Photo by Anne Fishbein
I'VE PROBABLY BEEN GOING TO LA ABEJA FOR about a dozen years now, long enough to see the owner's kids grow up and propel themselves into college, long enough to see the kids who come by the old-fashioned wooden cigar counter for candy and gum come back with children of their own. And I've gotten the carne adobada every time: marinated pork, crisped on the griddle, that is good enough to make a dead man yelp with glee. I ordered a chile colorado plate once, back in 1993, and I've regretted it ever since.
La Abeja, a modest Mexican-American lunchroom on a blank stretch of North Figueroa below the Southwest Museum, is a real neighborhood institution, the one place in this part of town where you are likely to see bungalow dwellers eating in the same room as the mechanics who work on their cars, where Mount Washington families descend from the heights. It's a pleasure to sink into a booth here on a weekday afternoon and feel all of Highland Park drift by, activists scarfing steaming bowls of cocido, artists and musicians drifting in for breakfast after 1, still shaking sleep out of their eyes. The health department gives it an A.
When you find a seat, perhaps in one of the cracked, sunken banquettes in the backroom, or around one of the sticky tables in the front, the owner ceremoniously hands you an old-fashioned printed menu, which is an oddly formal document, like something you might have expected to see at an Ensenada restaurant circa 1962. Everything is carefully set in antique Spanish type, then paraphrased in English, slightly out of order, on the facing page.
"Tocino con huevos . . . tocino con huevos -- that sounds just so delicious," says my friend Michelle.
"Michelle," I say. "That's plain bacon and eggs."
"Oh, you're right," she says. "But doesn't that sound good?"
Michelle settles for a carnitas plate, which tastes exactly like a carnitas plate, and sighs with happiness when the food finally arrives. Nobody cares if you order an expensive carne asada plate here or settle for a $2.60 burrito; a big bowl of cabbagy beef soup or a couple of tacos. The Peñafiel -- mineral-water-based Mexican soft drinks -- come in every flavor you can think of: grapefruit, sangria, orange. The chips are warm and oddly heavy; the oily, brick-red salsa is profound. The chile verde is too soupy, too bland; the carnitas are often on the soft side. The chiles rellenos are pretty good, the kind somebody's grandmother would make, soft and puddinglike rather than crisp and fried, wetted with the house's ranchero sauce.
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But La Abeja's glorious carne adobada is just magnificent, thin sheets of marinated pork dyed bright orange with chile paste, crisp as pastry and burnt black at the edges, meat juices concentrated, caramelized into a semigloss sheen that keeps the pork moist even as it kisses it with the vivid taste of the grill. Some carne adobada is wet, sloppy stuff, more about the complexity of spicing than about the forceful flavor of meat. This adobada is primal stuff, cowboy food, almost too intense to eat without folding it first into a tortilla with a spoonful of beans.
Other restaurants may be more ambitious, but La Abeja, from the green-sauced enchilada plates to the soft tacos of stewed tongue, tastes like Los Angeles.
3700 N. Figueroa St.; (323) 221-0474. Open Wed.Mon. Lunch for two, food only, $8$13. No alcohol. Cash only. Recommended dish: carne adobada.