Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Rivera by John Rivera Sedlar:New Conexiones,Playa Bar,Sangre, and Samba Menus.The Past, Present, and Future of Latino Cuisine in the US

John Sedlar River shopping at the Mercado Hidalgo in Tijuana(photo courtesy of Tomoko Kurokawa)

Rivera restaurant by John Rivera Sedlar is the most important Latino restaurant in the United States for fine dining, whether you use the terms alta cocina, nuevo latino, or any other title to describe the vanguard of latino gastronomy.

In music and in art there exist three levels of attainment:Imitation, Assimilation, and finally Innovation. In Latin America, you find all of these types of chefs and cooks, but in the US we mostly wallow in imitation when it comes to high Latin Cuisine. The sadest of these restaurants are found in Chicago, New York, and even here in LA when it comes to alta cocina.

In Chicago, Rick Bayless and his disciples, self proclaimed regional specialists, are about as relevant as a festival of cover bands. They've done nothing for the cuisine except to exploit America's inexperience with alta cocina, and to mimic and recreate recipes they've lifted from their travels. Really, you can do that yourself.

In stark contrast to these restaurants,Rivera stands alonside Enrique Olvera's Pujol and Patricia Quintana's Izote in Mexico City, Alex Atala's D.O.M in Sao Paulo, Gaston Acurio's Astrid y Gaston in Lima, and Leonor Espinosa's Leo Cocina y Cava in Bogota as restaurants reimagining their native cuisines, while remaining deeply rooted in tradition.

In the 80's, chef John Sedlar was at the forefront of the Southwestern culinary movement, drawing on his Santa Fe roots. His restaurants have always been cutting edge and many still recall his work at Bikini, Abiquiu, and St. Estephe.

Rivera recently unveiled a program of separate menus that has been the realization of a lifetime of travel and experience in Latin America. It's a journey from Northern Africa, to the Iberian conquerors of the Americas, to the indigenous cuisines of the Caribbean, North America and South America.

Rivera has been a hit ever since it opened and didn't need to complicate its business with menus that belong to the various rooms at Rivera, but John Sedlar is on a mission. Why hasn't this happened before in LA with such a huge Latino population? Why hasn't our community taken the lead? Well, the commercialists are moving in and trying to cash in on the Mexican food craze, but Rivera has carved the path for all to follow.And, he's challenging the young Latinos in his kitchen to learn and create. "You should be doing this stuff too", he scolded one afternoon.

Yet still, the restaurant remains casual and acessible to all diners, because, as much as John Sedlar loves history, art, and to create, deliciousness trumps all of his enthusiasms.

It's casual, chic, cutting edge, and muy caliente, the quintessential Los Angeles dining and bar experience with the addition of Julian Cox on the drink program.

The new menus even have a number you can call to have John Sedlar himself tell you a story about your dish.Just call 1-310-464-6884, and follow the prompts and numerical icons on the menus.

The Conexiones menu links three milenia of culinary development, and has elements of all the menus which you can order in either the Samba, Playa Bar, or Sangre rooms.

There is also a Tasting Menu for $70 from the Conexiones menu, in addition to small and large plates.

The dishes in this review are from a recent blogger event I attended plus my individual visits to Rivera.

Tortillas florales from Rivera's kitchen are now a household item here in Los Angeles. They could be taken for granted by those of us who see them at various events but, consider that this is house made mixtamal with proprietary spicing and an imprinted edible flower. The flavor is outstanding, and just like every proud Mexican mother's, these tortillas are unique and set the standard for the kitchen.

Just watch the young Oaxacan woman making these all day behind the Playa Bar, her craft is pure Mexican tradition, thousands of years old. Great tortillas are stand alone food, just like these, with a little dab of Indian butter, the house guacamole.It was called Indian butter out in the old West, Rivera's nod to California's culinary history.

The flan de elote is a mouth-watering corn and quinoa custard with a squash blossom sauce, topped with quinoa and squash blossom. This a decadent and savory custard that will leaving you wanting more.

