"This ain’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 Chichén Itzá, a Yucatecan restaurant in South Central Los Angeles’ 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 hadn’t fallen off a taco truck: there was kibi, similar to the Lebanese bulgur-wheat pattie; pan de cazón, a casserole of minced shark meat, beans, and a mild, persimmon-colored tomato sauce stacked four corn tortilla–stories high; couscous pearls; and cochinita pibil, orange juice–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 Tito’s Tacos drive-thru and cheese-laden combination plates, the Middle Eastern–inflected food of the Yucatán 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 he’s coming from. I cut my teeth on bean burritos in West L.A., but I’ve also lived in the central Mexican state of Michoacán and maintained an infatuation with Mexican food since my first trip to a Distrito Federal (DF) diner when I was seven. I’ve torn into roast goat’s head (the cheek meat is the most delicate on earth), congealed- cow’s-blood tacos, homemade pozole (hominy and, sometimes, pig’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, it’s diverse. Mexico encompasses just under 761,000 square miles of mountains, beaches, deserts, and rain forests. It’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 don’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 city’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, Michoacán.) Since it requires slow-heating a pit of lava rocks to roast maguey leaf–wrapped mutton for hours, barbacoa is a weekend meal. If this technique sounds vaguely familiar, it should: it’s American barbecue’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 consommé. 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 night’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 Birriería 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?It’s low in fat and cholesterol, tangier than lamb, and stays juicy when slow-roasted like the birrierías do it. So popular has Guadalajara-style birria become—just goat, corn tortillas, raw onions, and chile-spiked consommé—that Birriería Jalisco has recently branched out to Lynwood (near Compton) and Las Vegas, and other birrierías have sprouted up throughout East L.A. as well.
Perhaps if the gringos would venture there, they’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, César E. Chávez Avenue and East First are bastions of old-school storefronts, many of them covered in blazing murals of someone’s cousin (R.I.P.) or the Virgin of Guadalupe—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 it’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 Michoacán #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 Side—the most celebrated flank of this "just like Madre’s" cuisine. Mass migration from Mexico’s poorest state to L.A. only started in the 70’s and 80’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 anyone’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 Albán and Juquila do brisk business, but L.A.’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 López 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 didn’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 enchilada—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 Guelaguetza’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 enchipotlados—prawns cooked in a smooth chipotle sauce—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.’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 surfers’ dreams. There’s impeccably fresh campechana ceviche (abalone, shrimp, and octopus) served in a tostada shell and, true to norteño form, made with ketchup. There’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 mother’s house—more if there’s traffic. But if you want the good stuff, sometimes you have to blow a little gas money. This ain’t Beverly Hills. ✚
Alexandra Marshall is a Travel + Leisure contributing editor, and lives in Paris.
Where to Eat
1845 E. First St.; 323/262-4552; dinner for two $20.
Carnitas Michoacán #3
741 S. Soto St.; 323/266-7188; dinner for two $20.
3655 S. Grand Ave., Mercado la Paloma; 213/741-1075; dinner for two $25.
El Borrego de Oro #2
2808 E. Washington Blvd.; 323/780-1132; dinner for two $24.
3014 W. Olympic Blvd.; 213/427-0608; dinner for two $30.
A working-class restaurant on the West Side serving Oaxaca’s greatest hits without a whiff of self-congratulation. 11619 Santa Monica Blvd.; 310/312-1079; dinner for two $35.
In-the-know diners ask for chapulínes: chile-marinated, deep-fried grasshoppers. 11927 Santa Monica Blvd.; 310/444-7736; dinner for two $30.
Tacos Baja Ensenada 5385 Whittier Blvd.; 323/887-1980; dinner for two $15.
What to Read
The Road to Tamazunchale by Ron Arias (Bilingual Review/Press, $13). The magical-realist story of an old man’s deathbed journey through East L.A. (and beyond).
Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles by Jonathan Gold (L.A. Weekly Books, $17).
