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Finally: L.A. Gets Mexican Food Worthy of Mexico's Grand Tradition

Mexican corvina sea bass with sweet miso and sake-reduction shrimp mashed potatoes

PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEINMexican corvina sea bass with sweet miso and sake-reduction shrimp mashed potatoes

See more of Anne Fishbein's Seta photography.

When chefs Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu opened La Casita Mexicana in 1998, they were acting out of desperation. After immigrating to Los Angeles from Mexico in the late 1970s, they "lived through the massacre of Mexican food," Arvizu says. "We were scared of those burritos and the hard-shell tacos. I would see chimichangas and ask, 'What is this?' "

As a child in Jalisco, Arvizu remembers going to the river to wash home-grown onions, tomatoes and zucchini flowers. Yet in L.A., Arvizu witnessed tamales being made with corn masa harina instead of masa fresca and served with cheddar cheese drowned in canned sauce. He watched in horror as people put ketchup on their tacos. Finding fresh serrano chiles or cilantro or epazote was next to impossible.

"For people who didn't know Mexican food, they thought that was it," he says. "So when we decided to open the restaurant, we wanted a restaurant that served the food we had grown up with. A good mole, a good posole, good tacos with real corn tortillas."

Arvizu and his partner were at the forefront of a movement — a movement that has brought the authentic variety of truly tasty Mexican food to Los Angeles.

It hasn't been easy.

When La Casita first opened, one guest threw an enchilada at them, scolding that it was not a proper enchilada because it did not have cheddar cheese or rice and beans. Introducing people gently to the new was a delicate dance.

"We have been seducing them with the flavors of Mexico," Arvizu says. "We go out into the dining room and explain the stories of the dishes and traditions. We sold our culture and spirit.

"That is why," he adds, "we started serving the moles with the chips as appetizers — so they would fall in love."

For years, my family went through the same withdrawals as Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu. We longed to eat a crispy sope with real Mexican chorizo and a topping of fresh salsa verde or some mole pipian with fresh corn tortillas. But without the ingredients, we couldn't make it at home. Farmers markets or delicacy shops were a far-away thought.

We found L.A.'s Mexican-restaurant scene so bleak that we stopped going out. If anyone invited us to eat at a Mexican restaurant, we would suggest Italian or American instead. We were called snobs.

We'd moved to this country in 1977 on a whim. My father had been offered a job and my mother thought it would be an adventure. Little did we realize how America's bland palate would affect us. Mexico, after all, is a country where French, Spanish, native Indian, Arabic and Italian influences permeate both the culture and the food. That old American notion of purity, of separating flavors and food into categories, is foreign to Mexicans. Mestizaje — or mixture — is in the blood and, naturally, in the food.

Today, the food scene in Mexico City is more exciting than ever. As Lesley Téllez notes in her excellent Mexico City food blog, the Mija Chronicles, in just one little fonda, or small restaurant, you can find tacos de chapulínes (grasshopper tacos), creamy chard and purslane soup, leg of pork in a peppery, citrusy sauce, "like cochinita pibil but tangier," and for dessert an amaranth-cajeta pudding. Such variety, with a layered richness of taste and flavor, is common in Mexico City's restaurants.

Los Angeles still has a way to go before our Mexican restaurants become as diverse as the Mexico City food scene, but we are getting there. As the Latino immigrant population has matured, thankfully, so has the food. That great wave of immigrants from the late 1970s and '80s brought with them some exciting, adventurous stuff. By the late '90s, interesting restaurants started cropping up, showcasing the variety and sophistication of Mexican food.

Today, there's a critical mass of good Mexican-influenced food in L.A.: Séta in Whittier, La Casita Mexicana in Bell, John Sedlar's Playa and Rivera, Huntington Park's Rocio's Mole de los Dioses, Teresitas in East L.A., Chichen Itza in South L.A. and Lotería Grill in the Fairfax district and Hollywood. The chefs at these restaurants are finding that their customers' palates are improving. They're understanding what true Mexican food really means.

Teresa Campos Hernandez, the woman behind Teresitas, bought her first restaurant, Puerto Nuevo, in 1983. Her goal was to make some extra money, but she also didn't like the food that was being served. The previous owner would make one large pot of food — either beans or chicken or beef soup — and reheat it to last the whole week.

Campos Hernandez revamped the entire menu, making classic Mexican comfort food from her home state of Zacatecas, including pork short ribs in a spicy chile mulato and brown sugar sauce and her pistachio mamon (bundt cake), so moist that it must be eaten to be believed.

In 1995, she opened Teresitas to accommodate the crowds that were overflowing Puerto Nuevo. "I just started cooking the recipes my mother would make us at home," she says. "People tell me, 'This is how my grandmother used to cook,' and I love that."

Setá's menu is less traditional than Teresitas or La Casita, but it is influenced by the six months that Guatemalan-born chef Hugo Molina spent in kitchens in Oaxaca, Mexico City and, most notably, Merida.

In La Jolla de Mismaloya, near Puerto Vallarta, he learned the value of freshness. The family that ran La Chosa de Toño, where he worked, created a menu daily based on what they caught fishing that morning. When they wanted game, they would go into the mountains and bring back turkey or wild boar.

In Puerto Vallarta, Oaxaca, he learned to make a sarandiado — fish basted with garlic, oregano, cilantro and oil, held on a stick over an open flame. In Merida, he learned ancient Mayan techniques for mixing flavors, discovering varieties of chiles and moles — like one made from apricots — the magic of whipped eggs and the delicacy of black corn tortillas.

"Mexico for me is a sleeping giant. It is amazing all the cooking they do," Molina says. "In the Yucatán area — man, do those people know how to cook."

At Séta, he is slowly introducing his customers, 70 percent of whom are U.S.-born Latinos, to what he learned in Mexico. But he and his wife, Aricia, a pastry chef, stylist and partner in the restaurant, strike a careful balance on the menu. When Molina offered wild boar as a daily special, he sold one. So while he can get away with a shrimp chile relleno with guajillo and huitlacoche sauce, or a Mexican corvina sea bass braised in sake-sweet miso with shrimp mashed potatoes, he balances out the options with "comfort foods," like roasted chicken with plantains and black beans.

"I can be very creative and innovative, but the only way to sell it is with some standards like steak, fish and chicken," he says. "Mexico has many great, beautiful things. As we keep making more of these things, more people will become more educated in what good eating means."

So now when my family and I hear of a new, adventurous, Mexican-influenced restaurant, instead of fleeing, we try it. I have yet to find grilled langostinos marinated in garlic and chile de arbol, like the ones I had on the beach in Ixtapa, or the tacos al pastor from that corner restaurant in Mexico City discovered after a late night of dancing. But at least when we have a hankering for some real mole enchiladas or quesadillas with queso Oaxaca and chorizo, we no longer have to jump on a plane to satisfy the urge.

Lorenza Muñoz was a reporter at the Los Angeles Times for 14 years. An adjunct professor of journalism at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, she can be reached at munozlorenza@gmail.com.