Photo by Anne Fishbein
THE LAST TIME I WAS IN MEXICO CITY, I BECAME OBSESSED WITH tacos, of which there are endless kinds. Here in Los Angeles, we get carne asada and carnitas, chicken and fish, buches and sesos (stomach and brains). But walking along the streets in Mexico City, a person encounters a mind-boggling and mouth-watering variety: tacos of chicharrones (fried pork rind), huitlacoche (sautéed corn fungus), zucchini blossoms, even plain old ham and eggs. Just when you think you've tried them all, there's a vendor selling turkey mole tacos, chile relleno tacos, or grilled squid tacos.
Happily, we Angelenos now have our own venue for this popular, competitively creative street snack. Mexico City-born Jimmy Shaw has brought his Mexico City-style taquería into the L.A. Farmers Market.
I didn't have any trouble locating the Lotería Grill — it's plastered with those enlarged, charmingly anachronistic images from Mexican lottery cards. El músico, el elefante, el camarón, la palma . . . image after image wraps around a small counter and steam table featuring the meat and vegetable fillings for tacos and burritos. A woman sits on a stool cutting open long red chiles with scissors and shaking out the seeds. Two men roll up burritos and ladle stews into tacos. Tortillas — at least those used for tacos — are made by hand on-site. They're pleasantly thick, moist, charred and chewy, tasting deeply of dried, ground, lime-soaked corn.
Vegetarians will be thrilled to find four kinds of meatless fillings. Nopalitos are diced cactus which have a compelling, squeaky, knuckly crunch and a slight sourness that plays well in a lime-juice vinaigrette with chopped serranos, red onion and a sprinkling of queso fresco. Calabacitas, a spicy squash stew, is mixed with charred roasted corn, onions and more queso fresco to be juicy and luscious. Rajas con papa is a buttery mash of potatoes and mild dark-green poblano chiles. But the pièce de résistance is the champiñones con epazote, a dark mix of mushrooms and onions with the peppery Mexican herb — this deep-flavored, bosky, rich, meatless mélange virtually sails out of the kitchens in taco after taco, burrito after burrito.
The burritos, like the tacos, have their own ethos. A customer wanting "you know, a regular bean and cheese burrito" was a little flummoxed that this was not, say, Burrito King. Lotería's burritos start with white rice and black beans and are then filled with the chosen meat or vegetable and its appropriate garnish.
Beyond the vegetarian options, there are chicken, beef and pork fillings, each as distinct and spirited as the next. I love the tinga de pollo, shredded chicken with smoky chipotle chiles and flavor-impacted crumbles of hot chorizo sausage. Pollo en pipian rojo, chicken in a pumpkin-seed-and-peanut sauce, is mildly spicy, nutty and rich, with lots of cool, chopped, raw onions for contrast. The mole poblano con pollo is a dense, dark-red, chocolate-tinged mole, as complex and mysteriously alluring as a sauce can get.
Shredded beef, juicy and very spicy-hot, is balanced by marinated red onion and carrots. Big, soft albondigas (meatballs) in a tomato and chipotle sauce are real comfort food with a hit of smoke and a punch. The subtly sweet cochinita pibil, pork slow-roasted in banana leaves, comes topped with red onions and pickles in a habanero sauce.
The textural epiphany, however — really the most unusual taco — has to be the chicharrón in salsa verde, fried pork rinds stewed in a very bright, acidic tomatillo sauce. The rinds, which I've only eaten crisp before, turn into big, flappy, slippery things that remind me of beef tendon, all cartilaginous and gelatinous and truly, truly fabulous — if you like that sort of thing.
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Among the enchiladas, the mild suizas, with tasty pepper-flecked shredded chicken and a creamy tomatillo sauce, are pretty much perfect. They come with white rice or green rice — which has a slight mint flavor — and those good black beans.
For breakfast, the huevos rancheros are straightforward — two basted eggs with a mild, fresh tomato (casera) sauce, beans and a scoop of those buttery rajas con papas. Chilaquiles, advertised as "the classic Mexican breakfast cure-all," are tortilla strips sautéed in salsas — your choice of mole, tomato sauce or green tomatillo.
Lotería is a good place to keep in mind when you wake up a little shaggy — and don't fancy the hair of the dog that bit you.
Lotería Grill, the Farmers Market, Stall 322, 6333 W. Third St., Los Angeles, (323) 930-2211. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, Mon.-Sat. 9 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Tacos, two for $3.85.