The state of Michoacán is in the center of Mexico and extends to the Pacific coast. Mexican food authority Diana Kennedy lives there, in the city of Zitácuaro. Vista Hermosa, in the northwestern part of the state, is the hometown of chef/owner Raul Morales. Morales is so proud of the cuisine that he has just introduced Michoacán style dinners, using recipes handed down in his family and bringing some ingredients from Mexico.
Morales will eventually put the dinner menu into three languages–English, Spanish and the indigenous Purépecha language of Michoacán. For now, dinner is a bargain in any language at $18 for six courses that include a tamal, a quesadilla, a soup, salad, main dish and dessert, plus a choice of drinks.
You'll definitely want to order a corunda, a Purépecha tamal wrapped in carrizo leaves–carrizo is a plant that resembles bamboo. The small tamal has no stuffing. It's served plain, with red salsa and cheese on top.
For a main dish, there's Michoacán style mole, which Morales says is Mexico's oldest form of this dish. It's strongly flavored with chiles, although not markedly spicy. And it's not sweet, despite a touch of chocolate. What makes it different is Morales's two-tone presentation. One portion of the sauce is fried, the other not.
Or you might want to dine like a well-heeled small town hacendado (land owner). Then you'd have a rolled steak stuffed with queso fresco, tomatoes, bell pepper, onions and Mexican herbs accompanied by arroz morisqueta, rice that gets its intense flavor from sun-dried tomatoes, epazote and cilantro. There's also a handsome fresh chile-stuffed with queso fresco, sprinkled with corn and almost buried under a creamy poblano chile sauce.
Quesadillas come filled with huitlacoche, mushrooms or squash flowers. Morales decorates them with a dab of cream flavored with the key ingredient and, sometimes, a flower. The most complex and interesting of the soups is a chipotle-infused caldo tlalpeño, a smoky tasting bowlful of chicken, potatoes and vegetables. Others are Tarascan-style tortilla soup and an avocado soup with chicken.
The salads are as attractive as the Westside's finest. One is based on grilled asparagus; another combines avocado, tomato and grilled zucchini with a honey-citrus dressing. A third mixes greens with toasted almonds, cashews, pine nuts and dried cranberries.
It's a challenge to choose among the desserts. Chongos, the sweet milk curds that are typical of Zamora, Michoacán, sit on a little circle of toast soaked with syrup. Or you could have ate de membrillo (quince paste) paired with cheese. But you would not want to miss Purépecha flan, a recipe from Morales's grandmother. The flan is steamed rather than baked. Instead of the usual caramel sauce, it's doused with rompope, an eggnog-like Mexican liqueur, and topped with a pecan.
There's no alcohol at the Mercado La Paloma, so you can't have a beer with this food. Instead, you can sip a tall cool agua fresca of pitahaya, mamey or zarzamora. There is also purple-red ponche, packed with fruits and served warm. The third choice is café con leche, which is so richly flavored with cinnamon and piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar cones) that you'll want to drink it even though it's night and you're a caffeine-avoiding insomniac.
Michoacán dinners are served Thursday through Saturday from 6 to 10 p.m. at Vista Hermosa Restaurant & Taquería in the Mercado La Paloma: 3655 S. Grand Ave., stall C-5. (213) 741-1251. The dinner dishes can also be ordered a la carte.