Babita Mexicuisine has been operating under the radar on an unprepossessing stretch of San Gabriel Boulevard for nearly two decades under the creative vision of chef Roberto Berrelleza. You wouldn't know it from the looks of the humble, comfy room, but Berrelleza put in considerable time as a maitre d' in various Los Angeles French restaurants, including the rarefied (now closed) Tower and the iconic, deeply missed Brown Derby in Hollywood. That experience seems to have informed the French technique employed in his lavish, meticulously composed, gourmet Mexican cuisine.
Babita is a family restaurant of the first order: Berrelleza's wife or daughter will lovingly explain the unique dishes, especially the exotic nightly specials, which are surely at the opposite end of the food spectrum from the usual Mexican standards. At his previous restaurant, La Moderna, Berrelleza offered tacos, burritos and menudo but experimented to come up with unique creations. Suffice to say, there are no burritos or tacos on the Babita menu.
Tables are topped with white tablecloths and a few paintings hang on the pale, desaturated green walls. But it feels more like you're visiting Grandma in the countryside for a home-cooked meal than sitting in a gourmet, fine-dining restaurant in the heart of San Gabriel.
Berrelleza's menu is carefully composed of appetizers, meat entrees and seafood dishes. Shredded crab, singing with the fresh flavor of the sea, is layered on a bed of grilled cactus and suave bean paste. It's topped with chopped tomatoes, chili, minced onions and drizzles of Mexican crema. The vanilla sweetness of the fresh crab is perfectly complemented by the bracing heat of the chili, and the crema acts as the necessary cooling agent.
The soup of the day is far from pedestrian. The menu describes it as "a contrast study of two soups" with a light, savory pea soup ladled on one side of the deep bowl (the ying) and the sweet manzana (apple) on the other (the yang). Take a bite of the sweet, then the savory, then go back to the sweet or mix the two together with the crema for a unique taste sensation that pops with flavor. It's a felicitous contrast that's surprisingly complementary.
The gueritos rellenos are mild yellow chilies stuffed with a piquant, freshly chopped salmon ceviche, marinated in lime juice, and drizzled with a strawberry sauce. From the look of it, you'd probably expect the prosaic type of red goo that usually accompanies a slice of New York cheesecake. But here that strawberry sauce is unexpectedly savory rather than syrupy sweet. You might not think of strawberry in the same way again. The sauce works in much the same way a sour citrus dressing would in a traditional Sinaloan ceviche.
Berrelleza grew up in bucolic Topolobampo, a tropical fishing port in northwestern Sinaloa, Mexico. That helps to explain the heavy emphasis on fresh seafood on Babita's menu.
The fried calamari is not what you would expect from the clichéd bar snack. Instead of using squid rings to prepare his calamari, Berrelleza uses fat cuts of squid steak, lightly battering and then frying them. Rather than the expected chewiness of fried calamari, this distinctive preparation is pillowy, soft and meaty. The novel cocktail sauce served with it is quite hot due to the idiosyncratic (and much appreciated) addition of fiery habanero chilies. But the heat is far from overpowering and helps to round out the flavors.
The cilantro margarita sorbet works as a perfect palate cleanser before the procession of entrees. Finely chopped red snapper ceviche rests on top of a boozy slush of tequila and chipped ice in a deep martini glass. The sweetness and alcohol from the tequila work surprisingly well with the savory snapper. If you happen to sip the tequila slushy at the bottom of the glass after devouring the ceviche, you will be rewarded with one of the best unorthodox margaritas in town. It's that good.
Sautéed shrimp Topolobampo — the infamous dish that critic Jonathan Gold put on the map by raving about it back when it was offered on special at La Moderna in 1992 — is as whimsically wonderful a creation as you would expect and a justly fitting homage to Berrelleza's native port city. Fresh jumbo shrimp are sauteed in dry mustard, minced tomatoes, chopped cilantro, jalapeño and the crucial incendiary ingredient: habanero chili, described as "super hot" on a menu littered with spicy dishes. However, the dish's heat seems to have been tempered in recent years. The shrimp Topolobampo is no longer merely for intrepid spice explorers. Toning down the spice leads to an appreciation of the other flavors — a marked improvement over the previous incarnation that makes it that much more enjoyable.
Sometimes the special of the night is the traditional chiles en nogada, which the chef does not seem to take much liberty with. The roots of the classic Mexican dish are in Puebla, where it was painstakingly prepared by the Santa Monica convent nuns in celebration of Mexico's independence when Emperor Augustin I came to visit the city for the first time. The name nogada is derived from nogal, which means walnut tree. Additionally, the vibrant colors of chiles en nogada are symbolic of the colors of the Mexican flag: green, white and red. A large poblano chili is stuffed with shredded meat, finely ground nuts (especially walnuts) and dried fruit. The poblano is covered in a light cream sauce given a sour tang from a bit of goat cheese. The whole is studded with sweet pomegranate seeds. The interplay between sweet and savory is a thing of utter beauty. It goes without saying that the dish is seasonal, beyond labor-intensive and more likely a true labor of love — dependent on the availability of pomegranates. Babita will be serving the special dish through Valentine's Day.
The crabmeat chile relleno features an eggy, lightly breaded roasted poblano chili stuffed with sweet shredded crabmeat and laced with jalapeño cream sauce that's reminiscent of a rich Oaxacan mole. This is a dish that will make you want to sop up every last bit of the jalapeño sauce with the wonderful, piping hot, hand-patted corn tortillas, which speak to the earthy, rustic flavor of exceptionally fine masa dough.
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Patience is the key here. Everything is prepared to order, with Berrelleza busy in the kitchen. He might make the rounds of the dozen or so simple tables in the Lilliputian space toward the tail end of dinner service, engaging in the rich history behind the creation of chiles en nogada, cutting up a slab of beef to get at the prime morsel or carefully explaining his general philosophy to cooking great food (spoiler alert: It has to do with not cutting any corners).
Desserts combine the ethos of savory and sweet, too. The poached pear rests on a ball of vanilla ice cream laced with chili. The heat of the chili plays against the sweet vanilla ice cream to resounding success. The chocolate flan plays it somewhat safer with a bittersweet chocolate custard laced with the ambrosial essence of cinnamon, surrounded by a moat of bitter caramel sauce and sour goat milk cream.
Babita is a true gem, thanks to its chef's dedication to unique flavors, delicious inventiveness and desire to expand the horizons of what we think of as Mexican food. It's so much more than merely tacos and burritos.
BABITA MEXICUISINE | 1823 S. San Gabriel Blvd.; San Gabriel | (626) 288-7265 | babita-mexicuisine.com | Tue.-Thu., 5:30-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat.; 5:30-10 p.m. | Appetizers $9-$15; entrees $24-$33 | Beer and wine | Street parking