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.