Most Los Angeles Mexican restaurants once seemed to be more or less the same, bastions of enchilada dinners and soggy chiles rellenos, Mexican “pizza” and a carnitas plate if you were lucky. I once proposed a law that would revoke the alcohol license of any Mexican restaurant that failed to serve at least two dishes from the proprietor’s home state, and there would have been thousands of new BYOBs if such an ordinance had passed. But in the last dozen years or so, L.A. has become a world center of regional Mexican cuisine, thick with restaurants representing Jalisco, Zacatecas and Sinaloa, Oaxaca and Guerrero, Colima, Veracruz and the Yucatán, Baja, Puebla and León — practically every region of the country with the possible exception of Chiapas, and I expect to run across a Chiapas-style taqueria in South Gate or someplace soon.
Still, for some reason, restaurants serving the food of the Distrito Federal, the region encompassing Mexico City, have been rare around here. The capital has always been famous for its wide variety of antojitos (masa-based snacks). Though I would occasionally run across stands serving huaraches or mulitas — sturdy, D.F.-style constructions of meat and beans sandwiched inside split, thickly built corn tortillas (La Taquiza near USC has a good one) — the goopy fillings of squash blossoms or the ink-black corn fungus called huitlacoche were nowhere to be found. Sometimes I have found restaurants specializing in weighty, cheese-intensive dishes in the manner of the capital, including the popular La Cabanita in a northern corner of Glendale, but those items were always outnumbered by the carne asada plates and al pastor on the menu. And the actual D.F.-style taquerias that popped up in Pacoima and Pico Rivera seemed to have the life span of mayflies.
But the famous El Huarache Azteca in Highland Park, although it didn’t identify itself as a D.F.-style restaurant, began to pump out a lot of Mexico City street food, including pambazos, the namesake huaraches, and the elusive quesadillas de huitlacoche, fresh-fried on weekends in an adjunct fryer outside the restaurant and oozing tarry-black goo. There were spottings of D.F.-style trucks on the Eastside. And blasting down East Olympic the other day, looking for a taqueria to replace a favorite Guadalajaran joint that had recently become part of a mediocre chain, I ran across a restaurant advertising Antojitos del D.F. in 2-foot-high letters, a full-fledged dining room in an area of bootleg al pastor grills, a place as busy during nightclub hours as it is empty during the afternoons. The beer was so cold that it began to solidify into slush where it hit the icy glass, cold enough to hurt your teeth on a hot Santa Ana afternoon.
Is the restaurant actually called Antojitos del D.F.? I don’t know. The credit card receipts read Las Palmas, which is also the way it is listed in the phone book, and the waitresses tend to answer with a shrug. (I remember the building, directly on the Ditman offramp from the 5 south, as Las Carnitas, an institution so old that it still translated its signature dish as “little pork meats.”) But antojitos del D.F. are what it serves: leathery quesadillas folded over a stew of squash blossoms thickened with melted cheese; huge, plate-flat huaraches stuffed with puréed beans and topped with cream, shredded lettuce, fresh cheese, and salty, carbonized nubs of marinated pork; and the crisp chorizo sandwiches called pambazos, stained orange with savory grease. I realized I had forgotten to try the mulitas, and the sound of rhythmic dough-clapping came from the kitchen the second my order went in — the disks of dough were more delicate than any pupusa. Although the tacos and sopes tended not to be up to the level of the rest of the food, at least the tortillas were made to order.
Over on the Westside, on National a few steps south of the 10, Sabor a Mexico is the standard-bearer of D.F. cooking, a small stand with a pleasant tiled patio whose tables line up in front of a tolerant auto-stereo store. The chicken-chile stew tinga tends to be bland, the tacos are rote and the sweet mole sauce is by-the-numbers. But as at the Eastside restaurant, the D.F.-style antojitos are the thing, and they also are made to order: thin, tough huaraches glazed with black beans and sauce and blanketed with broiled steak; sincronizadas, what most of us think of as quesadillas, filled with cheese and chicken breast; and sopes, cornmeal saucers, that could break teeth. What Sabor a Mexico calls quesadillas are what a lot of people call empanadas, feather-light fried turnovers filled with cheese and either huitlacoche, squash blossoms with fresh epazote and mushrooms, or the delicious mixture of roasted chiles and cream called rajas. There are “tortas politicas,” bean-and-avocado-laden sandwiches named after Mexican politicians — I liked the Torta Fox, stuffed with crisply fried pork steak milanesa, although a variation that also included hot dogs and extra panela cheese was kind of mind-blowing. The house version of a parrillada, a grilled-meat plate, is an over-the-top masterpiece that looks a lot like a fajitas plate on a mescal bender: peppers and onions and steak and lots of cheese tossed onto a sizzling platter, a noisy, spitting beast, not unlike what you may have seen elsewhere as alambre, that continues to char and bubble a quarter-hour after it lands on your table.
So Los Angeles gets pambazos and huitlacoche quesadillas; Mexico City gets L.A. Weekly staffer Daniel Hernandez, who is leaving us to write a book there based on last year’s wonderful cover story on the D.F. cultural scene. “Te roban los calcetines sin quitarte los zapatos,” his father said about D.F. in that piece. “They’ll steal your socks without taking off your shoes.” True enough. But at least the food is some consolation.
Antojitos del D.F. (Las Palmas), 4003 E. Olympic Blvd., L.A., (323) 264-4944. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Beer and wine. Takeout. Street parking. MC, V. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $7–$14. Recommended dishes: quesadillas de flor de calabaza, pambazos, mulitas.
Sabor a Mexico, 940 National Blvd., L.A., (310) 280-0380. Open daily 11 a.m.–10 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking. MC, V. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $11–$26. Recommended dishes: quesadilla de flor de calabaza, “parrillada” de carne asada.