The choice of an Equadorian crudo, or the tiradito version of ceviche is quite clever, as both Peru and Equador claim to be originators. Peruvian ceviche is the more celebrated version, and the greater expression, which would not be a surprise on this menu as much as its Equadorian counterpart. The choice of kumquat on the hiromasa fish reflects the European contribution of the acid component found in the Latin American raw fish bar. This crudo is fresh and refined, a cool taste to start off your dinner at Rivera.

The post-Columbian gazpacho is an elegant balance of tartness and savory nuances. It’s a dish that highlights the profound effect of the Columbian exchange on Europe. While many narrowly label Mexican cuisine as a fusion, they fail to acknowledge how much French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese cuisines have benefitted from the New World’s tomatoes.

Here, sweet golden tomatoes are the conquistadors.

My blog review on Rivera's Sangre menu from January of 2010.
(Spain and Portugal)

(Mexico and the Southwest)

If you'd like to know what goes on inside chef Sedlar's head, you simply must order the Cabeza de Oro. It is a golden head topped with all of the chef's favorite indulgences:foie gras,lobster,scallop,truffle, caviar, and jamon iberico.

The conquistadors sought gold and riches in the New World, but here at Rivera you can strike culinary gold with this dish. It's an altar to your mouth's desire.

Going to the beach isn't the same without a fine ceviche. The shrimp ceviche with orange, fresno chiles, avocado, onion and cilantro is excellent, a beautifully executed Mexican style ceviche.

Toritos are a popular Baja style of chile relleno, named the chile guero relleno on Rivera’s Playa Bar menu. This dish reflects the Asian influences in the northern Mexican kitchen, and is such a refreshing break from the usual chiles rellenos.

The stuffed Anaheim pepper is one of my favorite plates at Rivera. This powerful dish displays John Sedlar’s mastery of the chile relleno, taking a rather simple pepper, the Anaheim, and stuffing it with burrata cheese, martian red corn salsa, and cherokee tomoatoes.It's not on the current Playa Bar menu but you may order it, at least it wasn't the last time I went, but it will be added soon. Until then, do ask about this dish.

All the elements of this dish come together magnificently.

The clam tamalli is another stand out, part tamale and part clam au gratin, and 100% sheer delight.Seafood tamales are common in Mexico, but using the clam shell to steam masa is another John Sedlar curve ball that makes so much sense you have to scratch your head at something so obvious, yet untried.

This is a highly recommended Playa Bar starter.Rivera has delicious tamales all around.

(South America)

The argentine mushroom carpaccio is another cross-cultural dish that combines various mushroom flavors and textures with chimichurri spices.

Getting to the heart of the matter, the bolivian anticuchos are a modern take on the Peruvian street skewers, with tender sea bass marinated in traditional aji Amarillo.

When I told chef Sedlar that I really loved the feijoada he commented, “the great thing about it is….I don’t have to do it the way it’s supposed to be..”

I have enjoyed amazing feijoada all over Brazil, and have come to know it as the deeply pleasurable event that it represents. It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon at your family's house in the hip Lapa neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro suspended in caipirinha dreams. It’s a three hour Wednesday lunch at a boteco in Vila Mariana, Sao Paulo with your best friend that leads an unproductive afternoon at the office with happy snores, yawns, and nods.

This is comfort food, full of the soulfulness of two days spent in the kitchen listening to Seu Jorge.Rivera has captured the spirit and essence of feijoada in this dish, with tremendous flavor. The parts that make feijoada special are in the form of chopped bits mixed in with the beans, and the choice of tender lamb chops is brilliant. Just as when you sit down for a feijoada afternoon, Rivera offers a caipirinha shot in the form of a foam on the dish, be sure to yell out saude! (cheers)as you spoon this taste of Brazil into your mouth. The wine reduction sauce gives the feijoada the intensity that a long cooking imparts.


In hielo y fuego,ice and fire, the icy poblano sorbet is the fire and the jarabe de porto is the ice. This dessert is perfect, both witty and sophisticated, a new Rivera classic.

The Axtec garden of Xochimilco comes alive with a bold combination of native-American ingredients, chocolate, a lime pepper sauce, and an avocado mousse.

