China Trip: Thank Yous - It’s now the second day of October and I’m beginning to think more and more about China. (Not that I haven’t been thinking about it — it’s now just a close...
Sunday, October 31, 2010
La Bonga del Sinú, Bogota,Colombia: A Colombian Steakhouse With Coastal Hospitality, It's the Tetas!
In the gastronomic capitals of Latin America, you can afford the luxury of experiencing regional cuisines from all over the country, and Bogota, Colombia is no exception.La Bonga Del Sinú, located in the high octane nightlife of the Zona Rosa, features the meat intensive culture of the Sinu, just inland from the Mediterranean coast. Colombia has the distinction of having the waters of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, and Caribbean Sea grace its coastal territory. From the savannahs near Monteria, where the first La Bonga Del Sinú began, comes the high quality cattle, served with the coastal charm of Colombia's Caribbean.
Joining me for this carnivires delight was the lovely Patricia, who actually was my inspiration to start really studying spanish.I had just come from a trip to Mexico City and Aguascalientes,Mexico,a pilgrimage I had made to reconnect with my family in Mexico after my father passed away back in 2002, and was set to perform in Colombia,El Salvador, and Honduras.
Colombia was first, and despite all the fearful tales the other band members were telling on the plane, and in the hotel lobby when we arrived, I spied this beautiful Colombiana taking pictures, Patricia. I struck up conversation, and while my band mates were hiding under their beds, I was off night after night bar hopping and exploring the restaurant scene with Paty. Yes, there was a bit of romance, and a wonderful time getting to know Bogota with her at my side every moment I spent in Colombia's capitol.
My Mexican born dad didn't want me to experience the discrimination he went through as a child, and insisted that my grandparents weren't to teach me spanish, nor would he speak spanish to me, ever. But, trying to speak with my family in Mexico using a translator, and Spanish-English distionary was frustrating while I was in visiting them in Aguascalientes, but the week's worth of practice came in handy by the time I arrived in Bogota. I guess you could say the greatest motivating factor was all these sexy and lively latinas that I would be able to talk with.From the moment I met Patricia in that hotel lobby, I couldn't learn spanish fast enough.
Then, it was off to Medellin where I met Paola. Paola was traveling with the tour company, and I got her number before I left. So many reasons to come back. During the time after this amazing tour through Colombia and my next visit as a tourist, Patricia had a boyfriend, and Paola....didn't.So...what's a boy to do?I made three more trips to see my long distance novia, Paola, and Patricia, too. It was such an amazing time for me, immersing myself into Latin American cultures, cuisines, romance, a time of personal growth, and a time where I learned to truly throw caution to the wind.
Paola now is working on her first Colombian soap opera called El Joe, about the life of Colombian salsa singer Joe Arroyo, being filmed in his native Barranquilla, Colombia on channel RCN.I can see here dancing for a brief moment at about 2:50 into this promo video.
Patricia's family now runs a restaurant in Bogota called Odilio Gourmet, where she also works.
In the 8 years that have passed, I'm happy to see that both of these women are happy,doing well in Colombia's always difficult economic situation, are both as beautiful as ever,and are both still friends with me after all these years.Oh, how I missed this place.
My night out with Patricia to experience comida sinuana(Sinuan cuisine) was much more mellow than our wild night at Andres Carne de Res, where I would spend my last night in Bogota on this trip.
The restaurant was locked when we arrived, but I guess they just do that for security purposes, but was open. We were greeted by waiters dressed in coastal cowboy attire, and real nice setting, and great staff.
Anytime there's meat, it's a party. The table next to us with a large group was happily loud, frequently toasting, and even sent a few toasts our way.
We started off with some typical appetizers from the Sinú,tajadas, plantain chips, with cream and aji, a mild Colombian salsa. Much lighter than tortilla chips, and of course, some Colombian Ron Medellin with Coca-Cola.
Butifarra Colombiana has its origin in Spain, in Cataluna, but Colombia has their own distinct preparation. This is a Caribbean coast food from the city of Soledad, and is served in Colombia as an appetizer rather than a main course as it is in Spain.It is made with a natural casing stuffed with pork and chopped bacon, brown sugar,lime,salt, and pepper.This sausage has mild seasoning, so most of what you get is an intense pork flavor, paired with potatoes, and some extra lime.