- Papadzules: rolled tortillas filled with hardboiled eggs and topped with a squash seed salsa and embellished with a red tomato sauce
- Sopa de Lima: chicken or turkey broth soup flavored with lime juice, with shredded chicken or turkey, fried tortilla strips, and sometimes spiced with habanero chiles
- Tik-n-xic: achiote-marinated red snapper
- Horchata: a ground melon seed or rice drink
- Cochinita Pibil: orange juice-marinated pork shoulder baked in banana leaf and a vivid red sauce made from annatto seeds
- Salbutes: puffed corn tortillas layered with lettuce, sweet pepper, onion, tomato, and topped with shredded chicken or turkey
- Pan de Cazón: tortillas layered with fish, usually shark, and beans
- Birria: stewed goat or pork in thick, spicy tomato broth
- Pozole: thick, hominy-based soup with pork, tomato, cilantro, and oregano
- Sopa de Elote: sweet corn soup
- Tequila with Sangrita: Sangrita is a chaser made of tomato juice, orange (or lime) juice, and chiles
- Tortas Ahogadas: sandwiches dipped in spicy chile sauce, filled with pork, beans, and onions
- Barbacoa: meats (especially mutton) cooked slowly over an open fire or in a pit covered with leaves
- Carne de Res in Pulque: beef braised in a fermented alcohol made from the sap of the agave, or maguey, plant
- Pan de Pulque: bread leavened with the fermented milky sap from the agave plant
- Chiliquiles: fried or dried tortilla chips, bathed in green or red salsa, and broiled or grilled with a cheese topping
- Worms of Maguey: edible caterpillars that infest maguey and Agave tequilana plants
- Tacos de Panza: tacos filled with porous stomach meat
Mexico City, D.F.
- Carne de Cordero in Mixote: lamb seasoned with a chile and spice marinade and steamed in maguey leaves
- Conejo en Adobo: a pre-Colombian preparation of rabbit with a red chile sauce/marinade; typically stewlike
- Tortas and Cemitas: sandwiches (the latter with anise seeds), usually with beans and meat
- Tacos Placeros: tacos prepared with avocado, meat, and salsa
- Pepitas: pumpkin seeds
- Pastel de Tres Leches: cake soaked in three kinds of milk (evaporated milk, condensed milk, and either whole milk or cream)
- Mole: a powerful paste of ground chiles, garlic, dried fruit, up to 30 spices, seeds, nuts, and sometimes chocolate
- Oaxacan Yellow Mole: mole that includes chayote squash
- Mole Verde con Hierbas: herbed green mole; or mole made with tomatillos, herbs, and spices
- Mole Negro Oaxaqueño: black mole, made with lots of chocolate
- Tlayudas: giant corn tortilla topped with cheese, seasoned meets, cilantro
- Ciruelas: prunes
- Mezcal: liquor distilled from agave; frequently sold with an agave (maguey) worm in the bottle
- Enmolada: folded corn tortilla with a mix of black mole, sesame seeds, crumbled mild cheese, raw onions, and a side of meat
- Cecina: reconstituted dried spiced beef or pork
- Ceviche: raw fish marinated in citrus juice, frequently with onions, tomatoes, and green peppers
- Taco de Pescado Frito: tacos with breaded, fried fish, usually halibut
- Nacatamales: meat- and chile-filled tamales
- Uchepos: regional tamales that are either sweetened with fruit or made savory with pork
- Churipo: meat-based soup stew prepared with cabbage, sour cactus fruit, carrots, garbanzo, and seasoned with ground chile
- Atole: corn or rice milk-based hot drink, frequently flavored with cinnamon, vanilla, chocolate, or fruit
- Ates: fruit jellies or candied fruit
- Cotija cheese: dry, crumbly, salty Mexican cheese; used to top dishes like black beans, soups, and tacos
- Pozole: thick, hominy-based soup with pork, tomato, cilantro
Words to Know: General Terms
- beber: to drink
- cocinar: to cook
- comer: to eat
- freir: to fry
- almuerzo: lunch
- botanas: snacks/appetizers
- cena: dinner
- comida: meal
- desayuno: breakfast
- cuenta: check/bill
- servilleta: napkin
- taza: cup
- vaso: glass
- tenedor: fork
- cuchara: spoon
- cuchillo: knife
- plato: plate
- hambre: hungry
- sabroso: tasty
- picante: spicy
- caliente: hot
- amargo: sour
- delicioso: delicious
- dulce: sweet or candy
- postre: dessert
- frijoles: beans
- arroz: rice
- carne: meat
- leche: milk
- agua: water
- pan: bread
- pescado: fish
- pollo: chicken
- carne de res: beef
- carne de cordero: lamb
- carne de cerdo: pork
- queso: cheese
- Tortillas: unleavened bread made from corn or wheat flour
- Tacos: folded corn tortilla with a variety of vegetables and meats
- Tamales: corn dough steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf, filled with finely chopped meat, vegetables, or fruit
- Frijoles: beans; typically served as appetizers or accompaniments to snacks and meals, including breakfasts
- Arroz: rice; in a typical Mexican lunch, there will always be a rice course, which is served after the soup and before the main course
- Atole: corn or rice milk based hot drink, frequently flavored with cinnamon, vanilla, chocolate, or fruit
- Tequila: distilled liquor made from the fermented sap of the blue Agave plant