Dear Mr. Gold:
Would you happen to have a Mexican restaurant recommendation for the unemployed vegetarian librarian's budget?
Emily, Silver Lake
If you were vegan, you probably would have mentioned that, right? Vegans don't tend to be shy about that kind of thing. And if you live in Silver Lake, you don't need me to tell you about Alegria, which does seem to be congenial to the non-carnivorous, non-pescatarian members of its clientele.
By rights, Mexican cooking should be very vegetarian-friendly — the wealth of Mexico's produce is overwhelming, and vegetarian soups and stews and beans and grains make up a huge part of the country's regular diet. But as with Korean food, it can be a bit challenging in practice to find a restaurant with more than the token chile relleno. I confess that I am not quite up to the task of evaluating Cinammon, a well-regarded vegan Mexican restaurant in Highland Park whose cuisine revolves around mock meats and soy cheese. But I can confirm that the potato tacos at My Taco and El Atacor #11, at different ends of Highland Park, are delicious. And there are always the portobello mulitas at Santa Monica's Border Grill.
Oaxacan restaurants typically offer a few non-meat dishes the importance of the sauces renders the meat they usually dress insignificant anyway. Moles La Tia in East L.A. has great mole tasting plates that don't necessarily involve meat. The cemitas, Puebla-style hoagies stuffed with hand-pulled Poblano string cheese, are pretty amazing at Elvirita's down by the big cemetery in Boyle Heights. There's a nice cheese-stuffed cauliflower dish at the tequila-intensive Amaranta in the Westfield Topanga Plaza mall. The new Yxta on 6th Street downtown has a good dish of calabacitas, stewed zucchini.
But as with many questions pertaining to local Mexican cooking, the answer may well be La Casita Mexicana in Bell, which sources many of its vegetables from local urban farmers, and has long been the place to go for lesser-known herbs and vegetables like camotes, romarito, quelites, verdolagas or huazontle in season. La Casita is far from a vegetarian restaurant — it sells an awful lot of carne asada — but its chefs are unafraid to put vegetables at the heart of a meal.
La Casita Mexicana
4030 E. Gage Ave., Bell, (323) 773-1898 or www.casitamex.com.
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