We had ordered steaks, and with Patricia's Solomillo,a cut from the loin, she got arroz de coco, another coastal treat.Coconut rice is rice cooked with coconut water and flesh, sugar, and some raisins thrown in at the end of this process.We also enjoyed a fabulous side of fried yuca,warm,starchy, with its dense comfortability.
While we drank one ron con Coca-Cola after another, our meats where being cooked on the grill.American steak houses are so sanitized, it's great to smell and hear the sounds of searing meat, and to get a little smoke in your eyes.
When looking throught the menu I tried to flesh out the Colombian cuts, and punta de anca is "the tits." It's cut from the sirloin cap, something akin to Brazil's picanha steak. But speaking of tits, I spied tetas de la vaca on the menu, cow's teats!It's not really teat, but a whole udder steak.Ya know,punta de anca comes from the rear of the steer and I have this udder on the same hot iron, it's T and A.
The steaks were to die for, tender, that wonderful South American saltiness,and so juicy. But the udder steak, not fit for human consumption according to U.S laws, has an airy,mushroom-like texture. Its flavor just floats marvelously on your palate.
La Bonga del Sinú has branches in other cities, but strives to maintain their quality throughout the small chain. This is a fine option to have some carne while you're in Bogota, and an occasion to experience regional Colombian cuisine from the Sinú.
La Bonga del Sinú
Cra. 14 # 93-88
93 y Chicó
Thursday, October 28, 2010
Baja Chefs at Test Kitchen Tonight: The Young Lions of Baja Cuisine Show Promise for the Future of Mexico's Culinary Hot Spot
Tonight, the young lions of the Baja kitchen are at Test Kitchen. Their appearance at LA’s pop-up of note was somewhat of a surprise. Quietly, they were dropped in as a last minute fill-in for La Casita Mexicana, whose schedule couldn’t accommodate this run at Test Kitchen to celebrate the Mexican Bicentennial, as curated by Bricia Lopez. Joshua Gil, the new chef for Bricia’s contemporary Oaxacan venture, Mitla, which will debut at Test Kitchen on Friday and Saturday, frequents Baja and called up his friends, Diego Hernandez, Guillermo Barreto, and Ismene Venegas to come and cook for a couple of days.
The three young chefs are part of the fascinating culinary movement going on in Baja California. The position of having the best seafood, the top Mexican wine region, a broad range of food products grown locally, and special foods that are only available in Baja has made this region ground zero for Mexico’s contemporary dining scene. Baja California is home to Baja Cuisine, Baja-Mediterranean Cuisine, Valle de Guadalupe cuisine, and a range of regional cooking styles that are the playground for some of the best chefs in Mexico. Miguel Angel Guerrero, Benito Molina, Javier Plascencia, Martin San Roman, and Jair Tellez have been at the forefront of Baja’s culinary dynamism.
Diego Hernandez(2nd from left), Guillermo Barreto(far right), and Ismene Venegas(4th from right) are part of the next generation of Baja chefs.They are working with their good friend Joshua Gil(3rd from right) of the new Mitla restaurant.
Diego has worked in some of the most famous kitchens in Mexico, Guillermo Gonzalez’s Pangea, Enrique Olvera’s Pujol, and Benito Molina’s Manzanilla before opening his first restaurant with a partner in 2008, Restaurante Uno. He is set to open his first restaurant by himself this coming January, Estado 29, and he’s barely 27 years old.Chef Diego Hernandez has been a student of the vanguard cuisine of Mexico, and Baja’s ingredients are what has kept him around.
Still only in his early 30’s, Guillermo Barreto, a Baja native, is already an accomplished restaurateur, with a successful Italian restaurant in Mexicali called La Piazza. When he first came to Ensenada to launch his newest venture, El Sarmiento, he still favored his Italian style of cooking but soon fell under the influence of Benito Molina, and Jair Tellez. Currently, Guillermo’s approach to cooking could be called Mex-Italian.
