Happy Hour: El Carmen
The Hours: 5-7 p.m. Mon.-Fri.
The Deals: $3 cans of Tecate, $4 margaritas, $2 guacamole, $5 combination platters (two tacos with rice and beans), and free chips and salsa.
The Digs: When you stroll up to a bar at 6:15 p.m., your mind conquered by visions of tequila and salty chips, and a lady with a clipboard tells you to come back in two hours, after some dill-weed's noxious tasting party has ended, you started to think the worst about the place. You glance inside at the cackling patrons, the Mexican wrestler mask decor, and the bulbous lights dousing the room in a red-orange haze, and you doubt you ought to bother. You don't. Because, after 7 p.m., the prices for the things you want to eat and drink go up.
El Carmen is a cool margarita bar that probably convinces trendy types it's a tad cooler than it actually is. That shouldn't deter you from making it cooler by showing up from time to time. If you read the highly informative website Yelp, you might come to the conclusion that El Carmen is a dive. Anyone who calls this place a dive because it's small and doesn't have a website needs to take his or her memory for a little jog -- hopefully back to some truly musty side-street den where old men come to wallow and beer is judged by temperature, not by which Belgian monastery squirted it out.
The Verdict: A standard frozen margarita here is like a big snow cone, but better because it's served in a goblet. Pale gold blobs of froth start sliding over the side without warning. It tastes fantastic, not too sugary, and one isn't rugged enough to keep you from driving home afterwards. Since they're only four bucks though, have a handful and call a cab. Or switch to Tecate.
While aficionados of homespun birria joints and obscure taco trucks may scoff, the food here is actually a lot better than it has to be. Plenty of fools will half-heartedly dab away at anything edible when the drinks are cheap and the scene is right, but here, they're bailed out. Flanked with a smooth, luxurious black bean puree and reasonably fluffy rice, the papas tacos are excellent -- seasoned, mashed tubers spread across a double-stack of corn tortillas -- and the hongo tacos possess a sweet shroomy earthiness that matches the mild acidic bite of the salsa spooned on top.
Overall Grade: A-