I’ve long been an admirer of Yucatan cuisine, but lately I’ve become a bonafide devotee, sniffing for hints of cochinita pork and banana leaves as I drive the 57, the 60, the 110 or the 405. The sweet aroma is strongest on South Hoover Street and South Grand Avenue.
My early education began in the early ’90s when Barb and I visited her sister Joan, who, having deferred medical school, was living in Playa del Carmen selling jewelry. She learned how to sculpt silver from craftsmen in Quito, Colombia, and then, because hers had a distinct Greek-mytho-meso-American style, she followed ‘the gringo trail’, ending up in the Yucatan. Our objective in meeting her was two-fold: hang out near the glorious beaches and explore Mayan pyramids. We rented an old blood red VW bug and, with a Berkeley Mexican Travel book as our guide, traipsed across Quintana Roo and The Yucatan. We were more interested in the half-excavated ruins–Coba and Mayapan– than Chichen Itza. We were on a Road to Ruins as, I believe, The Ramones called it.
When we got to Merida, the capital, the ethnocentric attitudes I didn’t think I had emerged then dissolved. Merida was a rather bustling, sophisticated city with a beautiful church and public square, bookstores, coffee shops and interesting cuisine. I don’t remember that much about the food except everywhere we saw pibil-this and pibil-that. We tried it; it was tasty–but what was it?
Flash forward to 10 years ago when Loteria Grill’s pork pibil and cactus tacos began luring us away from Redondo to the Fairfax Farmer’s Market. Yum.
Two or three years ago the head chef from Copenhagen’s numero-uno-in-the-world Noma came to Merida and raved. Word has it he is still hiding out in the Mayan jungle.
Delicious Yucatan cooking is all over L.A., but L.A., as you know, is a jungle, so bring your machete. Time to mention three important destinations.
Chichen Itza, near the USC campus (well, on the other side of the 110) in the cute and tidy Mercado La Paloma should be your first stop. The lines are usually long for authentic Yucatan dishes. The cochinita pibil tacos are killer. Pibil refers to a pib or round clay oven where pork is slow cooked in banana leaves. The leaves impart sweetness. A touch of sliced pink and pickled onions on top is the perfect touch. While you’ll find pibil tacos on many pan-Mexican menus nowadays, if you haven’t had one yet, start here. However, no one else seems to make panuchos — bean infused tortillas with avocado, pepper and a tomato on the meat– like they do, and I am gravitating more and more to these.
Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen in Orange, in the trendy Orange Circle, behind Chapman University is the most upscale, gourmet taco restaurant I’ve ever been to. The prices on the menu scared us and we almost backed out, but we were hungry, and the midwestern let’s-not-embarrass-us/them-by-walking-out gene took over. Besides, Louis hyper-extended his back a few minutes earlier in his soccer tournament and the seats were comfortable.
So glad we stayed. This is not authentic regional cuisine, but modern in that it understands the region and then attempts to improve it. Not exactly PoMo in the Roy Choi way, but experimental, nuanced, artistic and scientific. My tacos had squash blossoms — take that Nancy Silverton! These were the calabasa y rajas/blue corn-huitlacoche tortillas — the first ones on the taco menu, three for 15 bucks. What an explosion of taste, and vegetarian at that with grilled summer squash, corn, rajas, panela cheese, avocado relish and salsa arbol. Just get that–now while it is in season. Go for your birthday.
Back in Los Angeles just north of the 10 on Hoover sits a corner bakery, a little bit campy, a little bit homey, a lotta bit delicious. It’s La Flor de Yucatan. The neighbors come in the morning for the pastries. I came mid-morning for the tacos and they weren’t quite ready for lunch. Still they made me comfortable and gave me some pastries on the house to ease my wait. The coconut and candied yam-filled concoction put me in the right mood.
Here they often put turkey in their tacos just like in the Yucatan –actually, originally the Mayans put deer meat, or venison, in their tacos. I had the relleno negro taco; they were out of turkey and used chicken for me. The meat looks black because they char the chili peppers, grind it and achiote seeds into a paste and add other spices. Black and juicy and terrific. I also had a pumpkin seed enchilada-like creation called Papadzules. This is one pretty dish and the pumpkin cream sauce is interesting — not quite zesty enough for my taste — the crumbled hard boiled egg filling is most unusual but a little on the pasty and bland side. I’d stick with the tacos and the pastries.
I got a kick out of their Chak Mool logo on the storefront. Back in the ’90s, when Barb, Joan and I finally made it to Chichen Itza — the ruins not the restaurant — we were hounded by kids selling clay Chak Mools, the Mayan Rain God, reclining and receiving a heart offering. I, of course, the King of Kitsch, bought one. Here the irony is double: there’s no rain in L.A., and in place of the heart is a birthday cake. Clever, huh?
But I also noticed across the street an immaculately rendered house-as-shrine with white Christian lawn ornaments. Call it Chak Mool Modern. Beside that house, a beautifully painted yellow house with black trim rested, and I couldn’t resist parking my yellow and black mini-cooper in front for a picture.
This is my last outing, my last pilgrimage with my iconic 2005 Mini Cooper S, a car that also matches my high school’s colors. On Saturday I’m trading it for a blue Honda Fit. It’s been a good 10-year run.
Time for you to make your pilgrimage to Yucatan. There’s more to it than just Cancun.