When you pull into the parking lot behind El Sinaloense, a small, crowded Mexican restaurant toward the southern edge of Huntington Park, the first thing you will notice is the sheer number of customized trucks. Gleaming, dark-windowed beasts, pickups jacked up on chromed struts to the height of school buses, pump Sinaloan banda — think of badass steroidal polka — the second their owners turn their keys in the ignition. Even if you spend a lot of time at truck shows, these 4X4 monsters are impressive. They scream aggressive machismo more blatantly than an oil tanker filled with Axe Bodyspray. Parked next to them, the restaurant’s shiny catering van, covered with a full-body photo-mural, looks less like a food transport than a mobile DJ unit. “100% Cuchi,” scream the letters on the side.
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Pick a shrimp picoso at El Sinaloense, but the machaca is even better.
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A pinch of cilantro for Gumacus' frijoles con hueso
El Sinaloense is perhaps the most popular Sinaloan restaurant in this part of the world, a specialist in the meaty, intense dishes of Culiacán, which is the inland capital of the beachy Mexican state, and the birthplace of corrido, the Mexican equivalent of gangsta rap. While there isn’t a dedicated Sinaloan neighborhood in the Los Angeles area, nothing like the Oaxacatown in the Byzantine-Latino district or the vast stretches of Jalisco in East L.A., there is something like a center of gravity, and you can find a small concentration of Sinaloan restaurants and businesses where South Gate runs into Huntington Park, taquerías whose menus may include picosos or shrimp in agua de chile along with the usual roster of burritos and tortas, even an occasional chorizo-packed version of Sinaloan-style enchiladas del suelo. Badiraguato, the longest-lived of the local Sinaloan cafés, has a killer appetizer of smoked-marlin tacos with cheese.
When you step inside El Sinaloense, the protocol is to stand in line behind the cash register, order quickly and take the wooden number the cashier gives you to an open table if there happens to be one. Soon enough, a half-liter glass bottle of Squirt or Mexican Coke will appear on the table, maybe a small, delicious shrimp tostada, a fried whole fish or a quartet of sopes topped with shredded beef. There is an orthodox take on Sinaloan asado, a crunchy hash of well-done roast beef sautéed with tiny cubes of potato and tossed into a kind of salad. The best thing in the restaurant is probably the chilorio, a bright-orange heap of pork that has been stewed with chiles and cumin, pounded almost into a paste and fried with vegetables, scrambled with eggs or tucked into a burrito with the pale, near-liquid mashed Sinaloan-style beans cooked in lard. (The Sinaloan name for these beans is frijoles puercos, and you can taste the pig in every bite.) On weekends, you can get the Cuchi version of cochinita, pork cooked down with tomatoes, chiles and vinegar into a sweet-sour mass with the ungodly red-orange color of tandoori chicken, if you’re not in the mood for the usual menudo or pozole. The very good tortillas are handmade.
Machaca is generally a sorry thing in restaurants, watery shreds of stewed beef with maybe some bell pepper thrown in, a burrito filling fried hard with eggs and too much oil. But Sinaloan machaca, in its correct form — essentially fried, shredded beef jerky — is the great dish of the dry Mexican West. At El Sinaloense, it is all salt and smoke, a ruddy, brown heap of dried beef, grilled, pounded in a mortar, fried to a crisp, powdery frizzle: a chewy animal essence with a specific gravity somewhere south of lead. The usual call is for machaca scrambled with eggs — El Sinaloense does a big breakfast business — but when you order the pure, uncut version of the dish, it comes spread in a thick layer on a dinner plate, raked into ridges like the sand of a Zen garden and formed at the edge into a high-lipped dam that keeps the frijoles puercos from oozing over onto the rest of the plate.
If you prefer a traditional sit-down restaurant setting to El Sinaloense’s high-school-cafeteria ambiance (although you’re still not going to avoid the fútbol games blaring from multiple screens), Gumacus Sinaloa Grill is right down the street, a relatively genteel take on a Sinaloan cenaduría, or informal supper house, with full table service, plenty of Pacifico beer and a more home-style take on the Sinaloan classics: agua de chile, cheese-stuffed enchiladas a la Sinaloense and a wettish, shredded chilorio whose texture owes more to the stew pot than to the griddle.
I like the rotating soup specials at Gumacus — the Thursday soup of frijoles con hueso, a beef-bone broth fortified with beans, is especially good. The thick, handmade tortillas are supple. The machaca, a shredded-beef version that resembles a northern-Mexico machaca fried hard, crackles like potato chips. The marlin quesadillas have a deep smokiness, the profound chew of the Indian smoked salmon you can buy in the Pacific Northwest. Would I rather go to El Sinaloense? Probably — Badiraguato too. But Gumacus is the Sinaloan place where I took my mother-in-law for brunch.
El Sinaloense, 7601 State St., Huntington Park, (323) 581-1532. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $12-$18. Recommended dishes: chilorio; machaca.
Gumacus Sinaloa Grill, 8646 State St., South Gate, (323) 566-5522. Open Mon., Tues., Wed. & Fri. 9 a.m.–9 p.m.; Thurs. 9 a.m.–7 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. 8 a.m.–9 p.m. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking in rear. MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $14-$20. Recommended dishes: marlin quesadillas; enchiladas a la Sinaloense; machaca.