Anyone who loves cochinita pibil, the Yucatecan dish of pork roasted in banana leaves, knows the well-traveled route to Chichen Itza in the Mercado La Paloma near USC just south of downtown, which also houses Ricardo Zarate's Mo-Chica. Chef-owner Gilberto Cetina's small, informal restaurant specializes in the Mayan-influenced cuisine of the Yucatán, by turns bright and citrussy and breathtakingly hot -- thanks in no small part to Cetina's housemade habanero sauce, which he also makes and sells on the premises.
A few years ago, Cetina had a second Chichen Itza, near MacArthur Park, which closing many of us still lament. Since then, Cetina has been focused on his original restaurant, his sauces, his catering and an upcoming cookbook on traditional cuisine from the Yucatán. We visited the chef recently for the details on all of the above, as well as his thoughts on the state of Mexican food in Los Angeles and whether he'd consider expanding again. Turn the page, and check back later on for Cetina's recipe for Tikin-Xic, or roasted fish in anchiote sauce.
Squid Ink: When did you open Chichen Itza? This predated the second restaurant near MacArthur Park, right?
Gilberto Cetina: Yes. We opened here first, in February of 2001. Ten years ago already.
SI: What else was down here, other than you, in the beginning?
GC: There are two businesses from the original time that are still here. My neighbor and Chichen Itza. He opened a week later. Other places opened in the next weeks or months, but we are the only two restaurants that are original. I think there have been nine or ten in ten years. Now the mercado is a success, every business open now is almost guaranteed is going to stay. The beginning it wasn't so. We've been open for ten years. In 2006 we opened the other location in MacArthur Park. It was a big, big mistake. We could never make it work. We had to shut down in 2009. We operated that place for two and a half years.
SI: Why do you think it didn't work? The location? The economy?
GC: A few things, but the big issue was the economy. Because we opened and for almost 20 months we did well, according to our business plan, everything was going well. When the economic depression started, the sales started going down going down going down. And it looked like it was never going to stop going down, and then we started having problems here. We started using money from here to pay for that. One day I remember, it was a Friday, and my wife said, hey, we don't have money for the payroll. At that moment I decided to close down that place.
SI: And that was in the beginning of the so-called economic "downturn."
GC: It was very, very hard. We started thinking about closing down maybe 6 months before we did it. I was like, We have to fight, we have to make this work. We tried everything, we asked for help from the city, the county. But there was no way. I don't have that kind of money. I think we did the right thing.
SI: Well, you saved this place.
GC: This place is going well. And we do catering. The hot sauce is mostly a hobby. I have seven items, seven food products: two sauces, the achiote paste, we have a black pepper rub for steak, horchata syrup, a homemade smoked chorizo, and the black chile paste.
SI: When did you start that?
GC: I started with the bottled habanero sauce seven years ago. Then I added more. The first bottle took me about two or three years just working on the recipe. I left it on the shelf, it separates, two weeks, two months later... Finally I got it right. I don't know, maybe some day. It was a big issue with me in 2006. I had two choices when we started a [second] restaurant: I start that restaurant, or I do something with the sauces. And we chose the restaurant, the wrong one.
SI: Well, how could you have known?
GC: Yes, that's the thing: you never know what's going to work and what's not going to work. We made the sauces here at the restaurant. It's 350 square feet; it's very small.
SI: So what's on the horizon? Would you open another restaurant?
GC: I'm going to wait a couple more years. There are some businesses, like John [Sedlar of Rivera and Playa], like Loteria [Grill], like Frida, that are still opening in this economy. John just opened in another location -- Playa. We all started at the same time: Frida, Loteria and Chichen Itza. When I opened the second location, Jimmy [Shaw of Loteria Grill] told me, Hey, I'm going to open three or four more locations in the next few years. Alright. He did it. But I don't know, for me I don't want to take a chance to do the same thing again. I'm going to wait. I'm 60 years old. Last week was my birthday. In two years, if things change a little bit, maybe I'll take another chance. If not, I can retire. My son is here; he's taking care of the business. He's already now better than me.
SI: He's named Gilberto too. Has he always cooked with you? Did you want him to follow in your footsteps?
GC: Of course. Yes, he's doing the TV demonstrations. We've been doing cooking demonstrations every Sunday on Channel 52 en Español. This Sunday he made this, the fish [points to the Tikin-Xic fish dish; check back later for this recipe]. When we started with the cooking segments on Telemundo, first I cooked myself, then I said to my son, You do the next one. And he did it. And the next week the producer asked for him. Ha. This Sunday when the camera guys showed up, he [his son] said, You do it. I said, No, I don't want to, you do it.
SI: So where are you from originally?
GC: I was born in a small town on the east part of the Yucatan, very close to Cancun, and close to Chichen Itza. My town's name is Tizimin. My mom owned a home restaurant -- in Mexico, in your own house you can run a restaurant. We are six brothers and we help every single day. After school, you clean the beans, wash the beef tripe, stuff like that. 7-8 years old. That way I started cooking. Then when I was 15, after middle school, I went to the capital, where we owned a house, and I lived there myself the first year. The second year one of my brothers came to join me and I started cooking for myself and my brother. Then finally we had three brothers in the house and we did everything: one cooking, the other one cleaning, the other one washing.
SI: Does everybody cook or just you?
GC: Two of my brothers don't like to cook. One doesn't like to do anything: no cooking, no nothing. And the other one is a businessman, he lives in Cancun, he doesn't like to cook. But my two sisters and my other brother -- he lives in Vegas, he's a contractor -- they like to cook. Not professionally.
SI: So when did you come here?
GC: The first time, 1979. I was here for a couple years, then back to Mexico for a few years, and in 1986 I came back here, stayed here for seven years, back to Cancun, seven years, and then I came back here in 1997.
SI: Were you cooking professionally all that time?
GC: Mostly. I'm a civil engineer. When I'm in Cancun, I work as an engineer. I like varying these kinds of things. I like to do a lot of things: salsas, experimenting. The only thing I don't like to do is change the recipes. We have only classic Yucatecan recipes; we don't change anything. Like the papadzules, the first time you have them, you think it's a little bit weird. Hard-boiled egg and enchiladas and a pumpkin seed sauce. And people say, Umm, can you switch the hard-boiled egg for chicken? No. Can you change it for vegetables? No. Can you...? No. We don't do changes; we don't do it. Once you try the papadzules, it works; it's a really good dish. The combination, the egg, the pumpkin seeds, the tortilla, the tomato sauce, the pumpkin seed oil: the flavor is amazing.
SI: Well, quite aside from the fact that it's annoying to change a dish every 30 seconds, you're preserving a cuisine. But your menu hasn't stayed the same for 10 years.