It's easy to miss the greater significance of Rivera if you dine fairly often, or even if you're just passing through, in the same way that the catchy pop hooks of Steely Dan mislead listeners unaware of their poetry and intricate harmonies and melodies.The setting is relaxed and the complicated menu is very easily accessed by all levels of diners.

The biggest problem with Latino fine dining has been that the great chefs of Latin America don't cross the border, with one exception, Javier Plascencia's Romesco in Bonita, CA, from Baja California.

John Sedlar was born in the US, but has deep Latin roots.He's a half-Latino raised in Southwestern kitchens, who has traveled, cooked,studied, lived and eaten all over Latin-America his entire life. His mastery of Mexican cuisine is evident in Rivera's tamales, culture of tortilla,Mexican syled desserts, mole,and Playa Bar menu.

The cooking isn't the product of recipe research, or anthropological approach, but an understanding of the flavors, and sensibilities of Mexican cuisine. John Sedlar's innovations are done with respect,sage understanding, and a limitless approach to pushing the boundaries, like his Latin American peers.

Next time you dine at Rivera, consider your good fortune as you sit down at the Playa Bar, the Sangre Room, or the Samba lounge. There is no restaurant like this in the country.This is a delicious journey to the past, present, and the future of Latino cuisine in the United States.

1050 S. Flower St. #102
Los Angeles, CA 90015
P 213 749 1460
F 213 749 7359

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Ricos Tacos de Mixiote Estilo Tulancingo Hidalgo, Mexico City: Three Generations of Street Taco Tradition From Tulancingo, Hidalgo

Are you taking notes?This is major part of my food sleuthing philosophy. When someone shouts out their hometown, they usually mean business.

Mexico City is both pain and pleasure for the sensualist. Do I stop here and try this and risk losing something even more special and delicious? The street food choices boggle the mind.

But, the more regional a stand, the more likely that you've struck gold.

I first visited Ricos Tacos de Mixiote last summer, but realized I hadn't taken any notes. While on a short trip to Mexico City a couple of weeks ago, I came back for the other half of the menu and a chance to talk with the cook, Paty Andrade. They only serve tacos of pork mixiote and cochinita(pork).

Paty is from Tulancingo, Hidalgo, the second largest city in that state. The recipes for her tacos of pork mixiote and cochinita have passed three generations, from her grandfather, to her mother, and for the past 30 years, Paty has held the family's secret recipe.These tacos have been replicated for 80 years.

The stand is near the Isabela Catolica metro stop on the south side of Jose Maria Izazaga. Walking through the narrow passage between the shops and endless row of stands that stretch from Mercado San Juan to La Merced, if you sneeze you'll miss them.

There was a sweet girl from Chiapas working there last year who couldn't stand the frenetic pace of DF and went back home.

There are two plastic chairs in front of the condiment stand where I sat and chatted up the nice chiapaneca, and Paty on this recent stay. Paty saw me taking notes and made sure that I spelled her name correctly.

She offers a salsa of guajillo chiles, a pickled onions with habaneros, diced pineapple, and a molcajete full of guacamole.

While cochinita pibil is considered a specialty of the Yucatan, it is done in many parts of Mexico. In Hidalgo, the pork is pit roasted in maguey spines rather than banana leaves as in the Yucatan.

The difference is subtle, but the flavor in Paty's cochinita is in her juicy achiote marinade.

The mixiotes are pit roasted for 12 hours in maguey parchment and then she splits the product with her husband who sells Paty's tacos in another part of the city.Paty has been at her current location for the past 4 years.

The cochinita is superb, but mixiotes are specialties of Hidalgo, and the stand's signature taco. The taste is of succulent pork with a proven blend of chiles and spices that have endured 80 years.

Hidalgans have been known for their cooking since the time of the Aztec Empire, and pride on their cooking seems so matter-of-fact, or just pure instinct.

These are must have tacos in Mexico City, and a destination for the street food connoisseur.

