3 Old School Los Angeles Mexican Restaurants

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As a Canadian who moved to Los Angeles many years ago, I was delighted to discover Mexican food, and I tried most of the established restaurants around the city. These were the places that introduced generations of Americans to this unique and fascinating cuisine. In recent years, however, I’ve been exploring some of the exciting regional cuisines of Mexico, as specialty restaurants have come on stream to serve a largely Mexican clientele.

It occurred to me that I needed to revisit some of the fine, enduring places where I learned about Mexican food in the first place.

El Coyote Cafe

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My friend Sid recently invited me to lunch at his long-standing favorite restaurant, El Coyote. Sid is not a young man, but he has been coming here since he was a kid. The waiters know him by name, and he has the menu memorized. El Coyote first opened in 1931, and is going strong.

I know I should have ordered something more elaborate, but the “Torta Mexican Style Sandwich” caught my eye. I have favorite tortas all over Los Angeles, and thought this would be a good test for El Coyote. What I got was a nice fresh roll, generously stuffed with grilled steak, red and green peppers, onion and melted white cheese. Sort of a Mexican Hoagie, the ingredients reminded me strongly of a dish called Alambre that I recently had in Mexico City… Definitely a success. Sid had the fajitas salad. Not strictly Mexican, perhaps, but it was large, and looked delicious.

El Cholo Spanish Cafe

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Everyone I know has a memory of El Cholo. “I used to go there with my grandparents” is a common memory. Others go misty-eyed thinking about the green corn tamales. I’ve had the green corn tamales, and I get it. Founded in 1922, El Cholo has been around almost forever.

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I went to El Cholo (the original location on Western Avenue) for lunch a couple of weeks ago with my friend Leili. She ordered the Carnitas, a dish that first appeared on the menu in 1989, and it was a huge plate of beautifully cooked pork, served with pickled onions and sliced orange. I had the Chile Con Carne (introduced in 1923) which was a rich, dark beef stew. It was delicious, but I had the distinct feeling the chef was holding back on the spices for the benefit of those who aren’t familiar with Mexican flavors.

Don Antonio’s

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Don Antonio’s is a youngster compared with the other 2 restaurants, opening in 1981, but the founders’ history goes back a lot further with other restaurants around L.A. I went with a woman friend who observed that the last time she ate here was the night when her husband moved out of the house, some years ago. She ordered the Chicken Enchiladas, and declared that they are still the best comfort food she could possibly imagine. I had the Chile Verde, a dish I haven’t had in perhaps 25 years. The flavors were rich and meaty, and the portions generous.

The main attraction at Don Antonio’s seemed to be the Fajitas. The room gradually became hazy from the smoke generated by the sizzling dishes coming out of the kitchen every few minutes. Maybe next time.

Conclusion?

These were 3 very good restaurants, serving Mexican food to Americans the same way they have for many years. They do what they do extremely well, and deserve their long run of success.

Here are the websites:

El Coyote Cafe   http://elcoyotecafe.com/

El Cholo Spanish Cafe   http://elcholo.com/menus

Don Antonio’s   http://www.donantoniosla.com/restaurant

José Augustín – Arma Blanca

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Dionisio is a talented chef who runs a popular restaurant named after the woman who left him at the altar, and broke his heart 6 years previously. She had withheld a rather important detail from their relationship. She was a member of a radical communist group, and had to leave the country when a political assassination went wrong on the eve of the wedding.

The book takes place in Mexico City in 1968. That year was hugely important in Mexico, and its impact on the country still has repercussions today. 1968 was the year in which the student movement gained traction, and commanded newspaper headlines for months. Their proposed social reforms were gathering more and more popular support at the same time the government was intent on quelling any possible social unrest before the Summer Olympics drew world-wide attention. The culmination was a massacre at a huge demonstration, in which hundreds of demonstrators and innocent bystanders were allegedly shot by government forces, and the event was covered up for years. The architect of the massacre was allegedly a man who later became president of the country.

Dionisio has mostly recovered from the abrupt end of his relationship with Carmen, but naming his restaurant after her is a pretty good sign that there are some lingering feelings. He has no strong political convictions, but like many intelligent people, he is willing to listen to reasonable arguments for social change. When he learns that Carmen is now married to one of the ideological architects of the student movement, a writer who made a huge impression on Dionisio in his college days, he is flooded with conflicting emotions. The emotions are heightened when he learns that Carmen and her husband have returned to Mexico City, but that government forces are hunting for them.

The emotions are further heightened when Carmen and her fugitive husband appear on Dionisio’s doorstep, asking him for refuge.

The book features a fascinating cast of thoroughly-drawn characters, including “El Trancas,” Dionisio’s best friend and senior member of the federal police force, and Lucrecia, a young woman with an uncanny ability to tap into the emotions of the times, and to translate them into her own personal experience. The book captures the excitement of 1968, and the growing hope for much-needed social change. The chapters are named after song titles from the time. As the hope and optimism of the nation builds, so does the hope and optimism of the main characters.

But just as the hopes of the nation are brought to a sudden, violent end in October, 1968, so are the hopes of Dionisio and the people who are closest to him.

I was fortunate to read this book early in my discovery of Mexican literature, and it had a huge impact on me. Several years later, its impact is just as strong as before.

Hamburguesas Punta Cabras – Downtown Los Angeles

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When a couple of serious chefs opened a taco restaurant, the results were wonderful. Tacos Punta Cabras serves some of the best and most interesting tacos in Los Angeles from their small space in Santa Monica. When I heard they had opened a Mexican “burger joint,” I just had to head downtown to see what was going on.

