Photo by Anne Fishbein
Of the scores of redevelopment projects south of downtown Los Angeles, my favorite may be Mercado La Paloma, a cavernous old warehouse rehabbed by a nonprofit cooperative into a dusty, dimly lit fantasy of a Mexican street market, a labyrinth of stalls selling Oaxacan dolls and hand-woven fabrics from Chiapas and Yucatecan sugar bowls, stark flower arrangements and folk-art paintings, handmade toys and warm pan dulce straight from the oven. A long table at the front of the mercado offers both radical broadsides and the Downtown News. Office workers from the nearby government buildings stream into the market at lunchtime to grab quick panini from the Italian sandwich place or a cup of homemade walnut ice cream from the Oaxacan fruit-ice stand, sometimes making it back far enough in the complex to discover the decent tortas and carnitas plates at the Taqueria Vista Hermosa. It’s a great place to spend a sleepy afternoon, and close enough to the Exposition Park museum complex that it is easy to make a day of it.
Lately, the restaurant that keeps bringing me back to Mercado La Paloma is Chichen Itza, which is probably the most serious Yucatecan restaurant in town at the moment, its menu a living thesaurus of the panuchos and codzitos, poc chuc and papadzules, banana-leaf tamales and shark casseroles that make up one of Mexico’s most thrilling cuisines. From the delicious turkey tostadas called salbutes to the cinammon-scented bread pudding called caballeros pobres, Chichen Itza, named for the vast temple complex near Mérida, is indisputably the real thing — especially on the rare days that they make tacos out of marinated deer.
During the 1980s restaurant boom in Los Angeles, Yucatecan cooking may have been the first truly exotic cuisine to cross over onto mainstream restaurant tables. As based on pre-Columbian techniques as it may have been, as reliant as it was on banana leaves and achiote pastes and obscure chiles that weren’t exactly available at the local Ralph’s, the cruise-ship school of Yucatecan food was nonetheless congruent with the Mannerist wave of California cuisine, with its garlicky citrus marinades, its tropical exuberance, its fresh chile heat, and most of all its lightness.
Just like an entrée at, say, Michael’s, a meal at a local Yucatecan restaurant was likely to include a modest slab of grilled protein, a crunchy, pungently vinegared garnish that included some kind of unusual fruit, and a puddle of puréed something or other, as prettily arranged as the foreground of a Diego Rivera mural. The local fetish for mango salsas may have started at Yucatecan restaurants, and most of what was sometimes called Caribbean cuisine at places like Cha Cha Cha was based on Yucatecan flavors. Yucatecan restaurants — Casa Carnitas, El Emperador Maya, El Cochinito, Merida — were counted among the best Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles before most of them faded away.
Oddly, although Chichen Itza is probably the most comprehensive Yucatecan restaurant ever to open in Los Angeles, its cooking sometimes seems a little academic, as if the cooks are more concerned with making a particular dish correctly than they are with making it luscious. The archetypal Yucatecan dish is cochinita pibil, slabs of fat pork meat steamed in banana leaves with a jungly paste of chiles, garlic and the yellow-red spice achiote. Chichen Itza’s cochinita can sometimes seem a bit dry, slightly underseasoned, requiring a strand or two of the beet-red marinated onions and a dash of the café’s citrusy habanero sauce to put it right with the world. Poc chuc, thinly sliced pork loin marinated in bitter orange juice, can be unspectacular. The pollo asado, grilled chunks of marinated chicken thigh, are delicious, but may remind you more of a Lebanese kebab than they do anything Yucatecan.
But the panuchos here are kind of great — oily, puffy corn tortillas stuffed with seasoned black beans and fried crisp, then garnished with grilled turkey and red pickled onion — and the ultra-crunchy codzitos, like tiny chicken taquitos in tomato sauce, are tasty. There are unusual antojitos like papadzules, which are like enchiladas bathed in a sauce of puréed pumpkin seeds and stuffed with chopped hard-boiled eggs; huevos motulenos, fried-egg tostadas with black beans and tomato sauce; and even kibi, fried, minted patties of ground beef and cracked wheat, a Yucatecan version of the Middle Eastern falafel-shop standby. The steamed chicken tamale dissolves almost into chile-scented vapor on the tongue; the brazo de reina, a sliced tamale stuffed with spinach, pumpkin seeds, and eggs, is substantial — if there were tamales in Romania, they would probably taste like these.
Chichen Itza, in Mercado La Paloma, 3655 S. Grand Ave., (213) 741-1075. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, 8:30 a.m.— 6:30 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking. MC, V. Lunch for two, food only, $12-$22.