Low and Slow
Have you ever tasted the pozole at La Casita Mexicana? It’s wild stuff, that pozole, a dark broth deeply scented with meat and chiles and unpronounceable herbs, juicy shreds of pork, and fluffy kernels of blue hominy whose ragged edges are colored the purple of an unpeeled octopus leg. If you have remembered to sprinkle shredded cabbage, a little dried oregano and a drop or two of lime juice into the broth, the flavor pops out in three dimensions, like those hidden images did in those books that were popular a few years ago, taking palpable weight, almost grabbing your spoon hand and propelling it into the broth again and again. If you splash in a spoonful of hot, smoky salsa, you’re in a whole other dimension.
Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu are everywhere if you follow Spanish-language media, demonstrating recipes on the Univision morning show, opening supermarkets, splashed across advertising posters, conducting ConAgra-sponsored “cooking camps” at stores across the Southwest. They dominate the food pages of La Opinión at least to the extent that Gino Angelini or Nancy Silverton do in the L.A. Times, and no local discussion of mole poblano, nopalitos or chilaquiles is complete until they have had their say. At their restaurant, La Casita Mexicana in Bell, the customers occasionally startle in recognition when one of them pokes his head out of the kitchen, like a Spago customer might if she realized her squab was being roasted by Wolfgang Puck himself. These guys do the Alice Waters thing too — much of their produce (squashes, cactus, herbs, odd Mexican vegetables like huazontle) comes straight from communal Eastside gardens. They even have their own slow-food motto: “Good food is cooked over a low flame.” Arvizu and Del Campo are what you get when you translate Celebrity Chef into Spanish.
La Casita is a small, narrow restaurant nestled between a Mexican bakery and a tortilleria, a brightly colored place decorated with Tlaquepaque folk art, hand-stenciled fleur-de-lis, and an impressive display of framed newspaper articles, awards and government proclamations paying homage to the chefs. When you sit down, you are brought a basket of warm chips drizzled with jet-black mole poblano, a chile-laced red pepian and a green pepian made from crushed pumpkin seeds: the dense, complexly sweet sauces that are at the heart of La Casita’s cooking.
Nothing so vulgar as alcohol is served on the premises, but the house’s horchata, made on the premises from steeped rice and cinnamon, and lemonade spiked with slippery chia seeds are refreshing, not too sweet. You will not find nachos, but there are lozenges of fried cheese that you fold with salsa into hot homemade tortillas, pots of cheese melted with crumbled chorizo sausage, and “queso Azteca,” a sort of cheese loaf stuffed with chiles and strips of roasted cactus, wrapped in banana leaves, and baked until the leaves blister and the fresh cheese develops a delicate fluffiness.
Most main courses — including enchiladas, enmoladas, enfrijoladas, delicious fried fish seasoned with smoked chiles, chiles rellenos stuffed with great, earthy masses of sautéed cactus and mushrooms — are preceded by suave cream soups almost brash in their plainness, cream of rice or cream of roasted chicken or a cream of masa soup that is like a fresh tortilla rendered in liquid form.
In the mornings, there are huevos rancheros, chorizo omelets and eggs scrambled with cactus. But mostly there are chilaquiles, half a dozen kinds, with wedges of tortilla sizzled to the knife’s edge between pliability and crunchiness, sautéed with red sauce, green sauce, red sauce and green sauce, black mole, pepian or a spicy, smoky sauce made with chipotle peppers. For a couple bucks extra, you can get a side of eggs or cecina, which is a thin, gamy slice of grilled, dried beef that tastes a lot better than it sounds. I am happy enough with most chilaquiles, even the ones made with recycled chips and salsa not quite fresh enough to make it into the afternoon. La Casita’s are so far beyond those that they almost constitute another species, and may be the single best way to experience the restaurant’s sauces.
Most of the “serious” Mexican restaurants in the United States have something of the self-conscious folklorico about them, and La Casita is smacked with a bit of that too — a “conquista” plate of cactus and grilled steak, tortillas flavored with chile and epazote, and of course the moles, which the establishment seems to regard as holy things. The most famous dish of haute Mexican cuisine is chile en nogada, a fat, roasted poblano stuffed with a complicated forcemeat of beef, dried fruit and nuts, sauced with an ultrarich cream sauce and sprinkled with crunchy pomegranate seeds that pop in the mouth like tiny grenades of tartness. The colors represent the Mexican flag. The dish takes a full day to prepare, and it is tangy, savory, meaty, hot and very, very sweet. It is the official sign that a restaurant has ambitions beyond enchilada plates and No. 2 dinners. La Casita’s version is impeccable, sensuous even, although it sometimes seems as much like a signal of intent as it does an actual plate of food. For an emblem, La Casita’s chile en nogada tastes awfully good.
La Casita Mexicana, 4030 E. Gage Ave., Bell, (323) 773-1898, www.casitamex.com. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. No alcohol. Street parking. Dinner for two, food only, $22-$37. Recommended dishes: queso Azteca, chilaquiles, chiles en nogada, guava in rompope.
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