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Mexican L.A. for Serious / Old Line Chowhounds

One of our Boston based CHers e-mailed me about recs for Authentic Mexican in L.A. I was going to email back... but instead I had the idea for a thread that could live on in posterity.

Now, as some of you might know I am a few years removed from L.A., and I have never deluded myself into thinking that I ever knew everything there was to know about L.A's Mexican gastronomic scene. As such I would greatly appreciate if the heavy weights can join me on this thread... I am thinking of the Dommy & Kare_Raisu of the boards who really know what they are talking about. I only had a few hours sleep last night, so I apologize to the other heavyweights (I think you know who you are) who I am forgetting.

Now at the risk, well actually the certainty, of coming across as an annoying Phallus, I would like to set some parameters as to who is or isn't a heavyweight on said topic.

> If you go around ordering an Asada, Pastor & Carnitas taco from every Mexican restaurant as your gauge... you are NOT a heavyweight.

> If you know that L.A. is inundated by passable, but unremarkable versions of Asada, Pastor & Carnitas... that would be laughed right out of Tijuana's residential neighborhoods then you ARE a heavyweight.

> If you think highly of Pepe's Tacos, Tito's Tacos, El Cholo or any such other slop & glob, defecation on a plate type eatery than you are NOT a heavyweight.

> If you think too highly of the mediocre Foodie paradises like Loteria Grill & La Super Rica than you are NOT a heavyweight. However, if you summarily dismiss them & their style of food as "Not The Real Stuff Esse" than you are NOT a heavyweight either. Both places are largely authentic... quality is just not going to take anyone in Mexico by storm.

> If you look forward to Pozole made from dried corn (can actually tell the difference) and always fight for the Cheeks & Neck Bones than you ARE a heavyweight.

> If you have ordered any 5 of the following in a Mexican restaurant then you ARE a heavyweight:

Goat
Lamb
Whole Fish
Rabbit
Octopus
Huitlacoche
Flor de Calabaza
Nopales
Calabacitas
Romeritos
Huazontles
Chaya
Fava Beans
Chiles Tatemados / Asados

Okay... heavyweight standards identified.... please join my in recommending that best of Mexican L.A. in all its variety. While I may be a hardass Mexican snob... its okay to recommend a little bit of Tex/Cal Mex but only if it is truly outstanding & compelling. Always using Mexico as a baseline... if people in Mexico's interior would stand in line, to wait for it... then it must be outstanding & chow worthy.

I have to run now... but will be chiming in periodically with my personal recommendations.. and hope that others will as well.

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  1. Whew, quite a criteria. I definitely am not a 'heavyweight' but I've sorta given up on L.A. mexican food and will wait to go to mexico to have really good food. I prefer the usual in San Francisco over L.A. I order the usual carnitas, asadas, etc... cause I don't find their other dishes very good. If anyone can recommend a truly truly rich mexican cuisine with no compromise, I'd try it. I like Oaxcan but still limited, want to go to Oaxca to eat really well.

    1. Chichen Itza and Babita would be my recs.

      11 Replies
      1. re: ipsedixit

        Thanks...please provide some specific dishes & your usual passion & knowledge!

        1. re: ipsedixit

          .

          -----
          Babita
          1823 S San Gabriel Blvd, San Gabriel, CA 91776

          Chichen Itza
          2501 W 6th St, Los Angeles, CA 90057

          1. re: ipsedixit

            How I love Babita and Chichen Itza... lemme count the ways... Having had amazing fine dining experiences in both DF and Merida, both of these restaurants are as close as you can get in L.A. IMHO. Not a place for the squincles to run around but a place of true buen provecho.

            Babita is THE place to have Chiles en Nogada in town. I've tried them all, Babita has some how mastered that edge of sweet and savory, cream and heat (which is actually the hardest thing to master). They also have a Lamb shank that I thought would be too much, but is cooked to such a degree that it's almost like meat candy.

            Finally, don't forget the soups... I've never been wowed by any of their apps, but their soups are refined yet earthy... as true Mexican Cuisine should be.

            --Dommy!

