Gustavo Arellano first wrote about Lola Gaspar four years ago, when our food blog was still young and the restaurant had just opened. He weaved a brutal account of the inattentive service, the exorbitant $9 tacos trios, and a toothless habanero salsa that he likened to pasta sauce (and even included a YouTube video of a teen eating a habanero whole for good measure). That post went on to garner more comments than ever seen before or since, proving that scathing, truthful reviews aren't only the most fun to read, but also the best to inspire debate. So it was a surprise when one recent day, Gustavo sent me an email saying, “I've actually gone in twice over the past two months, and haven't been kicked out! Food is good/great, atmosphere is no longer douche-y.”
It wasn't the first time my esteemed editor changed his mind about a place. He kept going to the Crosby even after several disappointing outings and slowly witnessed its evolution to become the great restaurant it is today. Now it seems the same has happened with Lola. In many ways, the Crosby and Lola Gaspar are a lot alike. They both shared shaky beginnings as rookies in the downtown Santa Ana restaurant scene, and they even looked similar, with a purposely Goth/punk aesthetic that shuns any color that isn't dank and depressing. Lola is more Gothic than punk (really, more baroque). In a room so small it couldn't even serve as the waiting area for your local Black Angus, a chandelier hangs next to a dominant wall that's made to look as though it came from a subterranean subway terminal in which a thousand posters had been plastered on and hastily stripped off. Looking down at you as you eat is a creepy painting of a beautiful girl with a ghostly Haunted Mansion stare.
Though it doesn't happen as often as at the Playground, dishes are routinely rotated off the menu. The opening roster of Mexican and Nuevo Latino plates that Gustavo sampled in its first few weeks is long forgotten; the present-day list has only glimpses of Spain and Mexico. There's still a burrito here, a chile relleno there, but what Lola now serves isn't so much theme-based as it's ingredient-driven. As such, I don't guarantee that what I describe in this review will be there when you read it.
There are salt-sprinkled purple pee-wee potatoes cut into coins, their color as striking as Prince's outfits back in the day. They join the beef cheek española cooked to the consistency of pot roast and now exhibiting the syrupy sheen of a slowly basted barbecued beef rib. Wild boar bacon—which tastes and chews similar to stripped-from-the-bone baby backs—is seen peeking up from one of the best mac and cheeses I've encountered this year. It's done with the correct ratio of sauce to pasta. Most important, the kitchen uses conchiglie shells for the dish, quarter-sized, twisted pasta cups that you eat one at a time to relish the broiler-crisped edges and crumbled breadcrumbs.
Lola still offers some exorbitant tacos, though—in fact, they're even more expensive now, topping out at $13 for a trio that features skirt-steak strips from a farm that's name-dropped, as if to justify the price. After realizing what I liked best about them were the soft-as-blinis tortillas, which are sourced from El Metate, a local supermarket, I can't say I recommend them. For two bucks less, the better deal is the giant bowl of mussels with chorizo in a sofrito broth—a stew-like soup that spoons as thick as curry, stuns with a hue as red as panang, and is so lip-smackingly rich from the melted pork fat you'll inevitably ask for more bread to sop it all up. Since it's crammed with an excess of that spicy/sour sausage, it'll probably be the only chorizo-imbued dish you need. Skip the flatbread as it's too dense and too doughy. And take a pass on the pork osso bucco, if that's still on the menu when you read this. Though the mashed plantain on which it rests is perky sweet, the pork itself is lamentably bland.
Start your evening with a glass of sangria ladled from a big jug (just one of the many fine boozes), then an order of scorching bacon-wrapped dates, their blue cheese filling as piercing as needles. End your evening by asking the attentive, sweet and congenial servers for a butterscotch pot de crème, a lidded jar filled with a silky-sweet pudding that finishes with sea salt tickling your tongue. Yes, I had a pleasant meal and non-douche-y time at Lola. Despite the fact that this positive review won't inspire as many comments as a negative one would, it proves that time heals wounds and allows formerly bad restaurants to become great.
This review appeared in print as “The Santa Ana Redemption: Lola Gaspar finally grows up and becomes the restaurant we hoped it'd be.”
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.