For a long time, everybody I knew went to Dos Arbolitos, a tiny converted hamburger stand in a supermarket parking lot on the San Fernando Valley’s northern plain that was the source of some of the most directly delicious Mexican cooking in Los Angeles. Friends drove hours roundtrip for the rich, soft carnitas, impossibly crunchy tacos dorados, and a made-up dish called pollo alcaparrado -- chicken with capers -- that would have passed muster at Bistro Garden for three times the price. Valley and Westside parties were enlivened with the restaurant‘s tooth-crackingly dense chips and distinctive chopped salsa, intense and stinging hot, made with chiles and roasted tomatoes that still had smoky bits of charred skin adhering to the pulp. Yayo, the original chef, may have loved to experiment with his cuisine, but the place was great for classics, too: fat, chicken-filled flautas with guacamole; Swiss enchiladas bursting with sauteed chicken and cheese; spicy pork tortas; carne asada burritos with fiery, brick-colored smoked-chile salsa.
Some restaurants may have been more elegant, some friendlier, some with sharper regional dishes, but Dos Arbolitos in its way may have been the ideal Los Angeles Mexican dive, a basic cafe with a few well-chosen chefly touches that still felt like a dive -- the enforced dumpiness of the place almost rose to the level of an in-joke -- and if you spent a certain amount of time eating Mexican food in other parts of the country, you would have recognized it as the kind of restaurant possible in Southern California and Southern California alone. It was remarkable how, on practically any journey across the San Fernando Valley, the obscure location of Dos Arbolitos seemed suddenly right on the way.
The great Yayo died in 1998 (although the proprietor soldiered on with Yayo’s recipes), and toward the end of 1999, Dos Arbolitos abruptly vanished, redeveloped out of existence. My friends found other Mexican joints for takeout, falling briefly in love with one or another of the neon-bright taquerias that dot the Valley‘s thoroughfares, and attempted to duplicate the smoky tomato salsa on their own, but nothing was ever quite the same.
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Then a friend called last month, saying Dos Arbolitos had finally reopened behind a bank in another North Hills shopping center, a scant mile from the first location. And that the new place was an actual sit-down restaurant, with waiter service and everything, and that you could get not just fresh lemonade, but beer. I’m not sure how fast I peeled out of my driveway after that phone call, but the smell of burnt rubber lingered for days.
The new restaurant is a little swankier than the original, in the sense that the walls are covered with oversize poster art instead of hand-scrawled signs, and that the cinnamon-spiced coffee is made in a staging area that looks like the break room in a Century City law firm. Also, there are actual tables and chairs.
Mostly, though, there is the old menu, plumped out with various seafood cocktails and the like, but largely the same. Sure, the barbacoa is wet and dull; the sopes uninspired; the pozole too funky and rich. But the new chef, Mauricio, continues in the best Dos Arbolitos tradition. Campestre, Yayo‘s most inspired invention, involving long-braised pork steaks, rubbed with a smoked-chile paste and topped with fried green pepper and a swirl of blackened strands of onion, is tender enough to cut with a plastic fork. Costillitas are wonderful, tiny little chewy ribs blanketed with a salty, grainy sauce of chiles and tomatillos that stains the soft meat the color of an Ensenada sunset. Machaca is a pretty old-fashioned rendition of the dish but no less tasty for that, wet hanks of shredded beef fried hard with onions, peppers, tomatoes and eggs, practically begging for a slosh of the hottest salsa. In the chile verde, the sweetness of the vegetable rings clearly over the not-inconsiderable heat. And in the pollo alcaparrado, the puckery, vinegary flavor penetrates clear to the bone; the juices from the chicken flavor the already well-spiced Mexican rice into which the bird nestles, and the refried beans, which have that creamy lightness and clarity of flavor that comes only with non-Heart-Association-approved cooking fats, are better than fine. It is a delicious plate of food.#
9034 Woodley Ave., North Hills; (818) 891-6661. Open Mon.--Sat. for breakfast, lunch and dinner; Sun. for breakfast and lunch. Dinner for two, food only, $12--$18. MC, V.