            1. re: Dommy

              I had a chance to visit Chichen Itza's sit down place recently and wrote a pretty detailed write up here...

              http://www.chowhound.com/topics/538745

              In Summary, CI has stepped up the plate with Babita. In fact, I give them more credit. Babita still serves a lot of the familiar... enchiladas, beans and rice on each plate... CI dares you to have a big slab of cheese for dinner. Forget the rice and beans... have a Jicama salad instead!! They try... I KNOW they do... everything from fishing sour oranges from a neighbors tree just to have the RIGHT flavor... They took risks (Mexicans cook Venison? Turkey Tacos? Squid Ink Sauce?!) and I'm so glad its paying off for them!

              --Dommy!

              1. re: Dommy

                "Babita still serves a lot of the familiar... enchiladas, beans and rice on each plate... CI dares you to have a big slab of cheese for dinner. Forget the rice and beans... have a Jicama salad instead!!"

                Rice & Beans... that is the major problem with Babita... it violates the whole balance of Mexican cuisine... very few dishes in Mexico are traditionally served with Rice & Beans... you might get both in a meal but not on the same course... or is just D.F. that is that way?

                1. re: Eat_Nopal

                  No! Rice and Beans are NOT a given in every mexican meal... When you are LUCKY enough to have a dinner with meat or of a seasonal vegetable then you DON'T want to fill up with Rice and Beans which what you'd probably make up the CORE of all the other meals of your year.

                  I think because Babita does not have a side dish menu (CI does) and as I mentioned, they aren't brave enough to counter customer's complaints about "Where's the rice and beans" (Something I've heard more than ONCE at CI! :P) Plus, his crew spends a LOT of time frying those little tortilla bowls up... I think he also just might be attached to them... LOL!!

                  1. re: Dommy

                    "Plus, his crew spends a LOT of time frying those little tortilla bowls up... I think he also just might be attached to them... LOL!!"

                    Oh yeah.... those. Nothing smacks more of crappy tourist trap restaurants in Mexico than the refried bean bowls made of fried tortillas! Gawd... I think we might have all cut Babita way too much slack given the dearth of Mexican at the higher end.

                    Can you imagine Rice & Beans in little "corn bowls" at Izote, Aguila o Sol... or even the king of haute kitch Hacienda de los Morales?

                    1. re: Dommy

                      "I think because Babita does not have a side dish menu (CI does) and as I mentioned, they aren't brave enough to counter customer's complaints about "Where's the rice and beans" (Something I've heard more than ONCE at CI! :P)"

                      Yup this goes right back to StreetgourmetLA's "complications" and the reason why I am a hard ass on these boards. Get this... my wife did an internship at a hospital a few years back... and one of the Mexican employees there kept trying to talk her into taking me to Tito's because that was "Real Mexican"... he was not amused when I let the axe fall. In fact, he accussed of not being a Real Mexican... thank fully I learned how to insult people in Nahuatl... finally came in handy.

                    2. re: Eat_Nopal

                      The worst affront has to be refritos with seafood.Madre de Dios! Which brings me to your Valley report.There are Mexican restaurants I will go to in the Valley, like Maricos Colima, and even recommend them to friends, but I would not include them on a list of the finest examples of Mexican cuisine here in LA.

                      The Valley is better for Thai,Peruvian, Argentine, El Salvadorean,Armenian, Persian, and many others, but the offerings for authentic Mexican are poor.

                      There are great places for pollos rostizados, mariscos, and antojitos, but all fall short.The seafood places will put beans next to shrimp, the quality of seafood will be average, and the menus will be overloaded with fluff.If you frequent these places and know what to order you will be OK and can have a good time, but that's it.The rest of the places are not serious restaurants with beans and rice everywhere.We also don't have many places for birria, cemitas, or other foods that are more common in East Los.There are also decent taco places here in the Valley, none of which interest me in the slightest.

                      So,there you go,rotisserie chicken, tacos, and campechanas, which are not serious gastronomy.

                      Well, I love the choices I have here in the Valley for multi-cultural dining, but I have to leave for authentic Mexican.East LA, Huntinton Park, etc., or my beloved Baja which is just 2 hours away, w/o traffic.

                  2. re: Dommy

                    "They also have a Lamb shank that I thought would be too much, but is cooked to such a degree that it's almost like meat candy."

