Photo by Anne Fishbein
Other restaurants may be more ambitious, but La Abeja, from the green-sauced enchilada plates to the soft tacos of stewed tongue, tastes like Los Angeles. The chips are warm and oddly heavy; the oily, brick-red salsa is profound. And La Abeja’s carne adobada is just magnificent, thin sheets of marinated pork dyed bright orange with chile paste, crisp as pastry and burnt black at the edges, meat juices concentrated, caramelized into a semigloss sheen that keeps the pork moist even as it kisses it with the vivid taste of the grill. Some carne adobada is wet, sloppy stuff, more about the complexity of spicing than about the forceful flavor of meat. This adobada is primal — cowboy food, almost too intense to eat without folding it first into a tortilla with a spoonful of beans. 3700 N. Figueroa St.; (323) 221-0474. Open Wed.–Mon. Lunch for two, food only, $8–$13. No alcohol. Cash only.
The menu here, vaguely Mexico City–cosmopolitan, is loaded with things such as entomatadas and mole de olla, which turn out to be basically chicken enchiladas and a slightly spicy beef soup, respectively, but which sound ineffably chefly and exotic. The tacos, made with freshly made corn tortillas, are stuffed with sweetly spiced beef picadillo studded with almonds and raisins; with dryish fried pork; with chopped beef and melted cheese. They’re terrific. Terrific too is the musky, complex green mole, alive with a dozen unfamiliar pounded barks and seeds; a soothing chicken soup; delicious, long-cooked pork chops smothered soul-food style in a smoky pasilla gravy; roasted poblano chiles stuffed with a sweet, intricately spiced chicken forcemeat. Somebody has obviously thought about this stuff. 3447 N. Verdugo Road, Glendale; (818) 957-2711. Open daily 10 a.m.–10 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $12–$15. Beer and wine. Takeout. MC, V.
La Fonda Antioqueña
If the waiter likes you, he may persuade you to order his favorite Colombian soda pop, Manzana, which tastes a little like fresh apples. If you don’t understand something, he’ll pull out a Xeroxed crib sheet explaining that san cocho is oxtail stew, and that bandeja is a traditional Colombian cowboy’s platter of broiled steak, rice and arepa, topped with a fried egg and a strip of fried pig’s hide, which the crib sheet calls “bacon (Colombian Style).” He’ll insist that you order the small fried turnovers, empanadas, and you should! If you prefer meat grilled, you might consider the Ave Maria, which comes with just about everything else: a thin, plate-size marinated steak, tasting strongly of the grill; a dense, spicy chorizo; a thick, smoky pinto-bean stew (awesome!); fried plantains; rice; arepa; and the inevitable strip of pigskin. 4903 Melrose Ave.; (323) 957-5164. Open daily 10 a.m.–9:30 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $15–$25. Beer and wine. Parking in rear. MC, V.
La Luz del Dia
The last place you’d expect to find a real Mexican joint is among the maraca vendors and befuddled German tourists of Olvera Street, but there it is (and has been for decades), La Luz del Dia, serving cactus salad to the hordes. La Luz is a simple place, and most of what it serves are basic permutations of the two or three things it does best. So whatever you think you ordered — soft tacos, tostadas, whatever — you’ll probably get at least one helping of carnitas or picadillo, the chunky Mexican beef stew that, with its carrots and potatoes, looks like a stew somebody’s mother might have made . . . provided that somebody’s mother has an industrial-size garlic press and a Thai tolerance for chile heat. 1 W. Olvera St., downtown; (213) 628-7495. Open Tues.–Sun. for lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $9–$11. Beer only. Cash only.
La Parrilla specializes in marinated, charcoal-grilled meats — thin beef fillets, pork coated in a ruddy chile paste, chorizo sausage, sweetly sauced spareribs, and chicken served in various combinations. If you order parrilladas al brasero, the meat comes to the table piled on a little grill. Combinations are served with rice, grilled scallions and little bowls of spicy charro beans made smoky with bacon, and mostly the grilled meat is very good. Fine too are the many dishes based around grilled beef: puntas de filete (grilled chunks of steak tossed with pickled jalapeños and topped with melted cheese), fillet in a smoky sauce of chipotle chiles, fillet in a spicy Veracruz-style tomato sauce. 2126 Cesar E. Chavez Ave.; (323) 262-3434. Open daily 8 a.m.–11:30 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $10–$20. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. AE, Disc., MC, V.
La Taquiza No. 2
The best Mexican antojito in Los Angeles may be something called a mulita — a sort of quesadilla on steroids, good enough to make a grown man yelp with joy — at the South-Central restaurant La Taquiza No. 2. Two thick corn tortillas, made seconds earlier, are slapped down on a griddle, glazed with jack cheese and fresh guacamole, sprinkled with a few grams of meat snatched off the fire, then welded together into kind of a sandwich. The tortillas, while bulky, have the illusion of great lightness and a fluffiness that comes only as the result of consummate culinary skills. There is a crisp, toasty brittleness where the mulita has rested against the griddle; this gives way to an almost puddinglike softness inside, the sweet smack of grilled corn, and (finally!) the paired richnesses of the cool avocado and the hot melted cheese, plus the chile-tinged chewiness of carbonized pork. 3009 S. Figueroa St.; (213) 741-9795. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $6–$12. No alcohol. Takeout. Guarded lot parking. AE, MC, V.
Good bibimbap can be among the most delicious of Korean dishes, and Toad’s is about the best in town. Arranged around the circumference of a flat bowl are half a dozen little heaps of marinated vegetables — bean sprouts scented with sesame, stewed bamboo shoots, boiled spinach, that sort of thing — that you mix together with hot rice, and possibly the meat of a freshly fried fish. The contrast of hot and cool, salt and tart, soft and chewy is spectacular, and every bite offers a new and striking combination of flavors, right down to the bottom of the bowl. Plus, bibimbap is a delicious word to wrap your lips around. 4503 W. Beverly Blvd.; (323) 460-7037. Open Mon.–Sat. 10 a.m.–mid. Dinner for two, food only, $15–$22. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. MC, V.