Anyone who loves cochinita pibil, the Yucatecan dish of pork roasted in banana leaves, knows the well-traveled route to Chichen Itza in the Mercado La Paloma near USC just south of downtown, which also houses Ricardo Zarate's Mo-Chica. Chef-owner Gilberto Cetina's small, informal restaurant specializes in the Mayan-influenced cuisine of the Yucatán, by turns bright and citrussy and breathtakingly hot — thanks in no small part to Cetina's housemade habanero sauce, which he also makes and sells on the premises.
A few years ago, Cetina had a second Chichen Itza, near MacArthur Park, which closing many of us still lament. Since then, Cetina has been focused on his original restaurant, his sauces, his catering and an upcoming cookbook on traditional cuisine from the Yucatán. We visited the chef recently for the details on all of the above, as well as his thoughts on the state of Mexican food in Los Angeles and whether he'd consider expanding again. Turn the page, and check back later on for Cetina's recipe for Tikin-Xic, or roasted fish in anchiote sauce.
Squid Ink: When did you open Chichen Itza? This predated the second restaurant near MacArthur Park, right?
Gilberto Cetina: Yes. We opened here first, in February of 2001. Ten years ago already.
SI: What else was down here, other than you, in the beginning?
GC: There are two businesses from the original time that are still here. My neighbor and Chichen Itza. He opened a week later. Other places opened in the next weeks or months, but we are the only two restaurants that are original. I think there have been nine or ten in ten years. Now the mercado is a success, every business open now is almost guaranteed is going to stay. The beginning it wasn't so. We've been open for ten years. In 2006 we opened the other location in MacArthur Park. It was a big, big mistake. We could never make it work. We had to shut down in 2009. We operated that place for two and a half years.
SI: Why do you think it didn't work? The location? The economy?
GC: A few things, but the big issue was the economy. Because we opened and for almost 20 months we did well, according to our business plan, everything was going well. When the economic depression started, the sales started going down going down going down. And it looked like it was never going to stop going down, and then we started having problems here. We started using money from here to pay for that. One day I remember, it was a Friday, and my wife said, hey, we don't have money for the payroll. At that moment I decided to close down that place.
SI: And that was in the beginning of the so-called economic “downturn.”
GC: It was very, very hard. We started thinking about closing down maybe 6 months before we did it. I was like, We have to fight, we have to make this work. We tried everything, we asked for help from the city, the county. But there was no way. I don't have that kind of money. I think we did the right thing.
SI: Well, you saved this place.
GC: This place is going well. And we do catering. The hot sauce is mostly a hobby. I have seven items, seven food products: two sauces, the achiote paste, we have a black pepper rub for steak, horchata syrup, a homemade smoked chorizo, and the black chile paste.
SI: When did you start that?
GC: I started with the bottled habanero sauce seven years ago. Then I added more. The first bottle took me about two or three years just working on the recipe. I left it on the shelf, it separates, two weeks, two months later… Finally I got it right. I don't know, maybe some day. It was a big issue with me in 2006. I had two choices when we started a [second] restaurant: I start that restaurant, or I do something with the sauces. And we chose the restaurant, the wrong one.
SI: Well, how could you have known?
GC: Yes, that's the thing: you never know what's going to work and what's not going to work. We made the sauces here at the restaurant. It's 350 square feet; it's very small.
SI: So what's on the horizon? Would you open another restaurant?
GC: I'm going to wait a couple more years. There are some businesses, like John [Sedlar of Rivera and Playa], like Loteria [Grill], like Frida, that are still opening in this economy. John just opened in another location — Playa. We all started at the same time: Frida, Loteria and Chichen Itza. When I opened the second location, Jimmy [Shaw of Loteria Grill] told me, Hey, I'm going to open three or four more locations in the next few years. Alright. He did it. But I don't know, for me I don't want to take a chance to do the same thing again. I'm going to wait. I'm 60 years old. Last week was my birthday. In two years, if things change a little bit, maybe I'll take another chance. If not, I can retire. My son is here; he's taking care of the business. He's already now better than me.