                    I believe you are referring to the Lamb Mixiote... my favorite of the regular menu items... but those really speak to my Anahuac Valley soul. There is one dish that surpasses it.... the Rabbit Mixiote (off menu).

                    Also, its not a Mexican meal without a soup, right?

                    1. re: Eat_Nopal

                      Yup!! I'm not a fan of lamb... but its dishes like this that make me question my own tastes sometimes... LOL!!

                      --Dommy!

                2. Numero uno on my humble list is La Flor de Yucatan Bakery where you can buy primo Yucatan chow on the weekends. 99% take out but I usually scarf down Cochinita Pibil Tacos, Tamales (fine/strained masa wrapped in a banana leaf), Salbutes, Hojaldra, best 3-Leches Cake period and more while chatting with the owner Mark. Oh yea, I forgot to mention the fresh Green Habanero Salsa - a taste of heaven that has a burn from hell!

                  http://www.laflordeyucatan.net/

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: sel

                    I agree with you 100% sel. If there is any restaurant that made me change the way I think or feel about regional Mexican cuisine in LA, Flor de Yucatan is it.

                    The food here is -in a way- hinge less, it doesn't have to buy into the idea of a restaurants expected arsenal and doesn't taste like the result of tired systematic cooking of the same dish multitudes of times.

                    But even beyond that [its uniqueness in la] you have this feeling that the level of food here could survive in the Yucatan, alongside engulfing competition. It is by no means a cop out Yucatan 'lite/'

                    I owe a lot to this restaurant for its role in tindering the fire of passion for Mexican cuisine in me.

                    1. re: sel

                      ..

                      -----
                      La Flor De Yucatan
                      1800 S. Hoover Street, Los Angeles, CA 90006

                      1. re: sel

                        They also have the best Yucatecan Kibis in town!!! Once upon a time I thought I was the only Yucatecan Girl out there... but Flor de Yucatan was a always like a second home not only for their pastries and cooked items, but also because they carried grocery items from Yucatan... including my beloved Charritos

                        http://www.qpmcreative.com/img/portaf...

                        --Dommy!

                        1. re: Dommy

                          They also have the best Yucatecan Kibis in town!!!

                          Does anybody else have them? Also, you would be shocked but in the early 80's there was no less than a dozen, very well known & liked Yucatecan restaurants in town. They rose in popularity with Michael's "California Cuisine" (as you can imagine things like Poc Chuc & Tikin Xic were popular as "ethnic versions" of the light, minimalist cuisine that came in to vogue at that time).

                          1. re: Eat_Nopal

                            CI has them... that is all I'll say about that... ;)

                            I've also had them at lots of Lebanese places. There is only one that made it truly exceptional lebanese style (Open Sesame in Long Beanch) the rest pale to Flor...

                            --Dommy!

                      2. I don't know if I'm a heavyweight. You can judge that for yourself.

                        However -- I will say that the mole blanco at La Huasteca is worth the trip, as is anything in pipian rojo. Quesadilla de rajas (yes, I know that's a snack, shush) at La Cabanita in Montrose, and (surprisingly) their enmoladas are excellent, particularly since they're not a Oaxacan restaurant.

                        Babita has excellent food -- is it alta cocina the way they have it in Mexico City? No. But noplace in LA does, sadly. I love their panuchos (I know Dommy! disagrees) and the beef cheeks are in the top 10% of beef cheeks I've ever eaten (and I love -- LOVE -- beef cheeks).

                        I'm just going to come right out and say it -- though La Serenata de Garibaldi (Boyle Heights branch only, please) is derided by some, I can't get enough of the huachinango con huitlacoche (say THAT ten times fast). And though I don't dine there often, both times they had an octopus rice dish ("like risotto", said the waiter) that sounded tempting, except, you know, I needed my huitlacoche.

                        Whole fish is not hard to find -- what is hard to find is whole fish that is not mojarra. I mean, come on, how many damn fish get taken out of the oceans and all we ever find is mojarra frita with sauces that range from awful to just OK.

                        Also, again, I know that you are not looking for tacos, and you are emphatically not looking for chain tacos -- but the one thing worth the trip to Taco Mesa (yes, I know, hush!!) is the taco alambre -- it's just outstanding. Two of those and whatever agua piques your fancy from the offerings of the day, and you've got lunch.