Ismene Venegas is a genuine Baja Californian, and deep roots in Baja’s wine industry. Ismene is the daughter of one of the famous women of the Tres Mujeres winery in the Valle de Guadalupe, Eva Cotero. Tres Mujeres Winery is a collaboration of three female Baja winemakers, Eva Cotero, Ivette Vaillard, and Laura McGregor. They produce one barrel a year, each woman takes turn making their wine, which are highly sought after by enthusiasts in Mexico City. Ismene grew up with Mexican food and Mexican wine, and the Baja aesthetic. She worked with Benito Molina, and then alongside Jair Tellez at Restaurante del Parque, before he went off to open MeroToro in Mexico City.
Last night I was in to sample the cooking of these three young lions of the Baja kitchen. I had been to La Contra where Ismene was cooking when Jair was still there, and I’m happy to say that she has changed the menu to incorporate more Mexican ingredients. I met and dined with Guillermo one night at Manzanilla, but hadn’t been to El Sarmiento, and Diego, I knew of his restaurant, but he closed before I was able to stop by Restaurante Uno. These are the first Baja restaurants that got to me before I got to them.
The tostada of steak tartar with an Asian mignonette and guacamole sauce was nice, and displayed one of the biggest influences in the Baja kitchen, the flavors of Baja’s Asian immigrant population.
The wood fire grilled octopus had just enough of a citrus sauce, also Asian themed, to enhance the fine texture of the octopus. This is typical of the Valle de Guadalupe kitchen.
My favorite of the three bar bites, the pizzadilla with Oaxacan chile de agua, quesillo(Oaxacan string cheese), baby heirloom tomatoes, and onions was robust, savory, and a delicious Oaxacan sting at the end.
Local scallops were used for the first course. They were flash cooked in citrus, and covered with an onion and almond pesto. Pickled onions and pickled radishes lightly accented by chile habanero gave this dish a splendor and refinement. Baja style ceviches and crudos are creative, while always staying true to the Mexican practices of raw seafood preparation.
Baja is home to a variety of fresh vegetables, and many chefs keep their own gardens. The heirloom tomato salad with a slice of hamachi was a fine example of Baja’s Mediterranean and Asian leanings, with a drizzle of Baja Californian olive oil brought by the three chefs, and seaweed. This is a bright salad, bursting with lively fruit, an interesting salad that I would gladly order again.
One of my favorites of the night the manila clam soup is a dish I first tried at Benito Molina’s Manzanilla.
Ground chicharrones, agave worm salt, manila clams and basil were presented with a tableside pour of a saffron laced broth. The dish was clean, balanced and deeply delicious.
A rib-eye steak was topped with a salsa macha adorned with sesame seeds, and paired with a black bean esquite (street corn style), an emulsion of corn, guacamole, and salty cotija cheese. This is a deconstructed taco of carne asada, alta cocina style, the contribution of Diego Hernandez.
Chef Ismene brought some fresh walnuts grown at her mom’s winery that they harvest each year to make chiles en nogada, and 3 month aged cow’s milk cheese from Rancho Cortez, located in Ejido El Porvenir in the Valle de Guadalupe. This cheese is mild, and dreamy, the kind you want to want to remain in your mouth for as long as possible, ’til just the last impressions remain, and then wash it down with glass of wine.
he tasting ended with a simple lemon crepe paired with a coconut sorbet.
This was a great tasting, and a chance to see what the next wave of Baja chefs have in store. This is an exciting region, and an inspired trio of young chefs still developing their respective styles of Baja cuisine. Come catch them if you can grab a seat tonight at Test Kitchen. Walk ins are welcome, just call Test Kitchen at 310-277-0133 to see if there’s a spot.
Stay tuned for Joshua Gil and Mitla at Test Kitchen.
Monday, October 25, 2010
Aperitivos Valadares, Sao Paulo, Brasil: Go for the Frog Milanesa, Stay for the Chicken Testicles at Sao Paulo's Exotic Boteco.
Aperitivos Valadares, located in the Lapa neighborhood of Sao Paulo,Brasil may be known for its exotic offerings, but at its core is just a great boteco, a Brazilian pub.Botecos are where people go after work to get a cold beer, the colder the better, drink some cocktails,a cachaça or two, and wolf down some bar bites, called petiscos.
In 1961, João Pires Bicalho, one of 12 brothers from Senhora do Porto, Minas Gerais a little town just outside Governador Valadares,Minas Gerais, opened a little grocery store with a bar in Sao Paulo. A year later he brought in four of his brothers, all of them brimming with enthusiasm to transform it into the proper pe-sujo, dive bar, that it is today.
