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Searching for authentic barbacoa, too-good-to-be-true mole, or quintessential fish tacos? Look no further
From July 2007
By Alexandra Marshall
"This ainâ€™t no Beverly Hills," laughed Lucio "Little Puppet" Aguilar, a Chicano teenager with a shaved head, when I offered a credit card for my food. He was manning the register at ChichÃ©n ItzÃ¡, a Yucatecan restaurant in South Central Los Angelesâ€™ Mercado la Paloma, and frankly, he should have cut me some slack: the Mercado, filled with bakeries and handicrafts, is no off-the-grid hole-in-the-wall. (VENGA A LA CLASE! urged a poster for a nearby yoga studio.) And the spread on the plastic tray in front of me hadnâ€™t fallen off a taco truck: there was kibi, similar to the Lebanese bulgur-wheat pattie; pan de cazÃ³n, a casserole of minced shark meat, beans, and a mild, persimmon-colored tomato sauce stacked four corn tortillaâ€“stories high; couscous pearls; and cochinita pibil, orange juiceâ€“marinated pork shoulder baked in banana leaf with a vivid red sauce made from annatto seeds, with a citrusy warmth that glows in your mouth. To Angelenos raised on Titoâ€™s Tacos drive-thru and cheese-laden combination plates, the Middle Easternâ€“inflected food of the YucatÃ¡n is unrecognizable. But as Little Puppet said, "What we serve is Mexican food, too. America has all kinds of different food. Same thing as us."
I know where heâ€™s coming from. I cut my teeth on bean burritos in West L.A., but Iâ€™ve also lived in the central Mexican state of MichoacÃ¡n and maintained an infatuation with Mexican food since my first trip to a Distrito Federal (DF) diner when I was seven. Iâ€™ve torn into roast goatâ€™s head (the cheek meat is the most delicate on earth), congealed- cowâ€™s-blood tacos, homemade pozole (hominy and, sometimes, pigâ€™s-ear soup), a rainbow of moles, and more iterations of pounded cornmeal than I can recount. With so many inventive, complex dishes having passed over my taste buds, I cannot understand why the food-world intelligentsia does not rank Mexican as one of the great cuisines of the world. And as Little Puppet says, itâ€™s diverse. Mexico encompasses just under 761,000 square miles of mountains, beaches, deserts, and rain forests. Itâ€™s home to 103.3 million people, including many dozens of Indian groups, descendants of African slaves, and mixed-blood mestizos. Mexican kitchens serve everything from the lightest, olive-topped red snapper to the silkiest huitlacoche (corn fungus). Now, as more natives move north for good, the restaurant scene in L.A. is re-creating that regional specificity for immigrants who donâ€™t know when their next trip home might be. Gringos like me are all too happy to pull up a chair and join them. "El Borrego de Oro used to be the only place I could find Hidalgo-style barbacoa," says Jonathan Gold, author of Counter Intelligence, an indispensable guide to the cityâ€™s ethnic restaurants. "Now I can name you twenty places that serve it."
One of them is a new expansion of the original El Borrego de Oro ("The Golden Sheep"), in a nondescript East L.A. strip mall, where I went with some friends to refresh my memory. (The last time I ate barbacoa was in the late eighties at a roadhouse just outside Morelia, MichoacÃ¡n.) Since it requires slow-heating a pit of lava rocks to roast maguey leafâ€“wrapped mutton for hours, barbacoa is a weekend meal. If this technique sounds vaguely familiar, it should: itâ€™s American barbecueâ€™s pre-Columbian ancestor. On the afternoon of my visit, packs of single men, families, and teenage girls with heavily tweezed eyebrows braved the fluorescent lighting to hunch protectively over chunks of smoky meat and bowls of rich pan drippings and hominy consommÃ©. A blaring soccer game was interrupted by bursts from a blender making our horchata, a cold drink with fresh nuts, cinnamon, and vanilla. The adventurous (or the hungover) could order tacos de panza, which our waitress euphemistically described as coming from "another part" of the lamb. (Um, the stomach.) Porous panza is not as flavorful as mutton, but for its ability to soak up last nightâ€™s bender (it is stomach, after all), it flies out the door on Sundays. We opted for squash-flower quesadillas. We needed roughage.
On Sundays, only a mile or so separates the sheep from the goat. Travel north from El Borrego de Oro #2 to the heart of Boyle Heights to BirrierÃa Jalisco, which has dished out nothing but roast kid for 30 years. The long tables are so filled with churchgoing couples and three-generation families that the host needs a microphone to control the traffic. I know folks who balk at goat. Why? Itâ€™s low in fat and cholesterol, tangier than lamb, and stays juicy when slow-roasted like the birrierÃas do it. So popular has Guadalajara-style birria becomeâ€”just goat, corn tortillas, raw onions, and chile-spiked consommÃ©â€”that BirrierÃa Jalisco has recently branched out to Lynwood (near Compton) and Las Vegas, and other birrierÃas have sprouted up throughout East L.A. as well.