                        I wish we had a place like Dos Caminos in LA -- while it's not traditional Mexican, it's got that funky take on Mexican that's common in the larger cities (for some reason, it reminds me of a place I've forgotten the name of in Guadalajara).

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: Das Ubergeek

                          Thanks DU.... does Dos Caminos remind you of Santo Coyote perhaps? I personally did not think its particularly good... I find all the Manhattan quasi upscale Mexican places generally lacking substantially in execution & ingredients (Rosa Mexican, Ixta, Dos Caminos etc.,).

                          Good contributions and thanks for the specifics.

                          Regarding Mojarra... it annoys the hell out of me... because they aren't even "Real" Mojarras... same old frozen Nile Tilapias... I guess eateries serve them up because they are cheap & easy to source.

                          1. re: Das Ubergeek

                            ...

                            -----
                            La Huasteca
                            3150 E Imperial Hwy, Lynwood, CA 90262

                            La Serenata De Garibaldi
                            1842 E 1st St, Los Angeles, CA 90033

                            1. re: Eat_Nopal

                              It gets me SOOOO mad when I think that there aren't more restaurants like La Huasteca!! It's wonderfully approachable, well priced and truly Mexican. Their fish dishes are wonderful! One of my FAVORITE Huitlacoche dishes in town is here... Plus a full bar with a REAL margarita...

                              --Dommy!

                          2. Tito's Tacos & Tacomiendo are the reason I started posting on Chowhound. I had just moved to Mar Vista... after a couple of weeks of reconnaissance I noticed the long lines at Tito's. So I braved the wait for their Taco Bell brand of mystery meat insult to Mexican gastronomy... needless to say it was a huge disappointment. I then started "flaming" Tito's on the City Guide type sites... however, the lines only got longer... so I tried a different tact... why not promote the "real" places in Mar Vista?

                            I intended to plug Tacomiendo - which I discovered even before moving to that neighborhood. Driving around... all I needed was to see the name <a clever wordplay> to know there was something good there - in those websites... however, there was no listing! The only reference I could google was someone bad mouthing the tacos on some cryptic message board with a "Craig's List level look & feel" called Chowhound.

                            As far as I am aware.. Tacomiendo is not exactly a board favorite. A perfect example of why one should ignore the noise from the lightweights (how many times have I seen some poor misguided soul discount Tacomiendo because the Carne Asada burrito wasn't as good as X.... Oaxacans don't know how to make burritos... so tell me something new dumb donkey!).

                            One of the challenges we have that constrain the development of Mexican cuisine in L.A. is that most Americans (including Xth generation Mexican-Americans) tend to stereotype & pigeon hole it.. to a very narrow interpretation... it has to be colorful, bold & cheap. Anything that doesn't fit that box is dismissed... really for no good reason other than the lightweights can't see beyond the blinders.

                            Tacomiendo is generally solid all around but the real reason to go here are the following:

                            House Salad

                            > It bugs me to no end that North of the Border Mexican's salad tradition is so lame. People in Mexico eat salads... they eat many salads. Often they are rustic & simple as sliced tomatoes, avocados & salt.... other times they are baroque & elaborate such as the Guanajuato style Fiambres with Sliced Tongue, Pickled Chicken, Pork Head Cheese, Various Fruits, Tomatoes, Avocados, Charred Chiles etc., in an herbal vinaigrette. Usually, they don't follow the U.S. box of Lettuce / Greens, Dressing or Vinagrette, Fancy Additions. But in any case... they are present almost every day in the Comida and very important to Mexican cuisine.

                            Tacomiendo's House Salad is typical of Valle de Oaxaca with shredded Romaine (although in Mexico the orejona lettuces are more like a cross between Butter & Romaine lettuces), Sliced Cucumbers, Shredded Carrots & a "dressing" made from fresh cucumber juice, lime juice & basil (no oil or vinegar). Its not complex, its not bold, it is subtle, it is refreshing, it is remarkably full flavored, it is very Mexican.

