Dear Mr. Gold:
I'm curious: Is there any place to get a decent molcajete west of downtown and north of the 10?
–Bob Stevens, via Facebook
Dear Mr. Stevens:
I always think of molcajete as strictly an east-of-the-river thing, usually a subspecialty of restaurants better known for their tabletop-grilled meats. A molcajete — and here I assume you're talking about the Mexican dinner-house entrée rather than the vessel in which it is served — tends to be pretty unwieldy: a large mortar carved from volcanic rock, heated to a ferocious temperature, then filled with a little bit of practically everything in the kitchen. Is it gimmicky? Probably, at least a little; an evolutionary step from the sizzling fajita platter, but a small one. But everybody in the restaurant knows when you get a molcajete, and envious eyes follow its sputtering, smoking, fragrant path to your table. A well-made molcajete makes Korean dolsot bibimbap look as if it were designed by a Boy Scout troop.
El Chamizal in Huntington Park used to have good ones, and may still. Lately, I've been going to La Barca Jalisco on El Monte's Valley Boulevard promenade, which I'm pretty sure is outside your prescribed geographic boundary. But the Beverly Hills Mexican restaurant Frida is always better than its address leads you to think it might be, and while there is a hint of the margarita mill about it, the Temple of the Monobrow isn't a bad place to go for a cold michelada and a plate of arrachera, ceviche or albondigas in chipotle sauce. The molcajete, while pricey, may be about what you're looking for: bits of steak, grilled cactus paddles, chicken, chorizo and a big slab of panela cheese that bubbles and smokes where it touches the hot stone.
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