Los Angeles, if you look at it a certain way, is the second-largest city in Mexico, with a bigger Mexican population than Guadalajara, Veracruz or Puebla, and arguably a cultural presence within Mexico second only to Mexico City as well. But until recently, it was all but impossible to find a restaurant in Los Angeles representing the baroque glories of high Mexican cuisine — not the tacos and enchilada plates from the snacky end of the menu but the chiles en nogada; complex, labor-intensive sauces; the game dishes; and the evolved desserts of the classic Mexican kitchen.
Jalisco natives Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu, muscular, shaved-headed chefs who became fast friends when they met as airline company executives 19 years ago, had always wanted to find a restaurant that served the elaborate traditional food that their grandmothers had prepared when they were growing up, but there was nothing like it at the time in Los Angeles. Armed with their grandmothers’ recipes but almost no capital, they opened what may have been California’s first cenaduría, dinner house, next door to a popular bakery in the South L.A. suburb Bell half a dozen years ago. From the first days La Casita Mexicana was crowded with customers hungry for the mole poblano, the tortitas of shrimp, and the banana-leaf-wrapped cheese their own grandmothers may have made for family and friends.
“In the beginning,” Arvizu says, “not everybody understood what we were doing — not just outsiders, but Mexican people too. They understood tacos and burritos, and maybe some of the food from their own state, but the idea of a larger, nostalgic Mexican cuisine was foreign to them. They thought it was too expensive. But a lot of them kept coming back, and now they are our best customers.”
The restaurant’s approach to cooking was quickly noticed by local Spanish-language newspapers, where the pair became a fixture in the food pages; by the Spanish-language television network Univision, where they host a morning cooking segment; by supermarket chains who want them associated with their stores; and by investors who want Del Campo and Arvizu to bottle their mole as well as to expand beyond Bell, possibly to downtown Los Angeles. The two haunt communal farms, currently the one on Alameda near Imperial in Watts, looking for huazontle, hoja santa and nopales as fresh and beautiful as they might be in an agriculture-obsessed Jalisco village. They have an idea for a new restaurant — “fast but slow” — about which they refuse to divulge a word.
“Mexican gastronomy is vaster and more challenging than anybody knows,” says Arvizu. “We will never run out of things to do.”