Ricos Tacos de Mixiote Estilo Tulancingo, Hidalgo
Mon-Sat 9AM-3PM, or when the tacos run out.
Jesus Maria Izazaga(south side of street)
near the Isabela Catolica metro stop
Mexico City,Mexico

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Barbabcoa Hidalguense "El Meson" Tezontepec,Hidalgo-A Pilgrimage to Sample Hidalgo's Deepest Tradition

After a gig in San Luis Potosi, and only about four hours sleep in two days, I landed in Mexico City with a layover before heading to LA. I thought, six hours isn't enough, how about a four day layover?

Mexico City is surrounded by the state of Mexico and is within striking distance of Puebla, Morelos, Michoacan, Queretaro,Guerrero, Tlaxcala, and Hidalgo states. I recently took advantage of this and did a Mexico City and Michoacan run, and also did a day trip to Puebla.

Well, experiencing barbacoa in Hidalgo had been on my mind for some time. Lamb barbacoa from Hidalgo carries the highest prestige, with the city of Texcoco,Mexico maintaining a respectable second standing. The states of Puebla,Guerrero, and the city of Toluca in the state of Mexico are the other strong barbacoa traditions.

Barbacoa Hidalguense utilizes pre-hispanic pit cooking with a set of ingredients and practices that haven't changes in over three centuries. It is considered to be best in Actopan, Hidalgo, but excellent barbacoa is found throughout Hidalgo, home to some of the finest cooking in Mexico.

After hitting Mexico City hard on Sunday, I called my regular cabbie in DF, and said,"I feel like having barbacoa for Hidalgo!" No problem, Tezontepec, Hidalgo is just a little over an hour's drive from Mexico City, so after a night of cantina indulgence, I made the 8AM lobby call to catch my ride.

Arriving at barbacoa El Meson in Tezontepec, Hidalgo felt as if I was treading on holy ground. This cooking style was an art of the Aztec Empire. I've had amazing barbacoa in two places, Aqui es Texcoco in San Diego, and Barbacoa Ermita in Tijuana.There was a pretty damn good one in Guanajuato, too. These were Hidalgans, except Aqui es Texcoco, which is....Texcoco style. The difference in cooking styles mainly occurs in the preparation of pancita the offal stuffed lamb's stomach, otherwise all regions prepare barbacoa in the same sacred tradition.

This place was the next level on so many accords. Man, people name their favorite barbacoa here in town, here and there in Mexico, but I argue, if you haven't had barbacoa in Hidalgo,you have not experienced this dish.Just down the street were a bunch of other stalls serving the lamb barbacoa, where El Meson's Arturo Cruz once operated, but he has moved into a barbacoa temple near the central bus terminal where he has practiced the art of barbacoa for the past 15 years.

Well, the excitement have deadend my feelings of sleep deprivation, and I was nervously surveiling the room for any and all activities.

I spotted the tortilla station fashioning blue corn tortillas for quesadillas and eyed the various fillings,squash blossoms, huitlacoche, tinga, chicken gizzards?

It was a mistake to start eating before the barbacoa arrived, but the quesadilla of chicken gizzards, or mollejas, is one I'll not regret.

The flavor was intense, accented by a rich amount of oil that yielded luxurious bites of chicken flavor.

But my dining experience was interrupted by a pleasant surprise. An invitation to watch the barbacoa master pull the dismembered animals from an earthern oven of antiquity.

The lamb has been cooking all night and the aromas of this.....cave are profound. A dank, musty,and vegetal scent hovers around the pit as 57 year old Arturo Cruz begins to sweep the dust that has gathered after an over night steaming in the oven.

Arturo has been a barbacoa master for 40 years. He was born in nearby Guadalupe Relinas, Hidalgo and married Margarita Bautista, a local girl from Tezontepec, Hidalgo.When Arturo entered the restaurant I felt the presence of someone important and deliberate. He slowly escorted his mother-in-law into the prep area like a pit roasting Al Capone. He was here for some serious business. This is a process he participates in from the slaughtering and butchering of the animal to the cutting and serving of barbacoa.

As the maguey spines are removed, the soot free spines, called pencas, are used to line a wooden box to keep the barbacoa warm. Roasting in the spines of the succulent known as the maguey predates the arrival of the Spaniards. A subtle flavor is imparted to the lamb and the plant provides nature's perfect insulation during the cooking process.