What I found was just that – a hole in the wall burger joint that looks like something you might have seen in East LA in 1963. The main attraction is an old-school burger with none of the hipster frills we’ve been seeing in recent years… Well, I don’t recall having home-made thousand island, excuse me… mil islas on my burgers in 1963. The difference, though, is that it’s the best old-school burger you’ve ever had. Top quality ingredients, perfectly executed, and served in a traditional paper sleeve. And the bacon tomatillo salsa was a terrific modern touch.

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That’s where old-school ends, though. The menu also has black bean burgers and turkey burgers, which I may try on another visit. What I did try (yes, I had 2 lunches yesterday) was the shrimp burger. This is where the chefs’ creativity came in full force. A combination of ground shrimp and pork, I was having flashbacks to delicious Vietnamese meals. Served as a burger, though, they had some fun with Mexican spices and Asian flavors, including paper-thin slices of my favorite Asian pickles. I will definitely be going back for more of these.

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Hamburguesas Punta Cabras is on Spring Street near 7th.

Here’s the website: http://hamburguesaspuntacabras.com/

Sobrinos, Mexico City – That Perfect Restaurant

I sometimes fantasize about the Perfect Restaurant. The one you can go to at any time of the day, find something you really want to eat, and enjoy it in a pleasant indoor or outdoor atmosphere.

Like many people, I go to a variety of restaurants, and have favorite dishes at each place. One of the reasons is that no single restaurant covers a wide enough range of dishes to keep me interested, and even fewer have more than a handful of dishes that are really, really good.

But Sobrinos, in Colonia Roma, Mexico City, may be the Perfect Restaurant.

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I’ve been going to Sobrinos since 2009, when I had Thanksgiving dinner there. Grilled octopus with black beans wasn’t a terribly traditional Thanksgiving meal, but it was absolutely delicious, and I’m Canadian, so it didn’t feel like a betrayal.

I’ve been back several times since, and have been delighted every time by the comfortable room, the nice outdoor patio, and the friendly service.

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The menu is widely varied, and daily specials add to the variety. At any time, I can have any one of sevaral meat dishes, seafood specialties, or just quick snacks. A particular favorite for a light meal is the duck confit Torta Ahogada… the traditional (well, except for the duck part) Guadalajara “drowned sandwich” served on a crispy baguette and smothered in spicy red sauce.

Breakfast is a meal that usually requires specialization, but Sobrinos handles it with their usual skill and professionalism. On my most recent visit, I stopped for their “hotcakes” several times… They even put figs on my pancakes!

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Sobrinos is open from 8:00 AM to 12:00 midnight, and will take care of you, no matter what your mood may be at any hour.

Address: Av Álvaro Obregón 110, Roma Norte, Cuauhtémoc, 06700 Ciudad de México, D.F., Mexico
Phone: +52 55 5264 7466

Liliana V. Blum – Pandora

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I’ve come to expect surprises from author Liliana V. Blum. I’ve been impressed by her ability to concisely draw interesting and consistent characters with whom I can easily identify, but just when I think I know where she’s headed, she’s always a step ahead of me. I was certain this time that the surprise was that Pandora was a love story… Well, maybe it is, but if so, it’s certainly the most horrific love story I’ve ever read.

The story revolves around the competition for the affections of Gerardo, a handsome, successful doctor in a hospital in an unnamed city in Mexico. The female staff members view him as the perfect man, and many pursue him, despite his apparently perfect marriage to Abril, and their perfect twins. Meanwhile, Gerardo, a gynecologist, has become so desensitized and withdrawn that on an outing to a strip club, he wants to write a prescription for one of the dancers.

The 2 women in Gerardo’s life are Abril and Pandora. Abril spends her scarce free time exercising and dieting, because she constantly feels she doesn’t deserve her exalted role as wife and mother of the children of such a handsome, successful man. Gerardo actually finds Abril physically repugnant, but his communication skills are such a disaster that he has allowed a terrible but correctible tension to build between them for many years.

Pandora has experienced a lifetime of obesity. She has accepted this as her lot in life, but the author explores in considerable depth the emotional toll of a lifetime of pain, humiliation and anonymity that go hand in hand with being morbidly obese. When Pandora inadvertently triggers an obsession in Gerardo, she is extraordinarily vulnerable, and emotionally unprepared for the course of events he initiates. The Pandora metaphor is highly appropriate. When she opens the box, all manner of human evils emerge, building to a memorable climax.

As a man, I would have liked to understand Gerardo better, but the book isn’t really about him. It’s about the women. It’s about the lines they draw between love and obsession, between sacrifice and abuse. It’s about pain and yearning, about communication and the all but unbelievable things we are prepared to do for love.

This is a powerful book, and one that will stay with me for a long time. Liliana Blum just keeps growing stronger as a writer.

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Desde Amazon:

Gerardo es un hombre que parece tener todo en la vida: es un respetado ginecólogo que ha logrado ascender económica y socialmente gracias a su profesión; tiene una bella esposa capaz de hacer lo necesario para que él no la abandone; es padre de un par de gemelos a los que adora. Sin embargo, siente que su vida es árida y aburrida; le falta el placer que se despliega en fantasías, hasta que se topa con Pandora, quien no tiene nada que perder ante el rechazo social y familiar que sufre por su inmensa gordura e inseguridad. Sumergido en el gozo de su parafilia, Gerardo no sabe de límites e incluso el riesgo parece un elemento excitante en su nueva vida, y al acariciar y perderse en ese voluptuoso y voluminoso cuerpo que con tanto esmero cultiva, comienza a sentir que ahí está todo lo que él necesita. Mientras, Pandora va cayendo en un abismo en el que parece no hay posibilidad de retornar, víctima de sus propios vacíos.