I first ended up at their more civilised lanchonete(lucheonette) Valadares, just a few blocks away on rua Claudio. I was jamming through the menu and saw no such obscure menu items, just regular Brazilian pub food.But, the beer looked cold and wet, and the cachaça selection had me frozen in my seat. In Brazilian botecos, you usually order the 600 ml beer, and get it in these little insulators to keep the beer ice cold. A small glass is brought to your table, just big enough for a couple of shots. Can't give that beer time to get warm!
Minas Gerais is the biggest and best cachaça producing state, always expect a good selection from people from Minas Gerais, or mineiros, as they are called in Brasil.
I started off with a Serramalte beer, from the state of Rio Grade do Sul, southern Brazil. It is a nice pilsener style of beer that clicks in at 5.5% alcohol, right up my alley. Saliboa cachaça and Serramalte beer. And,cachaça ! I engage in a 24/7 cachaça crawl anytime I'm in Brazil, and when you get to try a cachaça from Salinas, kind of like the Pauillac of cachaça's Bordeaux, the state of Minas Gerais, never hesitate.
Cachaça Saliboa is aged for 3 years in ipé-amarelo barrels,trumpet trees, is made by the producers of Boazinha and Seleta, with a proof of 91. Is is smooth, elegant, and a must for cachaça lovers.
But, what about the rooster's balls? "Oh, that's two blocks away."
So I scooted or rather, weaved my way to the original Valadares to the familiarity of a Bohemia beer fridge, always a temperature reading on the outside. One degree less and we're going somewhere else man!
In a boteco, you must be armed with hours of conversation, and an appetite to last the duration. The petiscos better be good too. There's stiff competition amongst the botecos.
The cold bites? Cheeses, or course there are cheeses from Minas, olives, choriços,hearts of palm, and cashew nuts. There are typical lunches, sanwiches, salgados(savories), bread from Minas Gerais, the ubiquitous frango a passarinho(Brazil's answer to buffalo wings), and linguiça plates.
The original Valadares has an even bigger cachaça selection too.Cachaca Lua Nova, my second cachaca of the half hour, is aged for two years in indigenous amburana wood. It is a lighter shade of yellow. The variety of woods used to age cachaça give the beverage a pleasurable range of flavors.
Also very popular in Sao Paulo, and all over Brasil for that matter, are caipirinhas,little country girls. Caipirinhas are technically only made with muddled lime,cachaça, and sugar, but in Sao Paulo, they will sometimes ask if you want a caipirinha with other fruits, in this case, kiwi. It's muddled just like a caipirinha, and not blended like a batida.This caipirinha with kiwi was so refreshing, made with fresh fruit.
I was getting pretty looped about now, and still had my best meal of 2009 to go, which entailed even more drinking. Bebado!(drunk)There was a cute girl walking from table to table with a back pack selling pirate DVD's of porn right about now. I talked with her a bit, she had a pretty good hustle, and was doing some business.Only in Brazil.
And now for the exotics!Testiculos de boi(bull's testicles) seem harmless enough here. They look like chicken nuggets. A squirt of lime and a spritz of malagueta chili pepper oil atop the bull's pride and away we go. They have a livery taste, but definitely a richer flavor.Very tasty.Mineiros know how to cook and have one of the top cuisines in regional Brazilian cooking.
The frog milanesa, milanesa de rã,is a strange looking dish. It's a whole breaded frog,sans head.It's a beheaded frog, but I think it's kinda cute myself.Expert frying makes this a fine bite of frog, there's a little work getting at the torso meat, but well worth the effort. You can also get whole quail here at Valadares and breaded rooster's balls.
Another thing about rã. In portuguese, an r at the beginning of a word has an h sound, so, you get to order HAAAAAAA!"Please, could I have the HAAAAAAAAA!?", said in a congested sounding portuguese>
If that's not your sort of thing, this bar has mostly straight forward Brazilian pub fare, and the kitchen and staff are very friendly.
When I talked with fry man Jose Serat da Silva, and complimented him on the bull's testicles, he said I should try the rooster's, they're even better.There wasn't much else to say after that. And, I'm certainly kicking myself at this moment that I didn't get half and half. No, not left and right, but rooster's and bull's, although that might be a little embarrassing for the rooster.