Arturo and his mother-in-law carefully remove pancita and various cuts of lamb from the pit, separating the blackened sticks used to stack the five whole lambs, allowing for an even steaming.

While I gawked and snapped photos, Arturo's mother-in-law handed me a warrior's prize. A leg of lamb directly from the pit blanketed in a warm blue corn tortilla. I felt like a Mexican Henry the VIII, gnawing away like a heathen. In my fatigued state, as I was after the previous nights of partying, I might have more resembled a zombie from a Dawn of the Dead movie, moaning in languid, flesh-lust over this piece of meat.

The consome is removed last. Just the right amount of water, chickpeas, and seasonings must be placed in the pot that catches the lamb's drippings. There are no corrections in this process, the pit is sealed and can't be opened until serving time. About the only thing you can do is salt the broth if underseasoned, otherwise, you must trust in your craft.

Arturo's pride shows in his counter work. He doesn't take a siesta while someone else does the carving. Everything must be perfect.

This was my first encounter with natural pancita. Pancita is the offal stuffed stomach of the lamb that always accompanies authentic barbacoa. A chile rub is customary as an antibacterial and to balance the funky essence of pancita. Aficionados are drawn to pancita's powerful flavors.

But this was a regal presentation, and the absence of a chile rub excited my curiosities.

After Arturo chopped and wrapped our customized order, we headed back to the table where vendors of foods and consumer goods like these sombreros roamed the dining hall.

Trio Incomparable de la Sierra played fantastic regional music, like this chileno michoacano from the state of Michoacan. Their voices were outstanding and resonant. I thought this was the perfect time for a drink when....

a pulque vendor caught my eye carrying two plastic jugs. Pulque is made from the fermented sap of the prized maguey. It's such a versatile plant, and its paper found inside the spines are used for steaming meat, called mixiotes.

I got to sample his two choices and went with the pine nut pulque. Pulque is also a specialty of Hidalgo and the Valley of Mexico, a pre-hispanic alcohol coveted by the working class, and many weekend visitors to the nearby pyramids of the sun and moon at Teotihuacan, Mexico.

It has a sappy, slimy texture and had a nice amount of wood in the finish, balanced by fermented sweet pine nuts.

The culture of barbacoa includes a consome made from the lamb's dripping, with chickpeas and spiced by chipotles.

Hand made blue corn tortillas are the preferred wrapper.

A red salsa of guajillo chiles and a fresh green salsa with frothy jalapeno. A pico de gallo with avocado and some lime and onions.

A mound of barbacoa and pancita rests upon butcher paper, as you strategically seek out the pieces and chunks you crave.

The taco of barbacoa is magnificent, with time-stopping pleasure in each bite.

The pancita is a thing of beauty, pure, naked, and frank. The fact that the animal was killed, butchered, and plunged into an earthen pit within 24 hours has left each piece of lung, heart, tripe,liver, kidneys, and various offal in full bloom. The pieces of lung are topaz, here a bit of pink, and flecks of bright green jalapeno in the mixture.

El Meson is more than a restaurant. It's a community gathering of familes that walk behind their elders in ceremonial procession, and no one is seated before the old man. It's where a table of hard featured men are silent and introspective during the playing of corridos and then laugh and talk loudly over son huasteco music.

Although Arturo appears to be as warm as a shark after shredding apart a baby seal, he pulls up a chair next to me during a moment of down time, staring directly into my eyes with serious intent, and says, "what do you think?" I say,"I've had great barbacoa,but nothing as amazing as this." " Arturo nods a cowboy's thanks, and distracted by a customer approaching the barbacoa scale, dashes off to get to the table and intercept his guest.

I couldn't stay awake much longer than for a short stroll around the nearby market, and passed out on the way back to DF. I was like a snake in my hotel room for around 5 hours, immobilized and vulnerable trying to digest a large prey.

I say that all true barbacoa lovers and devotees need to make the journey at least once in their lifetime, to Hidalgo, home to the best barbacoa form in Mexico.

