YXTA – Gringas al Pastor

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I’ve passed by YXTA a number of times, but never had the opportunity to try it. I was curious, though, for two reasons. First, how in heck do you pronounce YXTA? Well, you do pronounce the X, so it sounds like “eeks-ta.” Second, what is an attractive, upscale-looking restaurant doing in that dreary stretch of downtown Los Angeles, surrounded by warehouses, distributors and factories? The answer to that is now a moot point, because YXTA is worth a trip, no matter where it’s located.

I was invited to a preview of AltaMed’s annual fund-raiser East L.A. Meets Napa, and we made a stop at YXTA for their wonderful tacos, and a sampling of Trujillo wines. The US vs Belgium World Cup game was playing on the TVs as we arrived, which fit perfectly with the casual restaurant/bar atmosphere, and added to the fun mood of the outing. Needless to say, we didn’t stay long enough to see the disappointing outcome of the game.

I’ve seen Gringas on menus in Mexico, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen them this side of the border. As we all know, a gringa in Latin America is an American, or english-speaking woman. In food parlance, though, it is a special type of taco. Wikipedia says the name may come from the dark spots on the grilled tortilla that resemble the freckles on a gringa’s skin.

The gringas at YXTA were beautifully roasted marinated pork (pastor), served on a flour tortilla with lots of gooey melted cheese, onions, cilantro, chile de arbol salsa and avocado salsa. The treatment was sort of like a quesadilla, but it packed a flavor punch way beyond any quesadilla I’ve ever been served – and that includes the Olympic Mercado where all the street vendors appear on Saturdays, not that far from YXTA.

I’m looking forward to seeing what YXTA is serving at the July 18 East L.A. Meets Napa main event. I’ll be delighted if they go with the Gringas, but whatever they decide, I know I’ll be a happy guy.

Here’s the website: http://yxta.net/

Chichén Itzá – Panuchos

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About 10 years ago, I did a double-take when I read an article in the Los Angeles Times about Chichén Itzá’s tacos de venado. How could a Yucatán style restaurant be more authentic if it served deer tacos? I don’t think they’re on the menu any more (they were wonderful, by the way), but I’ve been back many times since, to explore the consistently delicious regional cooking.

This afternoon, I was invited to a preview of AltaMed’s signature fund-raising event East L.A. Meets Napa. Owner Gilberto Cetina gave us a tour of the Mercado where the restaurant is located, and presented some of the highlights of the menu, as well as some interesting stories about Yucatán cuisine. I learned, for example, that Queso de Bola is actually Edam cheese that was introduced to the region by Dutch, uh… Pirates of the Caribbean.

The highlights today were the Panuchos. Unlike many Yucatán dishes, panuchos do not date back to the Mayans, but are a more recent, although still traditional concoction. The foundation is a tortilla that has been infused with a black bean puree, then fried. The topping is shredded turkey (!), pickled onion, lettuce, avocado and tomato. My fork didn’t offer much support, so I picked up my panucho (with Gilbero’s approval), folded it like a taco, and went to town.

Was it kind of like a taco? Well, yeah.. but it was more substantial and richer than most tacos. Earthy and satisfying in every way.

The great news is that Gilberto plans to serve Panuchos at the July 18 East L.A.Meets Napa main event. I’ll be first in line.

The address is: 3655 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90007
Telephone: (213)741-1075

So What Kind of Chile Should I Use?

Chiles

After my recent post on chile-laced tamarind ice cream, a friend sent me a recipe for cooked apples with ancho chile.

I wasn’t paying attention at the supermarket, and found myself with all the necessary ingredients except ancho chile. I’m a resourceful guy, so I thought “what the heck” and substituted chipotle… with disappointing results. I ended up with an oddly smoky, brown-sugary mess that just didn’t work with the sour granny smith apples.

That’s when I was reminded that it’s high time I learned the difference between the many different chiles.

Here’s a great starting point. A summary that features 12 commonly available chiles, with a quick description of each, and an indication of their heat level.

I wasn’t surprised to see how hot the habaneros can be. I have a vivid memory of tasting a tiny dollop of habanero salsa one evening in Mérida, and pretty much ruining my dinner with the pain.

Here’s the link: http://pocketchangegourmet.com/12-essential-chile-peppers-for-mexican-cooking/

Lupita’s – Fish Taco

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The Grand Central Market on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles is in the process of gentrification. You can now buy an egg sandwich for $13 or grass-fed beef for $35 a pound, but some of the old-line food stands are still there. Thank goodness.

I recently stopped Lupita’s, and was pleased to find a classic Baja style fish taco. Perfectly fried fish fillets on warm tortillas, smothered in shredded lettuce, crema, pico de gallo and hot sauce, with a dash of squeezed lemon, they can be the perfect lunch.

Let’s hope they don’t get forced out of the market by the trendy new places.

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A Wild Ice Cream Experience at Mateo’s

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I happened to be passing by Mateo’s Ice Cream and Fruit Bars at the corner of Pico and Vermont in Los Angeles, and of course I never miss an opportunity to have a scoop of one of my favorite Mexican ice cream flavors. This time I went for the Tamarindo.

