When executed properly, machaca, a sort of red-brown heap of fried beef jerky, is one of the great dried-beef dishes of the world, an intense distillation of the flavors of the Mexican West, all salt and smoke and heat, with a slight marine smack that I like to believe comes from the oceanside air in which the beef is supposed to be dried. Real machaca, a specialty of coastal Sinaloa, is grilled, smashed into powder with a stone pestle, and fried to a frizzle with bits of onion and sweet peppers until the beef releases its chewy, animal essence and the specific gravity begins to approach that of lead.
I discovered this machaca a dozen years ago at a Huntington Park Sinaloan diner named El Sitio, which rolled the powder into tacos, scrambled it with eggs, and even simmered it into a soup that was nearly as powerfully flavored as Knorr’s essence spooned straight from the jar. Breakfast at El Sitio became a regular part of my weekend rounds, especially when I was trying to demonstrate to out-of-towners the diversity of Mexican cooking. Then the restaurant tried to expand into a banquet-ready facility that was too big for it by half, and when it closed for good, I had to rely on the kindness of a restaurant-owning acquaintance who occasionally smuggled the right kind of air-dried beef back into the United States from Sinaloa. Los Angeles County may have a Mexican population larger than Guadalajara‘s, but regional Mexican cuisine is pretty hard to find. Still, as the local economy surged in the last couple of years of the Clinton administration, the Southside industrial suburbs, reasonably prosperous for the first time in decades, began to support a fair number of regional Mexican restaurants, serving the food of Campeche, Colima and Mexico City, among other places. And it was just a matter of time before the jungle abundance and desert flavors of Sinaloa, the vast Western coastal state that includes Los Mochis and Mazatlan, popped up in this area again.
Badiraguato is a converted hamburger stand on the main drag of South Gate, a cheerful place with a mural of frolicking orcas on the wall, vast assortments of chile sauce on the tables and a TV set high in a corner perpetually tuned to a soap opera. (If the dining room is lightly populated, a waitress may ceremoniously hand you the remote.)
The restaurant is named for a mountainous central region of the state, a legendary patch of Wild West that occupies more or less the same territory in narcotraficante ballads that the Monument Valley does in John Ford movies, although the menu is mostly fairly generic Mexican seafood: broiled shrimp stuffed with cheese and chiles, shrimp fried with garlic, shrimp stewed in spicy tomato sauce, seared on a griddle, or ladled into goblets of shrimp cocktail big enough to double as beer steins. Sometimes it seems as if two-thirds of Badiraguato’s business comes from the guys in straw cowboy hats who line up at the counter for these seafood cocktails, which are laced with the restaurant‘s smoky, astringent agua de chile caliente, and are a significant step up from the sweetish tinctures of ketchup you may associate with most Mexican takes on the dish.
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It doesn’t take long to find the Sinaloan specialties, although they are hidden on the menu. There are the usual tacos here, though some are filled with stuff like salty stewed marlin and cheese, with beef shreds and potatoes, or with the Sinaloan version of cochinita pibil, a delicious, safety-orange pork leg concoction whose juices are guaranteed to run down your arm. Sinaloan gorditas are more like what you might think of as sopes, little masa saucers fried to a delicate crunchiness, smeared with beans, mounded with chicken and lettuce, and garnished with grated cheese and thick Mexican cream.
Asado estilo Sinaloa, which I‘ve usually experienced as a tropical melange of grilled meat, vegetables and pickled onions, is more like an extremely well-done version of roast-beef hash here, tiny cubes of meat and potatoes sizzled on a hot griddle until they are black and crisp at the edges, a dish that would probably fit in as well in Nebraska as in Culiacan until you splash a bit of Badiraguato’s intensely fragrant table salsa on it and scoop it up with a bit of warm tortilla.
And, of course, there‘s the machaca, hidden on the breakfast menu, next to the cumin-laced stew chilorio and the spicy Sinaloan version of chilaquiles called picoso. (Badiraguato also serves a version of machaca made with fresh shrimp chopped fine and sizzled with vegetables, but the sensation is a different thing entirely.) It is easy to imagine something like Badiraguato’s machaca being eaten in Mexico long before Cortez. Real machaca bears little resemblance to what you‘ve probably eaten by that name in Los Angeles, which is to say the common burrito filling of stringy boiled beef scrambled with eggs. Machaca, unlike a vending-machine burrito, is a primal, fundamental dish, basic as earth.
3070 Firestone Blvd., South Gate; (323) 563-3450. Open daily 9 a.m.--8 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $12--$25. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only. Recommended dishes: tacos de marli, gorditas, machaca, machaca de camarones.