El Meson
Saturday, Sunday(2 servings), and Monday mornings
Av. Belisario Dominguez
just northeast of 5 de Mayo.
Tezontepec, Hidalgo

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Tacos de Canasta El Flaco,Mexico City: A Half Century of Chilango Tradition in DF's Historic Center

Tacos de canasta, or basket tacos can be found all over Mexico City. These are the second most common taco,in my observations, to tacos de guisado, or stew tacos. And Mexico City is Mexico's center of basket tacos.

In other parts of Mexico they are called tacos al vapor, steamed tacos, or tacos sudados, sweaty tacos. There are a couple of other terms, but these are the most common.

But basket tacos get their name from the basket in which they are steamed. Traditionally,the tacos are made at home, or at a commisary kitchen,and then are brought to the stand in a basket, the tacos wrapped in a towel. On the way to the workplace they steam naturally.

During this steaming period the tacos ooze their luscious fillings into the tortillas, giving them an attractive sheen.

The traditional fillings for this genre of taco are:mole verde(green mole),adobo,frijol(refried beans),papa con huevo(potato and egg), and chicharron(pork skin).These deeply flavored tacos are available for $5.50MXP, that's about 42 cents each, and these aren't exactly small. You can easily satisfy yourself with two, but have three or four and you're ready to take on the second largest city on the planet with gusto.

Tacos de Canasta El Flaco is a family run stand a short walk from the Zocalo(public square). Like many of the tacos de canasta stands, there is no name other than the taco type. The Gonzalez family has been churning out the same 5 recipes for 50 years, and keep with just the traditional fillings, while some other stands have added a few other fillings here and there.

The tacos are stacked in a customized cardboard box used by many of the basket taco stands, and covered with a towel, which is the best method of steaming these treats.

At any time of the day you will have to push your way to the front to order, there is always a crowd. They line up against the wall eating their tacos, or find a spot curbside, always leaving some room for the constant flock of pedestrians passing by that little stretch of sidewalk undersiege by hungry chilangos(people from Mexico City)

At these prices, the only extravagances are pickled chile and vegetables, and a green salsa.The pickled vegetables, known as escabeche, are home made, with cauliflower, carrots, and jalapenos. There are many large florets of cauliflower in the escabeche, which are snatched up by greedy hands, eager to get their 42 cents worth.

The salsa has a medium heat, you don't want to overpower these tacos. They provide pleasurable bites without need for condiment.

The mole verde contains just enough bits of pork, as a mole should be about the mole, and has a rustic spice.

The flavor on tacos de canasta is all about intensity. You can taste these tacos before they hit your palate, no inhalation required.

The potato with egg with its sweaty exterior is a Sunday morning at your favorite greasy spoon.

The stained adobo taco is another sauce perfected, with only that which is necessary to create instant addicts. These tacos are opiates of the masses.

Just as in the adobo, each taco bends and droops as you pick it up, and the insides are mushy mounds of savory bites. You can open them up to apply salsa, risking a tear or the tortilla, so many just apply salsa atop each taco. Others eat these tacos as they are, using strips of fallen tortilla to mop up anything left on the small plastic plates.The adobo also contains pork.

But the biggest seller is the chicharron, with the most substantial amount of meat, pork skin, to be exact. These are usually the first to sell out.

Each taco contains the flavors of 50 years of a family's pride.

I didn't get to the refried bean,and while you may think a refried bean taco might be uninteresting, you would most definitely be wrong. I've had these before at other stands, and if you are a great cook, whatever you put in your taco will be amazing.Making great beans is another source of competitiveness found in Mexico households.

These tacos have flavors that are unreal,so delicious they send tingles down your spine.It's the ultimate economic pleasure, and the tacos de canasta specialists have discovered a way to deliver satisfaction at a premium and still make a profit.

Tacos de canasta are another one of the countless artisan traditions of Mexico, where specialization and competition drive the cooks, chefs, and taqueros towards excellence.

Tacos de Canasta El Flaco
8am-8pm, 7 days a week
Ave. Cinco de Febrero, just north of Urugauy,
on the west side of the street.