Tamarind is probably my favorite of the common aguas frescas because of that sweet and sour flavor that goes so well with spicy foods. What I got, though, was a huge surprise. The sour flavor came as a blast to my taste buds, then the sweetness came into play. But with an icy cold mouthful of familiar flavors, the last thing I expected was the heat of ground chile.

It took me a couple of spoonfuls to decide if I actually liked it, but then I was hooked. It was a really remarkable experience, and I can’t wait to do it again.

Quesadilla de Huitlacoche y Pollo

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Walking through the Olympic Mercado in downtown Los Angeles, I was drawn to the stand where they were making quesadillas. When I saw the big dish of huitlacoche, I was powerless, and placed my order.

Huitlacoche seems to be translated as “corn smut”, but it’s a fungus that grows on the corn plant, and has a complex, musky flavor of corn and… well, fungus. Mexicans are divided on the subject, but I tend to line up with those who love it with a passion.

Some braised chicken, grilled onions and shredded nopal on a hot, cheesy tortilla rounded out the experience, and I was a happy guy.

Conchas and Paletas in Huntington Park

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I had lunch last week at the always wonderful La Casita Mexicana on Gage Avenue in the town of Bell (I’ve told you about La Casita Mexicana, and I’m sure I’ll tell you more in the future)

On the way to the car, I was transported by the rich, sweet smell of fresh baked goods, and followed my nose into Panadería Los Reyes. It’s just a small, neighborhood bakery, but the neighborhood could just as easily be in Hermosillo, Zacatecas or Campeche. The carts stacked with still-warm croissants, conchas, galletas and other sweets were irresistible, and I left with a big bag of goodies that lasted an embarrassingly short time.

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I stopped on the way through Huntington Park to take some photos, and stumbled on Los Alpes Nevería, just around the corner from Gage and Pacific Avenue.

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Paletas are a favorite Meican ice cream treat, and I went for the “mango de leche, a refreshing creamy, fruity delicacy that was just right for a warm afternoon.

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I’ll even confess that I also stopped into La Monarca bakery for a couple of their amazing guava taquitos… but I took them home – really.

A quick walk down Pacific Avenue showed me that there’s lots to explore in Huntington Park, and I know I’ll be back soon.

Lotería Grill – Los Tres Cochinitos Tacos

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I don’t tend to think of the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica as a hotbed of great Mexican food, but on my first day off in recent memory, I was drawn back to Lotería Grill. I couldn’t resist the Three Little Pigs tacos – perfectly cooked carnitas with bacon, topped with chicharrón, served on rich, heavy tortillas… and a dash of their signature Morita salsa for good measure.

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I always ask what the daily agua fresca is, and was delighted to learn it was guava and mango.

A tasty light meal well worth the trip.

La Monarca Bakery – Santa Monica

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When I stopped in at La Monarca for a couple of my favorite pastries in all of Los Angeles, the taquitos with guava and cheese filling, I realized that I need to share this delightful cafe and bakery with my friends and others who enjoy authentic Mexican pastries.

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La Monarca has several locations around L.A., but the one I go to is at the corner of Wilshire and Euclid in Santa Monica… not a neighborhood known for its Mexican cuisine. The pastries are always wonderfully fresh – I’m so obsessed with the guava taquitos that I haven’t yet tried all of the varieties, but I can strongly recommend the conchas, wedding cookies and café de olla.

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It’s a friendly place with a warm atmosphere and great coffee. I stop in whenever I’m in the neighborhood… In fact I think La Monarca is the reason I never changed my dry cleaner on Euclid Street when I moved away from Santa Monica a few months ago.

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

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La Casita Mexicana – Pescado Veracruzano

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Whenever I see a list of the 10 best Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles, La Casita Mexicana is always included. I remembered a nice meal I had there with friends a few years ago, but I was way overdue for a return visit. Located in the town of Bell, basically south of East L.A., I had to set the GPS to find it, but it was easier to find than I expected. The restaurant has doubled in size since the last time I was there, and is now a comfortable, colorful and bright room. Having seen many restaurants fail when they take over the space next door, I was delighted to see that it was filled with happy diners.

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The menu is large and wonderfully varied, and I had seafood in mind. After a conversation with my friendly, helpful waiter, I settled on the Pescado Veracruzano – fish Veracruz style. When I visited Veracruz a few years ago, I had the best seafood of my life. It didn’t seem to matter where I went – the seafood was magnificent. One dish that stood out, of course, was the Pescado Veracruzano. It’s usually a nice piece of soft-flesh fish steamed in foil with a combination of tomato, green olives, capers, chiles and some ingredients still mysterious to me. La Casita Mexicana’s version arrives without the foil wrap, but beautifully presented on a rectangular plate. It had all the rich and complex flavors I was hoping for, and the generously portioned fish was perfectly cooked. I could not have been happier.

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The fish was the star of the show, but they also got the other details right. As I looked at the menu, I was served chips with both mole poblano and red pipián sauce. (The mole poblano is a good enough reason in itself to make the trip) The sopa de rajas was an unexpected starter treat, and I was delighted with the lemonade sprinkled with chia seeds – a first-time experience for me.

Mary, the manager, went out of her way to make me feel at home, and I was already making plans to return, as I was walking out the door.

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