In order to fully appreciate Gardens of Taxco, a throwback Mexican restaurant in West Hollywood, it's important to keep a couple of things in mind. Firstly, when GoT (I will continue to refer to this restaurant sporadically as 'GoT' throughout this article, just to see if we can lure in and confuse some unsuspecting Westeros fans) opened in 1971, there weren't a ton of Mexican restaurants that offered items not readily available at, say, your local El Torito (a chain which opened in the 1950s).
It is a mind-bending journey through the fabric of space-time via Mexican restaurant
If you wanted to try mole, for example, you'd have to do a little bit of digging. So, that's the first thing — when Frank Romero founded GoT in 1971, he was forging into relatively unexplored territory by offering traditional Mexican dishes to a mainstream American dining audience.
The second thing — and the most wonderful thing — about Gardens of Taxco is that the restaurant is a complete and utter time warp. It is a mind-bending journey through the fabric of space-time via Mexican restaurant. The restaurant is singular; a strange anomaly on a little West Hollywood side street that quite literally has not changed in the nearly 45 years it has been open. "The stained glass windows, maybe," said the current owner and manager, Esteban Gonzalez, who is Frank Romero's grandson. "Other than that, we haven't changed anything."
The restaurant sneaks up on you almost by surprise; on a secluded side street, out of view from the main drag of Santa Monica Blvd, eclipsed by faster, louder, sexier restaurants in the neighborhood like Connie & Ted's and Laurel Hardware. GoT is the guy who wears a seersucker suit and drives an old Impala; who won't give up his landline for a cell phone; who listens to vinyl and won't go digital — not to make any kind of loud, insincere hipsteresque statement about eschewing technology, but because the guy literally doesn't know any other reality. Gardens of Taxco is like Plato's cave allegory, but in restaurant form.
Inside is a dim, archaic Spanish castle; all chandeliers, red leather, and lanterns. It's cozy, it's romantic, and it's discreet. It would be a great place to go if you needed to break bad news to someone, or if you were going to have an affair. Sharp, dangerous-looking metal objets d'art adorn the walls, and catch the colors of the gorgeous stained glass windows. Clay tiles bedeck the decorative overhangs; customers chat and buttresses fly. You feel like you're in a kind of private, inner sanctum of a WeHo chapter of Franciscan monks.
After 44 years of operating with no written menus, they relented and began presenting an à la carte bill of fare
Don't ask for a menu — that's not how they do things here (Though, yes, GoT is changing with the times. Five months ago, after 44 years of operating with no written menus, they relented and began presenting an à la carte bill of fare). In the tradition of places like Dominick's on Arthur Ave. in New York City, you sit down and listen to the waiter tell you what's available this evening, no menus necessary. This is part of the tradition — Romero used to play the role of balladeer and server (he passed away a few years ago), creating a welcoming and lively performance out of reciting the menu and the evening's specials to patrons. That role has since been passed onto a server named Gregorio, who performs with an equal amount of gusto.
It's generally understood that when you come to Gardens of Taxco, you come hungry. That's because dinner consists of a filling five-course meal that ranges from $26.95 to $29.95, depending on what main course you select (though, again, they started present à la carte options about five months ago). Chips and a spicy salsa begin every meal, along with a huge glazen chalice of pickled vegetables. After that, a sample meal might look something like this: quesadilla, albondigas (meatball) soup, a beef taquito or chicken enchilada, chicken mole as a main course, and for dessert, bananas con crema with a glass of dry sherry.
Sure, Gardens of Taxco shares quite a bit in common with the Spanish-rice-with-refried-beans-and-smother-everything-with-a-layer-of-cheese restaurants in the area, like Lucy's, El Cholo, or El Coyote. Places that are safe to bring mom and dad to, where they won't feel too challenged. But frankly, the food at Gardens of Taxco is better. Particularly good dishes are the pollo a la crema, chicken baked in a lightly sweet cream sauce (as your server will say, it "tastes like it was boooooooooorrrrn in the sauce!"), shrimp in a garlicky tomato sauce, and enchiladas stuffed with fresh spinach.
It tastes like it was booooorrrrrrn in the sauce!
The most delightful part, though is speaking with the lovely owners: Frank Romero's daughter, Carmen Gonzalez, and grandson (who is Carmen's son), Esteban Gonzalez. They have steadfastly been caretakers of the restaurant since Romero died, lovingly maintaining it in his honor. "I started working here when I was eight years old," said Esteban. Carmen piped in and corrected him: "Six," she said. "You were six. One night the guy who tallied up the checks couldn't make it, so I put him to work." Esteban smiled and surveyed the restaurant. "Okay, maybe it was six," he conceded. He paused again before saying, "Yeah, I literally grew up in this restaurant."
Gardens of Taxco is located at 1113 North Harper Ave. in West Hollywood. They are open nightly from 4:30 p.m. until 11 p.m., and open until midnight on Saturdays and Sundays. Closed Mondays.