Chichen Itza’s habanero salsa is a mind-altering substance, a thin golden liquid with a faint citrusy scent and just spectacular heat, a presence that starts off with a slightly acid tingle at your lips and travels the way a sizzling fuse might along a narrow sector of your tongue until — ka-BOOM! — it detonates somewhere in your upper middle palate, a fuzzy chrysanthemum burst of searing pain that resolves itself into heightened endorphins and a feeling of goodwill, and the knowledge that you are going to repeat the process just as soon as the guy across the table relinquishes his hold on the holy bowl of sauce. If you are pale, the salsa will redden you. If you are dark, the salsa, a specialty of the Yucatán, will make you glow.
A single drop of it is enough to season a panucho, which is a crunchy tostada built on a split tortilla stuffed with black beans. Two drops bring out the complexity of an entire bowl of sopa de lima, turkey-based tortilla soup flavored with a bitter Yucatecan lime. A small spoonful renders a vaporcito, a thin Yucatecan tamale, practically radioactive. And this isn’t even the hottest salsa Chichen Itza has to offer. That honor belongs to the chunky purée of pure, grilled habanero chiles loosened with a little citrus, a condiment that is like uncut heroin compared to the first salsa’s Tylenol 2. If pure, blister-raising heat is your drug of choice, Chichen Itza may well be your favorite restaurant in California.
Across the street from the Park Plaza Hotel and down the block from the Mexican Consulate, built into the base of a grand Art Deco apartment building, Chichen Itza is a sleekly rustic dining room devoted to the dynamic cooking of the Yucatán, possibly the most exciting new Mexican restaurant of the year, and not cheap. (Minus the salsa, Yucatecan cooking is actually pretty balanced, all garlicky citrus marinades, tropical exuberance and fresh chile heat.)
If you are a fan of the egg-stuffed enchiladas called papadzules or the puffy tostadas called salbutes, you’ll find them here, along with delicious squid braised in its own ink and served with chips for scooping, and shrimp cooked in a broth inflected with charred chiles that make them smell a bit like extinguished campfires, but in a good way. Tikin-xic, fresh sole fillets coated with a reddish achiote-heavy paste and seared in a pan, almost melt into the mound of rice underneath.
You will also find the little chicken flautas called codzitos, the ultrarich brazo de reina stuffed with spinach and pumpkin seeds, and, oddly enough, kibi, the crunchy fried patties of ground beef and bulgur wheat that are the specialty of the numerous Lebanese restaurants in the Yucatecan capital Mérida.
I liked the restaurant’s predecessor, the still-open Chichen Itza stand in the Mercado La Paloma complex near USC, so much that I actually booked an air ticket to Mérida after a couple of meals at the place so that I could spend a solid week eating the poc chuc, papadzul and huevos motulenos that the restaurant did so well. It was a happy week — even the genteel tourist restaurants would bring out a saucer of the chunky habanero salsa if you asked nicely enough, and the big central market downtown hosted enough habanero vendors to render the salty Caribbean as spicy as a Thai seafood soup, had they suddenly been called to dump all their produce in the sea.
The most famous Yucatecan dish is cochinita pibil, fat pork meat rubbed with a jungly paste of chiles, garlic and the yellow-red spice achiote, then steamed in banana leaves until the meat almost collapses under its own weight. Cochinita, which is always served with avocado and a garnish of scarlet pickled onions, can star on tacos, on salbutes and in sandwiches, on combination plates, or on its own, in glorious bright-red chunks. Chichen Itza’s cochinita, as cooked by owner-chef Gilberto Cetina, is beautifully aromatic, expressing all of the garlic and bitter orange juice in its marinade, and it is decent in tacos, but on its own it is a little stringy and slightly underseasoned, a perfect candidate for a dash of the habanero sauce. The Mérida specialty poc chuc, marinated pork loin, is a bit dry if nicely caramelized here; the venison, although it costs twice what any other main course on the menu does, has flavor but no juice. (I remember the deer tacos at the original Chichen Itza with great fondness — wait for them as a special.)
The antidote of choice here is the orange-jicama salad, which may sound a little dull, but which soothes the chile-ravaged palate like nothing else in the world.
Chichen Itza, 2501 W. Sixth St., L.A., (213) 380-0051. Open Sun.–Thurs., 11 a.m.–9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.–11 p.m. MC, V. Beer and wine. Takeout. Validated lot parking. Lunch for two, food only, $26–$44; dinner for two, food only, $28-$53. Recommended dishes: panuchos, kibi, calamar en su tinta, cochinita pibil, tikin-xic.