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Gilbert's El Indio in Santa Monica

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Welcome back to Dining On A Dime a bi-weekly feature in which Lizbeth Scordo surveys LA's cheap eats—often obscure, ethnic, unsung restaurants—proving that dining on a dime is alive, well, and quite tasty in this here city. Where do you think she should go next? Drop us a line.

I'll admit right off the bat, Gilbert's El Indio, which has been a Santa Monica stalwart for more than three decades, isn't exactly obscure, nor is it all that unsung, especially among Westsiders. But lately I've had several people suggest it to me as a local haunt to check out, with promises of low prices, a festive atmosphere, free-flowing margaritas, and pretty good food (purists looking for regional specialties or who want nothing to do with shredded orange cheddar cheese can stop reading now). And so, accompanied by my husband and two friends who eat there on a semi-regular basis, I not only decided to pay Gilbert's a visit, I went on one of its biggest nights — Taco Tuesday.

I can't even count the number of parties ahead of me when I write my name on a clipboard by the door upon arriving around 8PM. The lounge, consisting of a seatless bar under its own Spanish tile roof and a handful of small tables, is packed with diners-in-waiting, including lots of families with small children (a few with grandma or grandpa in tow too), clusters of twentysomethings immersed in their iPhones, a trio of doctors from one of the nearby hospitals sipping margaritas, and so many visibly pregnant women (all there separately) that I wonder if the place is mentioned in "What to Expect When You're Expecting."

Every square inch of the restaurant's walls is plastered with unframed photographs of customers, and the place is bursting at the seams with knick-knacks — from painted cow skulls to mini sombreros to baseball trophies to paper lanterns. While the rest of L.A.’s Mexican restaurants with liquor licenses are hawking every kind of pricey Tequila under the sun these days, Gilbert's is a true throwback. The bartender tells me the margaritas are only offered with "house gold" (I finally talk him into flashing me the bottle. It's Montezuma, an, ahem, affordable brand), since he mixes up a big batch before the rush, but he's also got Jose Cuervo available for those who want shots. Festive, indeed. We order a pitcher, which is actually served in a carafe, for $14.50 (blended will save you 75 cents) and though the drink is obviously far from hand-crafted, I'm pleasantly surprised, especially given the price.

It's a wonderful feeling to hear your name finally shouted out by the man with the clipboard and as he escorts us to our table (the wait was just over 30 minutes) I learn he's Fernando, the owner and Gilbert's son. "It's all good!" he responds when I ask him what I should get. But if it's my first time in, he'd recommend (surprise, surprise) Fernando's burrito, stuffed with a chile relleno. I could also just order the naked relleno if his namesake sounds like it might be a little much, or perhaps the enchiladas, or, of course, an array of tonight's dollar tacos. "The tacos are small but people order a lot of them. It's fun!" He's right. I'm hard pressed to spot any diners who don't look like they're having a good time. Or maybe they're just thrilled to actually have gotten a table.

We sit down to a basket of thick and hot tortilla chips, a smooth and bright red salsa flecked with chile seeds, and a bowl of delicious slices of pickled carrots (all complimentary), and then add a small order of creamy guacamole that comes spiked with a hefty dose of chopped white onion. It’s a nice start, but there’s plenty more food to come. Though it takes a little while for our very busy waiter to take our order, our entrees come out quickly.

My chile rellleno seems to showcase the fluffy egg batter, which has an almost frittata-like consistency, over the poblano pepper. Fernando tells me a lot of people love the way Gilbert's makes its rellenos, wrapping multiple strips of the pepper around the Jack cheese before giving it a generous dip in the egg, but others tell him they prefer the relleno at his uncle's restaurants (those would be Paco's Tacos), which stuff a whole pepper with the cheese. I like the relleno's hearty sauce too, which is heavy handed with chunks of cooked-down onions, bell peppers, and celery. The gooey enchilada is also nice, topped with a smoky — albeit super greasy — ranchero sauce and the moist rice and beans (I order whole beans in place of the refried) are pretty standard.

My husband and one of our fellow diners get 14 tacos between them (seven different types are on offer) and while that sounds like a frightening amount of food, they are indeed tiny enough to fit seven to a plate. The soft tacos beat out their hard shell counterparts, which are nearly sealed, making it tough to stuff them with the lettuce, cheese, and salsa without breaking them apart completely. And the table consensus is that the carne asada and the juicy shredded chicken tacos rank highest of all, while the taco de papa, which consists of one big hunk of boiled potato sealed inside a Christmas-themed bright green shell, comes in dead last.

Despite the variations, the tacos are a bit one-note and seven seems to be overload. It's certainly worth ordering some if you happen brave Gilbert’s on a Tuesday, but I'd go with just two or three and supplement with one of the many a la carte dishes (several are under $4). The menu goes on forever, with entrees including beef in mole sauce, pork with green chile sauce, and everything from taquitos to tamales to every kind of combination plate possible. As for burritos, in addition to the Fernando, many regulars swear by the Mule burrito, covered with salsa verde and stuffed with beef, pork, or chicken along with avocado.

We leave the place as full as can be, and even after two pitchers of margaritas, we’ve spent less than $20 a person. Now that's fun.
Lunch and Dinner items: $1 to $12.70 (cash only)
310-450-8057; website
—Lizbeth Scordo

Gilbert’s El Indio

2526 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, CA