Leading up to this year's Best of L.A. issue (due out Oct. 4), we'll be counting down, in no particular order, 100 of our favorite dishes.
98: Chichen Itza's Cochinita pibil.
You know the drill. Wind your way down the 110, past the concrete universe of downtown L.A., L.A. Live and USC, and into the Mercado la Paloma; thread past the market stalls and the chairs and tables for people who've paused for ceviche or aguas frescas or guanabana sorbet; and step up to the counter of Chichen Itza, where you will order a plate of cochinita pibil. If you have not done this recently, maybe think about doing so.
The pork, roasted in banana leaves to a different ontological condition, now rests in a bright sauce, shot through with heat and something like sunlight, an alchemy of achiote and Seville orange, garlic and allspice and clove. A confetti of pickled onion. A single whole habanero that is both signature and motif. Or challenge, really, considering the Scoville level of the stuff in the jar beside your plate.
Roll forkfuls of the pork into a warm tortilla, dip it in the sauce and consider the exact taste of the dish. Maybe eat some of the rice and beans, maybe not. But take a moment to appreciate what chef-owner Gilberto Cetina has done for you. Cetina built this dish, re-creating it from his native Yucatán, wiring together this menu and this restaurant from his original career in civil engineering. (And what is beautiful cooking if not a kind of civil engineering?)
Once you've appreciated the rich yet surprisingly subtle flavors, then start applying the habanero sauce, a bit at a time, until you reach critical mass. Because Cetino's habanero sauce, which he makes in vats in the kitchen and sells, happily for us all, at the counter, will ensure that you come back again and again, as any proper gateway drug will do. It is, reportedly, a dish best served at breakfast. Because next to this, an omelet and a bottle of Tabasco is utterly mundane. Next to this, frankly, most things are.
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