Photo by Anne Fishbein
Gallo's Grill is the kind of sweet Mexican steak house you've always dreamed of finding in East Los Angeles, a tiled patio furnished with oversize wooden tables, shaded from the sky by a canopy, and decorated with citrus trees and the sort of opera-set "peeling" brick that you find on turreted Hollywood apartment buildings. The illusion is of the kind of tiny courtyard restaurant that often has laundry hanging overhead and a fountain burbling just out of sight. Speakers hidden in fake rocks blast Mexican ballads; tiny children in first-communion dresses conduct screaming games of tag, or perch on stools and make faces at the cooks manning a big, oak-fired grill like the ones you see at the big steak restaurants in Santa Maria. By Eastside standards the restaurant is a Nice Place, and almost everybody from the neighborhood dresses up a little when they come here.
Fifty years ago, before most of the area was razed to make way for freeways and transit yards, the restaurant would have been at the heart of the Eastside's Belvedere district, which was in its era the most densely populated neighborhood in Southern California, and probably the biggest Mexican community in the United States. (When Walter Mosley wants to hide one of his characters from sight, he often stashes them with a Mexican family in Belvedere.) My wife's great-grandfather owned a blacksmith's shop a couple of blocks from here, and the family still gets its pan dulce from La Fama around the corner, the oldest -- and best -- Mexican bakery in this part of town. (Try the gingerbread pigs, puerquitos.) Gallo's Grill itself is next door to a furniture showroom whose fashionably distressed wooden chairs and farmhouse tables are indistinguishable from the stuff you find on Melrose, and whose wrought-iron gewgaws resemble the stuff the great-grandfather used to make.
Gallo's Grill may not be as grand as Arnie Morton's or the Arroyo Chop House, and the beef certainly isn't USDA prime, but it serves everybody's fantasy of a great Eastside meal: warm, thick corn tortillas (or paper-thin flour tortillas) patted to order, fresh salsas brought to the table perched on intricate wrought-iron stands, garlicky steaks served still sizzling, flanked by bushels of charred scallions on superheated platters. An order of queso fundido brings what seems like an entire pound of cheese crusted into a steel baking dish, smoking and sputtering, flavored with dry, spicy crumbles of sausage. There are big bowls of guacamole, decent if a little watery (the chef uses full-flavored Mexican avocados instead of the buttery, expensive Haas) and freshly fried chips to scoop it up with. The house's beans come either creamily refried or a la olla, bathed in smoky broth.
Gallo's Grill prepares its beef in a specifically Mexican way, meat butterflied and re-butterflied and laid open like a scroll. The brick-size fillet that you might see on your plate at Taylor's or the Palm is flayed and re-configured into steak for the multitudes here, a broad, thin sheet of seared meat -- filete abierto -- with something like an acre and a half of surface area and the maximal ratio of brown, crusty outside to red, squishy inside, although marinated enough to allow for a bit of juice. Gallo's Grill is Valhalla for fans of extremely well-done beef.
The stuffed fillet is opened up like a loaf of French bread; layered with ham, cheese and sliced tomatoes; secured with half a box of toothpicks; and grilled until it resembles the sort of club sandwich that might be endorsed by Dr. Barry Sears.
The grilled, air-dried beef called cecina -- Yecapixtla-style, the menu says, after a town in central Mexico's Morelos state -- is even thinner, pounded nearly to the transparency of parchment, and has something of the clean, milky tang of prosciutto, of meat transformed into something beyond meat.
The dining room here may host the highest concentration of nonlocals of any restaurant on this side of town (at least since La Serenata closed for renovations), and the shirt-and-tie lunch crowd is likely to include fire inspectors, downtown office workers, groups of Asians from nearby Monterey Park -- and would undoubtedly be home to even more if it served beverages more potent than pepino, a sweet, oddly refreshing drink made from cucumbers. Bring your own beer.
4533 Cesar E. Chavez Ave.; (323) 980-8669. Open daily for lunch and dinner; weekend brunch. Dinner for two, food only, $13$20. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. MC, V. Recommended dishes: cecina; filete abierto; stuffed steak.
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