"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.