Monday, April 22, 2024

These pink and purple dishes from Lola’s and The Social List? Valentine’s Day kitsch perfection

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There are many Valentine’s Day specials happening across the city: From The Breakfast Bar deviating entirely from its MO to do a full-on prix fixe menu and El Barrio doing a collab with Macheen to smaller operations like A&J Seafood Shack’s oyster offerings and cottage charcuterie master Hungry Drea offering grazing plates shaped like hearts to…

And while it would be impossible for me to cover every one, there is something rather cool about The Social List and Lola’s own specials: They’re buying into the kitsch of it all, a warm welcome come post-pandemic that perfectly pitches pink and purple dishes to those willing to accept them.

“It has to feel cute, it has to feel like something fitting for Valentine’s Day,” said co-owner Brenda Rivera. “We all want to feel special and when our food makes us feel special, it’s like winning twice in a row.”

Of course, it isn’t just the beautiful array of reds, purples, and pinks on the plate that draw in bourgeoning or long-lasting lovers: There is a genuine sense of maturity in the dishes at both Social List and Lola’s, headed by co-owner and Chef Luis Navarro and his hospitality team.

The most stunning—and likely the best dish Navarro has ever served, first put on display at a mezcal dinner he hosted last year at Lola’s—is his pink mole, a red rose-hued sauce that is dotted with Mexican squash and pine nuts, swirled around a mound of rice, before being capped with a hefty filet mignon.

The result is a gorgeous ode to the mighty moles of Oaxaca, but in this one, a swirl of heat, tart, and nuttiness meld into one of the most intriguing moles this side of the border: Habanero and chile güero punch up the spice, cloves and other spices to add hints of sweet, cranberries for tartness and color, various nuts for earthiness…

It is truly a magical, wondrous creation—and easily one of the best things served at Lola’s, a place that is often misconstrued as “whitewashed Mexican food” when, in reality, the space shines not because the carne asada burrito is worth writing home about but because of the things that deviate from the rice-and-beans combos of the world.

Many of the restaurant’s best dishes—their stellar pulpo tacos, their duck breast with mole negro…—have had to be removed because no one ordered them, a sad reflection that the crowd of Lola’s is often on the learning curve when it comes to stepping outside the comforts of tacos and burritos (a comfort that, while absolutely essential, should find bend every now and then).

Much like the other half of their V-Day offering: Lobster enchiladas. Approachable—and yes, served with rice and beans—hunky, earthy corn tortillas are filled with genuinely generous chunks of lobster, tail and claws, before being slathered in a milky, comforting sauce. The result is an umami bomb of savory and creamy.

The Social List, as I’ve noted, shines in the opposite sense: It doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel but rather create comfort food that is reflective of a neighborhood restaurant—and in that sense, has wildly succeeded: The space is continuously filled with patrons and their incredible approach to being accessible, with things like all-day Happy Hour and daily discounts.

So for their Valentine’s special, Rivera and Navarro toed the line between comfort and wanting to be more unique: A rigatoni dish that shines bright with the purple of beets, dotted with greens and whites thanks to pistachios, mint, and chèvre, with a hint of salt thanks to pancetta bits. It is happily simple, incredibly beautiful to look at, and surprisingly not as beet-centric as it looks, rather blending the sweet and earthy notes of the beet with creamy, nutty, and tart contrasts.
And that earthy, umami bomb that was Lola’s lobster enchiladas? The Social List has its equivalent in their more comforting, This Is Classic Social List dish that is the truffle burger.

Much to the praise of the food gods, Navarro eschews truffle oil in favor of actual shaved black truffle, slivers tucked into a bed of melted Swiss cheese and topped with an arugula salad. It is a burger I would happily repeatedly visit and, in all frankness, I hope it remains on the menu.

In the end, these dishes are precisely what Rivera wants us to remember: It’s okay to desire something cute, even something kitschy because those are distinctly human experiences—and after the hot mess of a shift in our daily lives that we experienced, that is well worth celebrating, Hallmark Holiday or otherwise.

Lola’s has two locations, one on Retro Row at 2030 E. 4th St. and another in Bixby Knolls at 4140 Atlantic Ave.

The Social List is located at 2015 E. 4th St.

Brian Addison
Brian Addison
Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 25 nominations and three additional wins. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.

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