SI: He's named Gilberto too. Has he always cooked with you? Did you want him to follow in your footsteps?
GC: Of course. Yes, he's doing the TV demonstrations. We've been doing cooking demonstrations every Sunday on Channel 52 en Español. This Sunday he made this, the fish [points to the Tikin-Xic fish dish; check back later for this recipe]. When we started with the cooking segments on Telemundo, first I cooked myself, then I said to my son, You do the next one. And he did it. And the next week the producer asked for him. Ha. This Sunday when the camera guys showed up, he [his son] said, You do it. I said, No, I don't want to, you do it.
SI: So where are you from originally?
GC: I was born in a small town on the east part of the Yucatan, very close to Cancun, and close to Chichen Itza. My town's name is Tizimin. My mom owned a home restaurant — in Mexico, in your own house you can run a restaurant. We are six brothers and we help every single day. After school, you clean the beans, wash the beef tripe, stuff like that. 7-8 years old. That way I started cooking. Then when I was 15, after middle school, I went to the capital, where we owned a house, and I lived there myself the first year. The second year one of my brothers came to join me and I started cooking for myself and my brother. Then finally we had three brothers in the house and we did everything: one cooking, the other one cleaning, the other one washing.
SI: Does everybody cook or just you?
GC: Two of my brothers don't like to cook. One doesn't like to do anything: no cooking, no nothing. And the other one is a businessman, he lives in Cancun, he doesn't like to cook. But my two sisters and my other brother — he lives in Vegas, he's a contractor — they like to cook. Not professionally.
SI: So when did you come here?
GC: The first time, 1979. I was here for a couple years, then back to Mexico for a few years, and in 1986 I came back here, stayed here for seven years, back to Cancun, seven years, and then I came back here in 1997.
SI: Were you cooking professionally all that time?
GC: Mostly. I'm a civil engineer. When I'm in Cancun, I work as an engineer. I like varying these kinds of things. I like to do a lot of things: salsas, experimenting. The only thing I don't like to do is change the recipes. We have only classic Yucatecan recipes; we don't change anything. Like the papadzules, the first time you have them, you think it's a little bit weird. Hard-boiled egg and enchiladas and a pumpkin seed sauce. And people say, Umm, can you switch the hard-boiled egg for chicken? No. Can you change it for vegetables? No. Can you…? No. We don't do changes; we don't do it. Once you try the papadzules, it works; it's a really good dish. The combination, the egg, the pumpkin seeds, the tortilla, the tomato sauce, the pumpkin seed oil: the flavor is amazing.
SI: Well, quite aside from the fact that it's annoying to change a dish every 30 seconds, you're preserving a cuisine. But your menu hasn't stayed the same for 10 years.
GC: We started with a menu and we didn't change it for three years — no changes. But we have our specials, okay? There's our regular menu and our specials, for Monday, for Tuesday, blah blah blah. After three years, the most successful specials go to the permanent menu, and then we bring out another round of specials. Three years ago, and we did it again last month. One of the big issues for us is to shred the turkeys for the panuchos — the panucho is a lot of work — it's very intensive labor. And no one in the kitchen wants to do it.
SI: So how much do you think the Mexican food scene has changed since you've been here? It's gotten a bit more upscale, what with Rick Bayless coming to town and all.
GC: How long has Red O been open? When they just opened, I remember three or four customers came in one day and told me, Hey, you know, you don't have to worry about the cochinita pibil of Red O. Your cochinita is a lot better. Or we have the camarones Yucatán; it's one of our specials. A guy told me, Hey, Gilberto, I paid $27 for the same dish that's not as good, and you charge me $12. Of course I know the concept is another thing.
SI: You don't have a tequila lounge. Or bouncers.
GC: Right. But I think most of those things are good for us. You know, the cochinita is very popular now; you see cochinita in a lot of restaurants. And people go to the other places and then they come back here for the cochinita. It's good. We're good. I think this is the kind of business we need to keep doing. Okay, we tried something more fancy, doesn't work, I don't know if in another location it would work. Maybe, I don't know. But I don't want to find out. This is the right concept for us.