Perhaps if the gringos would venture there, theyâ€™d see a side of the city that megastores forgot. East L.A. is a visual treat as well as a gustatory one. Not that the residents yearn for the palefaces. The freelance mariachis waiting in full dress at Mariachi Plaza for a pickup gig stay busy enough. Boyle Avenue, skimming gracious Hollenbeck Park, is lined with jacaranda trees and generous Craftsman and Spanish colonial houses. In a city that is still learning not to knock its postwar architecture down, CÃ©sar E. ChÃ¡vez Avenue and East First are bastions of old-school storefronts, many of them covered in blazing murals of someoneâ€™s cousin (R.I.P.) or the Virgin of Guadalupeâ€”the patroness of Mexico, and, from the looks of it, a busy protector of small businesses. The mom-and-pop industriousness and hospitality of East L.A. is a distillation of what I miss most about America, and it has become one of my favorite places to hang out when I come back home. Here itâ€™s never hard to find a tamarind-flavored raspado (snow cone) with chunks of raw cucumber and chili powder, or a tres leches cake, springy but moist with condensed milk, or twice-cooked-pork tacos on fire with smoky, roasted salsa. (OVER 5 ZILLION SOLD, boasts the marquee at Carnitas MichoacÃ¡n #3.) And the DF-style tortas and semitas (sandwiches on hard rolls with beans, meat, salsa, and avocado) are nectar to kids looking for an urban-paced bite, just like in the capital city down south.
Gringos are missing out on East L.A., but they are hip to the recent glut of Oaxacan eateries on the West Sideâ€”the most celebrated flank of this "just like Madreâ€™s" cuisine. Mass migration from Mexicoâ€™s poorest state to L.A. only started in the 70â€™s and 80â€™s, and it took a few more years for the restaurants to start popping up. But once they did, Angelenos got mole, a powerful paste of ground chiles, garlic, dried fruit, up to 30 spices, seeds, nuts, and sometimes chocolate. Though it originated in Puebla, one state to the north, Oaxacan mole is zingier. Whether yellow (with bananas), red, green, brown, or black (with enough chocolate to sate anyoneâ€™s cravings), it tastes like nothing else on earth, and amortized for cooking time, a plate should cost a mint. (Making mole from scratch takes two days.) In Santa Monica, Monte AlbÃ¡n and Juquila do brisk business, but L.A.â€™s best-known (and, I think, best, period) purveyor of Oaxacan food is Guelaguetza, which first opened in 1994 and now has two outposts on the East Side and an unaffiliated satellite across town in Palms. The Olympic Boulevard branch is the biggest, with a trio of crooners at center stage in the main room. Despite bumper stickers in the parking lot touting states like Nayarit and Coahuila, owner Fernando LÃ³pez says that Oaxacans are his main clientele, and his only agenda is keeping it real. "Our food is unmixed," he tells me in Spanish. "We didnâ€™t invent anything, but if we can please a Oaxacan with it, we can please anyone." Among those looking entirely delighted when I visited were a local soccer team, a graduation party (the Asiatic eyes and milk-chocolate skin of the fancy-dressed baby at the table were unmistakably old-country), and a few groovy Chicanos. For the most unadulterated taste of the sauce, my sister got an enchiladaâ€”just a folded corn tortilla, softly sweet black mole, sesame seeds, a bit of crumbled mild cheese, raw onions, and a side of meat. Cecina, reconstituted dried spiced beef or pork, is a typical choice, but Guelaguetzaâ€™s light-as-air chorizo, more reminiscent of Moroccan merguez than the better-known Spanish stuff, is not to be missed. If you could think about eating again after their giant portions (my camarones enchipotladosâ€”prawns cooked in a smooth chipotle sauceâ€”almost killed me), you can buy one of the red or black moles to go. Left in paste form undiluted by meat stock, it lasts three months. Buy two.
One cannot travel by palate through L.A.â€™s Mexico without heading back northward for at least one of the fish tacos at Tacos Baja Ensenada, a neon-green, marine-kitsch diner about a half hour southeast of Boyle Heights. Their battered-and-fried halibut tacos, topped with tangy cream sauce, cabbage, and pico de gallo salsa, are the stuff of traveling surfersâ€™ dreams. Thereâ€™s impeccably fresh campechana ceviche (abalone, shrimp, and octopus) served in a tostada shell and, true to norteÃ±o form, made with ketchup. Thereâ€™s also stingray, for those who want to impress their friends. But to me, this merely distracts from the fish tacos. Light and crisp, with a perfect balance of softness and crunch, they haunt me on cold winter nights far from my homeland. Sure, Tacos Baja Ensenada is an hour away from my motherâ€™s houseâ€”more if thereâ€™s traffic. But if you want the good stuff, sometimes you have to blow a little gas money. This ainâ€™t Beverly Hills. ✚
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