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When foodists talk about the deceased restaurants of East Los Angeles, you will always hear mention of Gallo's Grill, which for a time gave the neighborhood a glimpse at what a Mexican steakhouse might be: warm, thick corn tortillas patted to order; fresh salsas perched on intricate wrought-iron stands; and garlicky steaks served still sizzling, flanked by warm quesadillas and charred scallions.
After a 2006 fire forced the restaurant to close, the faithful kept driving by, reporting on ventilation systems coming in or out, wooden construction barriers coming up or down, phone numbers that worked or didn't. Rumored reopenings never happened, and it began to be discussed less as a living restaurant than as a cudgel with which to bludgeon Eastside kitchens less ambitious with carne asada.
But suddenly it is open again, its name slightly tweaked to El Gallo Grill, the big Santa Maria-style grill back in action, the pale-green glasses of cucumber agua fresca back on the tables, and -- finally! -- an alcohol license, so you can have a Bohemia with your meat. El Gallo prepares its steaks very differently than they do at the Palm, butterflying and re-butterflying them into maximum surface area, what seems like half an acre of pure seared flesh on the plate, blanketed if you like with melted cheese, rolled around ham, cheese and tomato, or plain. In the case of the Yecapixtla-style cecina, the meat is salted and dried before it is grilled, and it has a mild charcuterie-like tang.
After nearly seven years in a coma, El Gallo is still a bit wobbly, and is probably not where you should come for dinner if you are in a hurry. The steaks will be juicier once they break in the grill. And while the fresh guacamole is wonderful, it would be nice if somebody bothered to tell you the grilled panela cheese you ordered as an appetizer is exactly what will later be melted over your steak. But still: El Gallo rises phoenix-like, back from the flames.