REVIEW: Yxta Cocina Mexicana, Downtown
I meant to go to Mariscos Chente tonight, but going from Burbank to Anaheim via Mar Vista at 17.30 was simply not in the cards. I headed downtown, figuring I'd see about Moles La Tia, and then I thought, "Hm, I keep hearing the name Yxta, let's get the address and see what it looks like -- if it's not open yet, I'll go to Moles La Tia."
Yxta Cocina Mexicana ("EEKS-tah") is the new restaurant being opened by the folks who own El Arco Iris in the Garvanza section of LA ("where's that?" "between South Pasadena and Eagle Rock." "oh!"). It's more upscale and has a more interesting menu than its parent.
Let's start with the location -- a bleak corner in east downtown, away from the newly-gentrifying lofts, across the street from a Metro bus depot and six blocks from the Greyhound station (which anyone who's ever taken the bus can tell you is not exactly prime real estate). The southwestern corner of Sixth and Central is an ugly strip mall with the usual assortment of cell phone store, sandwich shop, money transfer place and an oddly-shaped (but ample) parking lot. Yxta itself is surrounded by a wall (who wants to look at the streetscape??) so it was a little hard to tell if it was actually open.
I couldn't decide... either the owners are prescient (and the area will take off) or insane. I mean, this is only a few blocks from Little Tokyo but it might as well be another world. There is not a SHRED of Japanese writing anywhere; the only people on the street were Metro employees waiting for a bus and a raving homeless man who told me (through my car window) that President Obama asked him to be part of his health insurance team.
Frankly, if you plunked me down there and unblindfolded me I wouldn't be able to tell you if it was east downtown, Vernon, Harbor City or Sun Valley, it's so warehousey and industrial. I honestly have never set foot in that part of LA except to drop someone off at the Greyhound terminal.
Nevertheless, the space is really very nicely done. It's got a little bit of urban grittiness to it (the block windows, for example) but nice, blue decor with squashy, comfortable, modern yellow seats. There's a bar (a full bar) and an open kitchen, a big tall bar-type table with 14 chairs for a larger party and high ceilings that will help with the noise when they're busy (and they will be busy at some point).
It wasn't, however, busy when I went in. Two parties already seated at 18.00, both sort of urban-bohemian looking (did I miss a memo? when did it become obligatory to have tattoos down one forearm?) people, and an LA City employee off the clock having a drink at the bar.
The first server at the table was a young guy who clearly didn't know what to make of me -- business casual, obviously not Mexican, asking what was the best. He brought me a beer, a basket of chips (thin and salty) and two ramekinlets of salsa -- one salsa cruda (excellent, tart, not overwhelmingly spicy) and one what I think was guajillo (slightly oily, rich, with a slow back-of-the-throat burn) and recommended food, and then a young woman with a British-type accent came over. Hey, this is LA, it is perfectly possible to have a British server in a Mexican restaurant. She was much more forthcoming with recommendations and let me know that the fish special was mahi-mahi in hoja santa with cilantro-lime rice.
So I ordered two happy-hour specials (squash blossoms and tacos al pastor) and the fish special. I don't know -- I figure if something is being flogged by the waitstaff, it's probably either good (most days) or desperate to move (Sunday nights and Mondays). Today's Wednesday, I figured it was fine.
The squash blossoms arrived first and were stuffed with Oaxaca cheese. They were good, but they needed something -- a sauce or a relish or something. With a little of the salsa cruda for the chips, they perked right up -- just what it needed.
The tacos al pastor -- a happy hour portion (until 19.00 weekdays) is two, the menu portion is apparently three -- arrived. Pork in chile sauce, grilled pineapple, a little fresh red onion, cilantro, handmade tortillas, a small slab of fresh pineapple on top.
A bite... another bite to convince the brain that the first bite was not a hallucination... a couple more bites to ensure scientific method is followed and... damn, I've finished it. It was astounding. It was INCREDIBLE. It was juicy it was spicy it was sweet it was tangy it was sharp it was JUST ABSOLUTELY PERFECT AND I NEED ANOTHER ONE STAT! I debated cancelling the fish in favour of another set of those things.
I'm telling you, those tacos were the VERY best tacos al pastor tacos I've had in LA -- and I've eaten a lot of tacos al pastor in my ten years in SoCal. It didn't matter that I didn't see the trompo, it didn't matter at all.
Pork, chile, cilantro, onions, pineapple and crack. It has to be, there's no other explanation for it whatsoever.