Rua Faustolo 463
São Paulo - SP
Saturday, October 23, 2010
Rio de Janeiro, which lies just tad north of the Tropic of Capricorn, with a climate that's classified as a tropical savannah, is one of my favorite destinations on the planet. Great temperatures year around, plenty of beaches, magnetic people, and a fantastic food scene make for one of the most attractive destinations on the planet. A look from atop Corcovado when the sun goes down and you can take in her voluptuous curves. From this position, I can't imagine a more beautiful sight. Rio is sexy, romantic, and intoxicating.
In the hip Bohemian neighborhood of Santa Teresa, a city atop a hill, tucked into lush tropical vegatation resides likely the best restaurant with a view. This is the real rain forest café. And, on a rainy night in Rio, it’s stirring, seductive.
Aprazivel, which translates to pleasureable, unveiled its hillside attraction in March of 1997. Chef Ana Castilho is the force behind the contemporary regional style of cooking. She was born in Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state of Minas Gerais, Brasil. She learned to cook from her father, was active in the culinary scene in Brasil, before studying at the French Culinary Institute-L’Ecole in New York in the late 80’s. She had many gigs around New York before returning back to Brasil.
The restaurant has many intimate dining arrangements. You can enjoy a semi-secluded tree house for two, or
Enjoy the comfort and of a country style dining room if you prefer a more familiar setting.
There are small private decks for a girl’s night out, or couples dining. From the moment you descend the staircase into the collection of custom designed dining areas, you feel you’ve arrived for an evening of flirts, teasing of necks with soft breaths, and light kisses. If you can’t make it happen here, something is wrong with you.
I feel like by telling you about this place, I’m giving away my A game. Oh well. Don’t be discouraged from taking a reservation during the rainy season. The thatch roofs are ample protection from the tropical rains. The waiter drops by with some caipirinhas, walking between the rainy gaps of the thatch roofs with an umbrella.
You dine by candlelight as the sky thunders and pours. Rainha do baião, local tilapia, a river fish is grilled with cilantro oil, and a touch of pimento de cheiro, an aromatic pepper with a nice heat. This simple dish is accompanied by al dente okra, and baião de dois, a well known northeastern dish consisting of new beans and rice, with fresh grated cheese.
This is not in the top tier of fine dining restaurants in Rio, the food is very good,and perhaps it wouldn't be worth going if it were in a regular setting, but oh....the ambiance is one of a kind. Other dishes highlight Rio cuisine, as well as Minas Gerais, but the chef jumps all over Brazil with a presentation typical of a Brazilian chef that has studied European gastronomy.
Galinhada caipira, country style chicken with linguica and plantains, a hollowed Brazilian fish stew called moqueca that strides the cooking styles of the states of Para and Belem, and bacalhau do pai, the prized salted cod brought by the Portuguese as prepared by Ana’s father. Among the appetizers are two styles of escondidinha, a little hidden gem, from Rio and the northeast, a puree of cassava and potatoes, respectively, stuffed with delicious surprises like beef jerky or shrimp.
If you happen to arrive before the sun goes, recommended, be sure and time your meal to catch setting of the sun over the Guanabara Bay, and gaze at the bridge to the modern industrious city of Niteroi, another paradise altogether, that of the shopper.
Aprazivel is a good restaurant, in an enchanting rain forest. It’s not really the place to visit while traveling alone, but to enter two by two . It’s the perfect end to a day on the beaches of Barra da Tijuca, Copacabana, or Ipanema. Whiling away the afternoon in Lapa, and riding the bondinho (tram), a popular rickety ride where tourists and locals alike dare to ride the worn and wobbly sideboards. Be sure to hold hands as you drop into your tropical hideaway, for safety, chivalry, and to light a fire. Ummm, nights in Rio……
Rua Aprazivel 62,Santa Teresa
Rio de Janeiro, RJ Brasil 20241-270
All Major CC's accepted
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Coming to downtown October 23-24, Artisanal LA is a weekend long community event celebrating the city’s finest local, sustainable and handmade edibles all under one roof. Taste, shop, sample and learn while supporting the local economy and local artisanal vendors at this weekend-long downtown event.