SI: Especially now, with the food trucks. People like the small restaurants. The white tablecloths restaurants aren't the ones that are opening.
GC: I like what's happening in France right now. The new chefs are doing things more like this, very informal restaurants. Things like the mercado. They're bringing to places like this the menus of Joël Robuchon.
SI: What do you think of the new food truck phenomenon?
GC: I think it's a good idea. I had a person who talked to us about a food truck, he said, Hey, I want to invest in a food truck, you want to? Not for me. You know that that is harder than this? Very very very hard. You know, maybe 20 years ago. I think it's better that my son is getting involved in all this. I just want to finish my book right now.
SI: Your cookbook. When is it coming out?
GC: In two, three months. I don't have a name; we're playing with 5, 6 different names. It's about 150 recipes. I have my personal cookbook; I have about 500 Yucatecan recipes, all Yucatecan cuisine. I think here I've used no more than 50 recipes from that cookbook. In 10 years. Now we're going to do 150. The dishes that we have here on the menu are the commercial dishes of Yucatecan cuisine, because if I try the weird recipes that we have in our cuisine, people are going to get scared.
Now, in the last couple years, there are the blog guys and the Chowhound guys — those guys are going for new things. Yesterday, Mondays, we have a pork and black bean soup cooked altogether like pozole, but instead of hominy we use black beans. Point is, we use bits, we use ears, we use everything of the pork. We started with that dish 10 years ago. Now, every Monday: gone. We brought that to Jonathan's event [The Gold Standard, 2011] and sold out. Now we have people coming here for that.
It's very interesting because we have some Lebanese dishes too. Kabobs, hummus, eggplant dip, garbanzo dip, garlic dip, dolmas. We got that from them, and we changed it; we made it in another way. They like their way; they like our way. And they took some Mayan dishes, Yucatecan dishes, and did it in the Lebanese way too. You know, there are a lot of Lebanese in the Yucatán.
SI: Didn't know that.
GC: Yucatecan food has Mayan roots, but with three big influences: Spanish, Lebanese, and Dutch. We have a little bit of French, a little bit of Korean, but the three big ones are the ones you can see in the food. You can see how they've changed it. Here [at the restaurant] the only Mayan dish is the Sikil'Pac.
Sometimes we bring in boar or venison, sometimes rabbit — all those are Mayan dishes. Maybe the tamales are very close to the Mayan, but with a little bit changed. We use chicken now, that's a post-Colonial meat; it's not original from America. The tamales are the closest. But this, the Sikil'Pac, is a 100% Mayan dish. It's made with ground roasted pepitas, fire roasted tomatoes, spring onion and cilantro.
SI: And your habanero sauce?
GC: We did an interview with NBC about the peppers a few months ago. He asked me, Do you know what the hottest pepper in the world is? Yeah, I told him. Let me tell you this way, you know that 2 years ago it was the habanero; now it's the Naga Jolokia from India. Oh, he says, Everybody says the habanero. Yeah, the habanero was; it's not anymore. Are you able to try this, he says. [Ed. note: this interview was conducted before a new chile was reportedly recorded as the world's hottest.]
SI: Did you?
GC: Yeah. You know, some of the Naga Jolokias are 1 million 500,000 Scoville units. I don't know; I don't think the one I tried was that hot. Hot. But I've been saying this for a long time: the flavor of the habanero, especially the habanero from the Yucatán, is unique. Because most of the habaneros grow in places where they also grow papayas and mangos and pineapples, and the habaneros take the flavors from the plants. The habanero I most like is the green habanero.
SI: That's not the one you use in your sauce, though.
GC: They don't bring the green one here. It's hard to find here; in Yucatan it's very easy. Then there's the orange, commercial quality, and the red, industrial quality.
SI: So you use the orange habaneros?
GC: I use the orange because that's the one we can get. The hottest is the red. It goes: green, yellow, red. Oh, I love the green ones; if I could only get the green ones…
Check back later for Gilberto Cetina's recipe for Tikin-Xic, or roasted fish with anchiote sauce.