                            > Chile Relleno (Side Order). No they aren't always made from scratch to order, and no the Chile isn't always perfect (sometimes the batter is too thick)... but my gawd.. that Tomato-Epazote caldillo its served with complementing the perfectly roasted & peeled Poblano, and that Queso Fresco etc.,. As a regular they would provide me heads up about which day they were making a fresh batch so I would get mine prepared from scratch to order... and it was glorious... a serious candidate for best Mexican dish in the city. Not, make sure to let them know what you are doing... ask for a Side Order, no Chips, extra sauce.

                            > Escabeche... unfortunately they only offer Jalapenos, Carrots, Onions & Garlic at Tacomiendo because their pickled veggies are absolutely outstanding. I always eat a cup or so while waiting for the meal. There was a time I would eat so often there (it was walking distance from my apartment) that my hands were visibly orange from all the Beta Carotene I was consuming.

                            > Carnitas... the Carnitas here are no where in the same league as Cinco Puntos or Carnitas Uruapan (during its heydey) but I recommend them because they are a rare example of Oaxacan style Carnitas with their faint Cloves & Cinammon aroma. And they are good. Incidently, the greatest example of Oaxacan carnitas in L.A. was at the Venice obscure fine dining gem 5 Dudley (RIP)... the Sous Chef was from Oaxaca and they would do a 10 oz pork leg "filet" Carnitas served with guacamole as a recurring daily special (and off menu dish for those in the know)... that was just oustanding.. definitely a serious candidate for best red meat dish in the city (this was back around 2003 / 2004).

                            > Apple Lemonade (I forget the official name). The westside is light on fruiteria / jugeria places... Tacomiendo was one of the first... and they do a very credible job... the Fresh squeezed Lemonade with whole Apples is outstanding, as is the juice with Beets, Orange, Ginger etc., (RST wrote a great report of Chicago's offerings on this thread: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/53302...

                            )

                            I have had a number of great dishes from the Daily Specials as well... Oxtail & Vegetable Soup, Enmoladas, Lenten Dishes like Romeritos or Dried Shrimp Fritters etc.,

                            To Be Continued Tomorrow

                            6 Replies
                            1. re: Eat_Nopal

                              Thank you for your informative post. I'd given up on eating good south of border foods in L.A. after moving here from NoCal thinking I'd get incredible mexican and south american food. I was extemely disappointed after trying few places but now I will try yours and others' recommendations.

                              1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                x

                                -----
                                Tacomiendo
                                11462 Gateway Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90064

                                1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                  I am a certified white-boy lightweight, perhaps a featherweight, but even with my limited appreciation of Mexican-for-Mexicans I knew something wonderful was going on at Tacomiendo -- from the first bite...and the first bite was that Escabeche. I like the Caldo Pescada as well.

                                  Keep this thread going and PLEASE feel free to comment on my current Map Of the Mexican Stars Homes -- Erik M.'s recent rundown of Cemitas, Mariscos and others.
                                  http://www.chowhound.com/topics/529261

                                  1. re: Ciao Bob

                                    "I knew something wonderful was going on at Tacomiendo -- from the first bite...and the first bite was that Escabeche."

                                    You have good taste my friend. Wow Erik's thread is impressive... I would be honored if he could chime in. Also, how do I see your Mapa de las Estrellas?

                                  2. re: Eat_Nopal

                                    ITA about those carnitas!! The thing I really love about Tacomiendo is that they truly cook from SCRATCH. People think that if they go to a mexican restaurant/taco truck that they will get 'fresh' cooking... WRONG... you'd be surprised at how many use Boil In Bag Rice, Dehydrated Beans and Canned Tomatoes. I once went to a taco truck that had their carnitas in the fridge and just reheated them on the griddle (I had already ordered when I saw her do this!!!)

                                    Anyway, I also have to add a shout out for their fresh frijoles de olla they have in a soup kettle in the dining room. Creamy and full of onion and herbal favors. If I was evil... I would just ask for a bowl of rice and them POUR those beans over them and that would be my meal... But I'm nice and will probably also order a couple of flautas too... :)

                                    --Dommy!

                                    1. re: Dommy

                                      As I promulgate the side order of Chile Relleno.... I must mention that I always serve my self some Frijoles de la Olla after I have eaten the Chile so that I have something to sop up the sauce, with my tortillas.