Uptown Whittier can sometimes feel deliberately hidden -- a small stretch of mom 'n' pop businesses sequestered from any nearby freeway or convenient access. It's a fine example of late-'80s public planning, too -- a time when a penchant for Spanish Revival and mismatched pastels gave way to its now-outdated pale pink sidewalks and bilious green street signs.
Yet over the past couple years there have been an increasing number of reasons for mainland Angelenos to venture out this way. You could drop in on a pretty decent punk show housed in an organic juice bar or stop by the Bottle Room, the only beer bar in a substantial radius that has Pliny the Elder on draft.
But the most exciting prospect of late is Ricardo Diaz's newest restaurant, Bizarra Capital, housed in an old-school mariscos restaurant off one of Whittier's main thoroughfares. The decor is similar to those Mexican restaurants your parents frequented back when blended margaritas and molten cheese enchiladas were still considered exotic fare. Diaz hasn't had much time to remodel since taking over the lease earlier last year, but he has managed to assemble an eclectic arsenal of dishes that could easily rival the best Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles.
If you frequent any of Diaz's other popular ventures -- Cook's Tortas, Dorados Ceviche Bar or Guisados, the Boyle Heights taco shop that recently tied for first place in this year's L.A. Taco Madness -- you might recognize some of the items on the menu. There are those fiery tacos chile torreados, a couple of bright ceviches stocked with things like sea snails and curls of octopus, and a selection of hefty tortas, the best of which is made with a dry-aged chorizo Diaz makes himself.
But unlike those other places, each dedicated to refining and riffing on a classic triumvirate of Mexican food, Bizarra Capital delves into the country's culinary catalog in much deeper strokes. Diaz has always been a progressive thinker when it comes to his home cuisine, the kind of guy who at any moment can rattle off a dozen variations of salsa that have been dancing around in his head over the past week. But it feels like Bizarra Capital -- named for the street in Mexico City his mother grew up on, as well as a rather obscure Ramón López Velarde poem -- is his true passion project. It's a place where he can not only explore the rough and rural Mexican recipes he grew up on but also share them with a clientele eager to have similar memories evoked.
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The best example might be huazontles, a kind of zesty weed -- known stateside as goosefoot -- that grows in knee-high bunches and resembles a miniaturized version of broccoli rabe. Diaz dips loose bundles of it in egg batter and fries them in hot oil until they resemble crispy, oversized rellenos, and then smothers them with roasted guajillo salsa and a shaving of musky queso cincho. You seize them like pale green wands, stripping off sections of herbaceous flesh with your teeth until only a long willowy stem remains. Outside of Mexico, you'd be hard-pressed to find a restaurant serving huazontles capiados -- it's known mostly as a humble peasant's dish eaten during Lent, which might be kind of the point.
There are plump quesadillas, too, made with thick-fried corn masa -- Diaz has always been a wizard with fresh masa -- stuffed with what is likely the freshest, most buttery huitlacoche (corn fungus) you will ever taste. There is a mound of French fries drenched in bitter black mole and topped with sautéed onions and melted quesillo cheese, and an illuminating version of costillas en mole verde, a homey dish of stewed pork ribs in a vibrant green sauce sharp with cilantro, the kind of meal your abuelita might whip up for a weekend visit. A single, wondrous bite of the chorizo de pescado, a spicy, vinegar-doused mixture of chopped red snapper topped with fresh crema and lettuce, is enough to inspire pepper-haunted fever dreams.
Bizarra Capital is acquainting local patrons with the idea of small plates, an idea that has begun to catch on quickly with those who want somewhere they can enjoy a glass of craft beer or local wine or a mezcal flight while sharing a bowl of frijoles churros or cochinita pibil. For dessert there is a rich square of bread pudding dense with dates and bits of cheese, served with dulce de leche, potent homemade cinnamon ice cream and an acerbic reduction of coffee. Diaz lamented that he wanted to emulate an Italian affogato, ice cream topped with espresso, but he doesn't yet have a espresso machine. Of course, he managed to pull it off just fine without.
Check out Anne Fishbein's spectacular photos of Bizarra Capital.