Photo by Anne Fishbein
Where traffic begins to thin and the Westside starts to flatten out into the Ballona Wetlands, at the intersection of Culver and Inglewood boulevards is a small Mexican neighborhood unto itself — a clump of businesses where you can buy wrestling videos, piñatas or freshly baked gingerbread pigs, find birria or cocido on hung-over Sunday mornings, even cheap plane tickets to Guadalajara or León. In most parts of the county, this little neighborhood would be unremarkable, but on the Westside it has the self-contained feel of an enclave, a small patch of rural Mexican soil spread out on neutral ground. On weekends, the parking lots are thronged with the luxury pickups, tricked-out Yukons and customized Navigators of affluent guys back in the old neighborhood.
The block is home to the famous Carniceria Sanchez, which has a reputation as the paramount Mexican butcher shop on this side of town — if you’re looking for bible tripe, buche or particularly succulent carne asada, this is the place to go. Almost as a side venture, Sanchez also manages to be perhaps the best taquería on the Westside, with rough-hewn tacos of cabeza, beef guts and marinated pork loin that have the rustic smack, the presence — the chi — of tacos made in northern Mexico instead of Culver City.
The real action on the block, however, centers on El Abajeno, a plain, self-service restaurant that has held down this spot since 1969, offering a taste not of Mexico but of Mexican-American California, the homestyle cooking that has been characteristic of this part of the world for more than 100 years, a cuisine not of sharp flavors and funky authenticity but of abundance.
I have stopped by El Abajeno every year or so for a couple of decades at least, always hoping to find something approaching transcendence, but I am usually disappointed by the plain, homey simplicity of the soups and stewed meats. The cornerstone of the menu here is the El Abajeno burrito, a monstrous construction the size and shape of a shoebox: two huge tortillas wrapped around truly heroic portions of lettuce, rice, beans and meat. An El Abajeno burrito, the Westside’s answer to the mammoth beasts served at El Tepeyac in East L.A., could probably feed a family of six with leftovers for lunch the next day, although I have never seen one attacked by more than one hungry guy. The architecture of the burrito, all flying buttresses and thick chile gravy, I admired; the bland chile verde, less so.
Perhaps I was always looking for the wrong thing: My opinion of the restaurant was clearly in the minority. At all times of day, a long, neat line of regulars stretches from the entrance to the service counter, a line that looks daunting but moves so quickly that first-timers are unlikely to be able to scan the huge wall menu before they are required to grab a tray and bark out an order. The people behind the cafeteria-style counter usually know what you want before you do, and newcomers are sometimes surprised that the counterwomen have assembled a Super Tostada for them before they have even quite formulated the notion themselves. Vats of stewed pork, stewed beef and the soft, shredded kind of carnitas stand at the ready along with their various garnishes. Apron-wearing men stagger in from the kitchen, bowed by the weight of vast trays of enchiladas, cauldrons of menudo, platters of chilaquiles, pots of smooth refried beans.
If the chips aren’t cooked in pure lard, somebody behind the stoves is a master illusionist. If you give the kitchen a few minutes, they’ll fry you a stack of flautas in avocado sauce or whip up a slab of carne asada that tastes as if it were made by somebody’s mom. There are all the No. 2 platters and taco combinations and chile tamales that you could wish for, California Mexican cooking from the days before anybody could tell you what birria was, when Jalisco and Guerrero and Colima were only places on a map.
Because while I am second to none in my admiration for cooks able to reproduce in Los Angeles an authentic-tasting chilpachole veracruzano de jaiba or a proper Sinaloanese salpicón, as often as not, an oozy, cheesy enchilada plate will do just fine. We are Southern Californians. This stuff is encoded in our DNA.
El Abajeno, 4515 Inglewood Blvd., Culver City, (310) 390-0755. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, Mon.-Thurs., 8 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun., 7 a.m.-8:30 p.m. AE, MC, V. Beer. Takeout. Lot parking. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $11–$18.