The event will take place in the Cooper building in Downtown LA. This is shopping for the finest beverages and food products for us gourmets. Shawna Dawson, the organizer of this original event, always has some surprises. Watch out for the debut of several products not available to the public. I remember she had a this new truck at the first LA Street Food Fest called the Dim Sum Truck. Who would have known?
Don't miss this epicurean food and drink event. Get your tickets here.
Saturday and Sunday
The Cooper Building, Downtown
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Los Angeles Magazine:November 2010 Edition of Mexican Food in LA feat. Street Gourmet LA + 5th Annual Culinary Extravaganza Sunday, October 24
I am proud to have contributed to the Los Angeles Magazine's November Issue, featuring Mexican Food in LA.I remember not too long after I first moved to Los Angeles, picking up LA Magazine's Mexican Restaurant Issue many years ago thinking how fun would that be to play around with an issue of LA Magazine?
With the support and encourangement of Lesley Barger Suter, and the Los Angeles Magazine team, my wish came true, as a consultant and taco tour guide for the November 2010 Issue.Lesley and I had a blast!
In the issue, you'll discover new dishes to explore in LA, to which I had quite a say in, meet the top chefs,check out Patrick Kuh's new Top 10 Mexican restaurants,join Lesley and I for a taco crawl around the city,and find plenty of other restaurant picks to explore.
There's something for everyone in this issue, everything from the streets of Boyle Heights to fine Mexican Cuisine to the greasy combo plates of the Mexican-American margarita joints.
Grab a copy at your local news stand, or sign up online.
I'm going to celebrate this Sunday,October 24th from 1-4PM,at the Los Angeles Magazine 5th Annual Culinary extravaganza,at the Saddlerock Ranch in Malibu.
The Food Event General Admission Ticket with $5, one-year Los Angeles magazine subscription: $100
Buy tickets here
Los Angeles Magazine
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
For the past 12 years Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu have been bringing authentic Mexican cuisine to Los Angeles from their native state of Jalisco, and beyond. This is no contrived marketing of authentic Mexican, but secrets, traditions, and subtleties that have spanned generations.
When they first opened La Casita Mexicana in Bell, CA back in ’98, some locals were perplexed by their menu items, “no es comida mexicana!” One woman, Ramiro recalls,threw a plate of enchiladas at them because there were no rice and beans, they weren’t baked, nor did they have the salty, metallic flavors of a canned sauce. Little by little, the boys charmed the local crowd and convinced them to give this strange cuisine a try. Chiles en nogada, the state dish of Puebla has been on the menu since day one.
Ramiro Arvizu was born in Tecolotlan, Jalisco where he grew up before coming the United States in 1977. His culinary heritage dates back to the haciendas of Mexico in the kitchens of the elite in pre-Revolutionary Mexico. He learned to cook from his grandmother, who passed the recipes and techniques of her mother,Ramiro's great-great grandmother, who had been a cook for one of the most well known families in the area.It was the lavish dinners of wealthy creoles that shaped Ramiro’s culinary DNA. His great-great grandmother prepared dishes from all over Mexico,beautifully plated,as well as international cuisines.
His grandmother had a cenaduria called La Cenaduria de Dona Chuy in Tecolotlan, where Ramiro grew up. Chuy is a nickname for Jesus, his grandmother’s name. There he ate his family’s pozole, sopes, regional Mexican plates, and other soulful antojitos(little whims).
In 1977, Ramiro and his family came to Los Angeles, where his father opened a restaurant called El Indio. There they made there own tortillas from house prepared nixtamal for making tortillas,a molino for grinding spices, and cooked using many substitutions due to the lack of Mexican ingredients at the time. Sour cream was used in the place of crema Mexicana. This restaurant lasted a few years before closing.
Ramiro loved to travel and wanted to see the world. He got his AA at East LA City College, and then attended the Travel and Tourism Academy of the Pacific. He got a job for Aeromexico, where for five years, he traveled all over Mexico researching hotels, tourist attractions, and yes, restaurants. For Ramiro, it was dancing the night away in Cancun, flying to Monterrey just to devour cabrito al pastor(spit roasted kid),and chocolata clams on the beach in La Paz. Ramiro wined and dined in Mexico like a VIP.
