Here's a prediction, for those of you with a soft spot for culinary fortune-telling: 2013 will be the Year of the Goat. Of course, goat is a staple in many parts of the world, but it's been uncommon on menus catering to white-bread American tastes. Not for much longer.
The buzz is already starting — goat is creeping onto menus that never would have featured it in the past. In Santa Monica, Tar & Roses offers an entire meal of wood-fired goat. Dining clubs this summer in L.A. roasted whole goats for delighted participants. In other parts of the country, too, taste-makers are organizing goat dinners, hoping to bring this underappreciated meat to their customers.
Diners and cooks looking to get a jump start on the impending Age of Goat ought to head to Gish Bac, a modest Oaxacan restaurant in Mid-City, and partake of the goat barbacoa, which is served on weekends only. Owners David Padilla and Maria Ramos cook goat in the Oaxacan style: chili-roasted for hours and hours in a pit. It comes to the table swimming in meaty juices, red from chili and tomato. After trying it wrapped in warm, fresh tortillas with a little cabbage slaw, you'll see that American chefs are late to the goat game.
Padilla and Ramos are continuing a tradition of barbacoa that began in their hometown of Tlacolula, Oaxaca. "Maria is the third generation of the family who made one of the best goat barbecues in Tlalcolua," Padilla says. After moving to L.A. 20 years ago, they began cooking for family and friends — "barbecue, because that's our specialty" — and, at the urging of folks who wanted access to their barbacoa more regularly, they opened Gish Bac in 2010.
It's a small, sunny space with yellow walls, tables in front and a lunch counter in back, facing the kitchen. While the restaurant is known for its weekend barbecue items, throughout the week it has plenty of other offerings that are also a step above those at other Oaxacan restaurants.
Come in for breakfast and have eggs scrambled with the fantastic house-made chorizo, or try one of the memelas con carne — a thick, soft masa pancake spread with musky black beans and topped with your choice of meat; the cesina, or thin slices of pork, which have been marinated and cooked, is particularly satisfying. In fact, just because this dish is on the breakfast menu doesn't mean you shouldn't order it for lunch as well; the one time I had it at dinner, the masa seemed a touch dried out, but I gobbled it up nonetheless.
There's a fantastic black mole, a swarthy, complex version that's both wicked and soothing. And a "red sauce" that I loved just as much, served over the salsa de chorizo con cesina, a slab of pork with orbs of chorizo on top. The sauce was mellow, lightly spicy and aggressively fruity, thanks to long-cooked fresh tomatoes and the light, almost citrus notes of epazote, a Oaxacan herb.
It's things like that — a ramp-up of flavors, an unexpected ingredient — that make Gish Bac exceptional. In the yellow mole empanada with chicken, an empanada that was more like a cheeseless quesadilla, a pert yellow sauce gets an extra kick from hoja santa, which Padilla describes as "Oaxacan mint." The leaf, layered between the tortilla and the meat, gave a pleasantly bitter sting every few bites.
The mole tamales (listed on the weekend-only part of the menu but available all the time) are intensely aromatic; the redolence of the masa paired with that dark mole is a lovely study in the concept of bittersweet.
And on weekends, there's that barbacoa. Go with a friend, and get both the goat and the lamb, which is cooked in avocado leaf and chiles and comes with a bowl of juices for dipping the meat. If you order the lamb, you'll get a plate ahead of the main course, a mixture made of all the lamb offal, deeply spiced and with a kick of dark heat. With a flavor much like a spicy black sausage, it's fantastic scooped up on corn chips.
Seated at a table near the front windows of Gish Bac, the sun setting and the remnants of goat and lamb barbacoa strewn across the table in front of us, a friend reached for another bite of the black beans that come with the tender hunks of lamb.
"There's something about everything here," she said. "Even the beans. They're just special."
When a family brings generations of tradition, craft and expertise to the table, the results are pretty special indeed.
Daina Beth Solomon contributed to this story.
GISH BAC | 4163 W. Washington Blvd. | (323) 737-5050 | gishbacrestaurant.com | Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat. & Sun., 8 a.m.-9 p.m. | Entrees, $5.50- $18.99 | No alcohol | Street parking