The fish arrived -- a hefty six-ounce portion bathed in a chunky tomato-chile sauce. The fish was moist and really well cooked, with the flavour of hoja santa (which is just this herbal-anisey-minty-peppery indescribable taste you have to experience for yourself). The problem was that the sauce was very salty and it killed the taste until I scraped it off. The fish would have been fine with just a little of the sauce, or even a simple relish on top. Still, not many places cook with hoja santa and with a little tweaking it will be very good. The rice was good, though I'm not sure why the cilantro was crunchy (fried, maybe?). The delicate flavour was covered by the runoff from the sauce on the fish, which meant it was hard to get a bite of just rice to see what it actually tasted like.
The fish took a while to arrive, but I was kept apprised of its progress by the waitstaff. They were really apologetic -- it probably took 20 minutes for the fish to come, but I don't think that's unreasonable and wasn't even thinking about complaining.
Nevertheless, they apologised again and offered a pineapple flan on the house.
First of all, I have to tell you, that flan was HUGE. An inch-plus thick and at least six inches across. Even had I not been eating a large meal I don't think I could have put it away. It was El Cerro Custardoso on a huge plate; had it been any larger there would have been tiny humanoids worshipping round it (note to self: movie reference FAIL).
It was a very thick flan, almost cheesey-tasting. Some people love that and some people prefer thinner, lighter flan. I really liked it myself -- the taste was good, not overwhelmingly pineapply, but the sauce on top was pineapple-flavoured so that I could control my own level of pineapple commitment. I'd have liked a little more sauce but I'm a big fan of flans so wet they'd better be called iles flottantes, so take my word with a grain of salt. There were two batonnets (am I allowed to use French cooking terms to describe Mexican food?) of fresh pineapple on top, which gave a nice perk to it and helped to cut through the creaminess. I still like the flan at the Westside La Serenata Gourmet better, but not enough to actually suffer through a meal at the Westside La Serenata Gourmet.
Price was $41 for two appetizers, a fish special and two beers plus the increasingly-painful LA County sales tax.
On the way out, I stopped at another table. "Try the al pastor. It's incredible," I said. They gave me appreciative smiles -- or perhaps they were "smile at the nice mad fat man so he'll go away and let us eat in peace" smiles, I'm not sure which.
It's definitely promising. They've been open only two weeks but the service was good, the kitchen turned out good things, the prices are reasonable. The location is unlovely but central -- it's three minutes of avoiding-the-pedestrians slalom from the office towers of Bunker Hill, an easy detour from the 101, 5, 10 or 60, and a nice easy "GOD I HATE THE TRAFFIC I NEED TO STOP FOR A WHILE" for commuters. A lighter hand with the salt and a little better garnishing of the food and we'll have a winner up there with La Casita.
Meanwhile, I think I'm going to try and swing by for lunch tomorrow on my way from Woodland Hills back to OC and convince myself to eat something BESIDES those tacos al pastor...
P.S. As of this writing, the website (http://www.yxta.net) is completely useless.
Yxta Cocina Mexicana
601 S Central Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90021
Damn, I'm glad someone besides me liked this place, and perhaps gladder it was DU, whose taste I generally trust. I recall that one or two things we were eating reacted well to a bump from the table salsas, so maybe one should just plan for that, and why not? We haven't been back there yet, but if we can come up with a good excuse we probably will.
HOLY s^&t - went for brunch on sunday and was thoroughly impressed. we had the machaca tacos and the sopes (both from the brunch menu). this place is fantastic and i can't wait to return.
--machaca tacos were delicious - super juicy shredded and chopped beef with rich, smoky flavor. and those tortillas! comes with a side of frijoles de olla (stewed pintos - "pot beans").
--the two sopes (i forget what they call them on the menu) were topped with frijoles de olla, salsa verde and an egg. the masa was a bit doughy for my taste but the flavor of the rest of the dish was phenomenal - well balanced and quite spicy. this would be a great hangover dish.
--bloody mary was pretty good. a little too acidic but nice and spicy and it didn't taste like V8.
--at the moment (yxta has not had a formal grand opening yet) this is the perfect brunch spot for someone like me who hates to wait in line for brunch. huge parking lot and plenty of seating.
PS Ubergeek, your waitress was Australian. She had heard about your post and was thoroughly amused by the suggestion (but not surprised) that she was British.
Great review! I don't know how you managed to miss the memo about the tattoos. They have margaritas, right? If so, perhaps there will finally be someplace (besides the fairly new Loteria) that manages to have good food and margaritas. Will definitely try the al pastor.
Nice report, DU. That is actually a fairly popular stretch for lunch for the adventurous downtowner, with Fisherman's Outlet just a half-block to the north. And there is a cafe, which a Google search finds is operating under the name L.A. Best, apparently right next door. The only problem at noontime is going to be parking -- that lot has been crowded and difficult for years.