If you have spent much time in South and Southeast L.A., around the boulevards and crabbed side streets that are home to much of the great northward flow, you may have come to believe that practically everything worth doing or eating originated in Guadalajara and its Mexican state of Jalisco. Guadalajara, tapatios never tire of telling you, is where you find the best tacos, the freshest vegetables, the earthiest flavors that sprout from the roasted western Mexican soil. Jalisco is the birthplace of pozole and tortas ahogadas, aguachile, carne en su jugo, and lamb tacos fried until their shells sizzle and crack. Guadalajarans are so devoted to goat, the primary ingredient of their emblematic birria, that the local soccer team is named Chivas in its honor. The grandest of the Mexican markets in Los Angeles is called Tapatio, the name Guadalajara residents call each other, and so is the most popular Mexican hot sauce. El Parian, my favorite Los Angeles birria restaurant, is named for a restaurant plaza in Tlaquepaque, on Guadalajara’s southern edge.
The city itself, at least outside of its colonial center, tends to resemble Los Angeles, a vast, low, sprawling city tied together by truck and automobile, defined by traffic, working neighborhoods flavored with exhaust, hot metal and the aroma of frying chiles. Guadalajara may be the heartland of a certain kind of Mexican culture, the birthplace of mariachi and tequila, but when you walk down one of the avenues, peeking into ice cream parlors and taquerias and music stores bulging with oddly shaped guitars, it doesn’t feel that different from Downey or Huntington Park — except that in Huntington Park, many more people wear Chivas jerseys on the streets and declare their love for Jalisco on the bumpers of their cars. (All six of the futbol fans I talked to in Guadalajara support Atlas, which is kind of the Mets to the Chivas’ Yankees.)
I was in town for the Feria Internacional del Libro, the second-largest book fair in the world, which showcases the literature of a different Latin-American country each year. The vast Expo Guadalajara, at least as big as our convention center, dedicated a large corner to L.A.: towering displays of Los Angeles novels and art books; a video wall on which the names of L.A. writers careened in magnificent slow motion; and a splendid, glistening, customized Monte Carlo that drew clumps of awed teenage boys the entire week of the fair. I was part of a delegation of writers brought in to discuss matters of L.A. identity, aesthetics and literature, but, of course, it wasn’t long before I started to plan out the week in terms of the food I might be able to sample, so that a trip to a reprise of LACMA’s “Phantom Sightings: Art After the Chicano Movement,” at the nearby Museo de Arte Zapopan might bounce to a stop at the enormous Zapopan seafood market, a look at Mark Dean Veca’s installation at the Cabana cultural complex could segue into a visit to a place famous for its calves’ brain flautas; and the toasted grasshoppers with guacamole at Loncherita managed to be on the way from just about anywhere to just about anywhere else. I am at least as enthralled by Daniel Hernandez’s ideas about pocho culture, Mark Danielewski’s take on Pynchon, and D.J. Waldie’s interpretation of the urban grid as the next guy, but a fellow’s got to eat.
I have never felt quite as foolish as at the moment a newspaper reporter insisted that I be photographed eating a torta ahogada, a local sandwich of roast meat and chiles drowned in tomato sauce, even as my ineptness with the hard roll made it clear that I had never assembled one before.
At one bar, 24 mariachis surrounded a single table at two in the morning, playing for a pair of ruddy-faced men who wore that look of detached bliss you may associate with the recipients of lap dances. When one of them rose from his chair to sing a verse, cheek pressed against the rough face of the bandleader, he collapsed a few seconds later in joyful dissipation and took a long drag on his cigarette. At a downtown cantina, the trumpet player wobbled ecstatically. At Loncherita, the tiny duck tortas ahogadas and marlin tostadas went deliriously well with shots of bacanora, sotol and especially Raicilla, a vanilla-scented variant of tequila that has a reputation for inspiring torrid desires in women but impotence in men — a liquor that provides its own punch line.
The famous street-taco stands on Mexicaltzingo were clouded in carne asada smoke fragrant enough to please any number of vengeful gods. Another stand was arranged like a Francis Bacon painting, each organ and entrail organized in its own sector of the multitiered grill. Beef forehead, beef lips, beef tongue, beef cheek, beef brain — I assembled a cow’s head in my stomach, one taco at a time. (A straggler told me about a special taco made from the glands at the base of a beef tongue, which he said was the best in the world.)
In a restaurant famous for the dish, I tried carne en su jugo, a mix of beans, bacon and pulverized beef shoulder served in a broth, but I found myself yearning for the version at La Barca back in El Monte; at the seafood restaurant El Negro, I had grilled shrimp and a sevichelike aguachile that were even a little better than their equivalents at Mariscos Chente in Mar Vista. (I also liked the aguachile at the wonderfully named Barra del Moron stall in the huge downtown mercado.)
Birria is a personal matter in Guadalajara — every man of a certain age will tell you about an astonishing version of the dish, prepared in one village or another, two or three hours out of town. I had birria almost every day I was there: stewy birria and crunchy birria, boiled birria and birria that tasted like a Sunday roast. In Guadalajara, you are never far from a kid.
Still, the Las Nueve Esquinas neighborhood is a goat-lover’s dream; the pretty square is south of downtown with a tinkling fountain, a statue of a poet and a phalanx of birria specialists, all bursting with customers on a crisp Sunday morning. In Las Nueve Esquinas you shall know a birria joint by the charred billy goat skulls in the window. Birriera Las 9 Esquinas had by far the most handsome arrangement of blackened skulls, a horror-show pile that would have been at home on a Gorgoroth album cover. What is birria? Preparations vary, but Las 9 Esquinas’ was close to the platonic ideal: chile-rubbed, fire-roasted goat-dampened at the last second with a clear, concentrated broth flavored with cloves, tomatoes and a dozen other things. It was swooningly good — even if the waitress bearing the plate of miscellaneous snouts and ears passed me by.
The day I got back to Los Angeles, I went to El Parian on Pico, to try the birria while the taste of 9 Esquinas lingered on my tongue, to see if what I had once called the single best Mexican dish in L.A. measured up to the best of Guadalajara. It came pretty close. The tortillas were thick and fresh; the chile-smeared rib meat was crisp on its bones. The broth sang with garlic and spice but mostly with a strong, goaty essence, a barnyard smack that could as well have come from the Jalisco mountains instead of from a restaurant a few blocks from the convention center. It tasted of Guadalajara. And of home.
EL PARIAN, 1528 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. (213) 386-7361. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Cash only. Beer. Lot parking in rear. Takeout. Recommended dish: birria.