work—or even, a not so long day’s work. Yet another good deal is the Combination ($6): two tacos—your choice of papas, pollo, or carnitas, the last of which is pretty darn tasty—that comes complete with black beans and rice. If it’s but a snack you’re looking for, their guacamole is only two bucks and comes with a big basket of crispy chips.
For a city whose Mexican food rivals only that of Mexico, El Carmen’s fare may not be the best south of the border grub in town, but if you’re on your second (or, ahem, third) margarita as the sun starts to set, munching on the big plate of nachos in front of you, we can pretty much guarantee that you’re not going to care.
8138 West 3rd Street, Los Angeles, CA 90048
Photo courtesy of Herson Rodriguez