He then began working for China Airlines where he learned from his co-workers while on stops in China about real Chinese food,”Ramiro, this is real Chinese, that is not.” He also had been dreaming of bringing real Mexican to Los Angeles, and cooking was always his true passion. So, it was fate that led him to a banquet hosted by another airline about 20 years ago. The main attraction was Mexican cuisine laid out in a beautiful color scheme. Ramiro asked, “who cooked these dishes?” “There was a mole negro, seven interesting and tasty salsas, a stuffed round of panela cheese, and a fabulous rajas con crema”, the two founders of La Casita Mexicana recalled.At the end of the party, he was introduced to the person responsible:Jaime Martin del Campo.
Jaime Martin del Campo was born and raised in Tototlan, Jalisco,in the highlands of Jalisco, where he also learned to cook with his grandmother. He wanted in the kitchen from day one, but had to sneak around to learn about his family’s cuisine because men weren’t supposed to be in the kitchen. That didn’t stop Jaime.
They even made their own cheeses, slaughtered goats to make birria, it was a food lover’s dream to grow up on that ranch in tequila country. Jalisco produces the most cheese of all the states in Mexico. They made jocoque, requeson, panela, and Jalisco style tamales, bread, sopa de elote, and of course, moles. They even milked the cows and goats for making the cheese.
Jaime, always an independent spirit, left for the big city at the ripe old age of 15,in Guadalajara, the capitol of Jalisco. There he studied and earned a B.A. in travel and tourism, and partied like a mad man until his late 20’s. Guadalajara has one of the mosty vibrant nightlife scenes in all of Mexico. There it was tequila, dancing ‘til 6AM, street food, and as always, cooking for his friends.
When Jaime arrived to the states, around the mid-eighties, a friend took him out for a burrito. Jaime hadn’t really heard of a burrito before and was shocked. He scolded his friend while spitting out a bit of stor bought tortilla, cheese product, and IMO sour cream,”this isn’t Mexican food…you’re from Jalisco, and you know better!!” Right then and their his contempt turned into a vision, one of bringing the food he grew up on to Los Angeles by opening a restaurant.
After working odd jobs to survive, Jaime, also a travel buff, landed a job in his area of study working for the Indonesian carrier, Garuda Airlines. His week was filled with international travel, and the on Fridays he went shopping for ingredients so that he could craft special Mexican dinners for his friends. He even brought his own food on trips so that he could cook where he landed.
Jaime was an uncompromising practioner of authentic Mexican cuisine since day one, and while his friends marveled at his great food, he was perfecting, practicing, and learning. When he cooked for that pot luck some 20 odd years ago, he arrived early to prepare and present, a labor that was driven by the pride of his Jaliscan heritage.
After Jaime and Ramiro had been introduced, they met at another function and got to talking about Jalisco, cooking, and about opening a restaurant of their own.
Ramiro cashed in his 401K, and both sold off most of their personal belongings to open La Casita Mexicana. They wanted to make a traditional cenaduria, like the ones they grew up with. A cenaduria is a supper house featuring the cooking of women. Home cooking style restaurants in Mexico, cenadurias, and fondas were traditionally for the working men who wanted their wives’ and mothers’ cooking when away from home. Cenadurias are open in the evenings, but this is America, so,” we are a cenaduria that’s open all day”, Ramiro smiled. The first menu had among other items:quesadillas with flor de calabaza, mole poblano, green and red pipianes, tortas, and chiles en nogada. Ramiro was so nervous the first day that he had to make the rice around seven times, because he kept thinking it wasn’t any good.
It took about three years for the restaurant to really be accepted by the neighborhood, the local population consisted of many Mexican-Americans who knew nothing of traditional Mexican cuisine. The subtleties and plating were radically different for many. “You mean, enchiladas don’t come with beans and rice, and melted cheese ?” They drizzled their moles and pipianes on the chips to get people used to the flavors, stoking their interest in this sauce. Most households made mole from Dona Maria jar of industrial mole paste.
Now, La Casita Mexicana is humming along. Regular appearances on Univision, invites to the James Beard awards, a rave review from Jonathan Gold and other local publications, magazine reviews, a chile relleno beatdown on Bobby Flay, and they’ve just expanded to open a store next to their restaurant.
The restaurant has been getting better and better in the several years I’ve been going, and the pair of chefs take regular trips to Mexico to continue their studies.I Just recently was fortunate to have sampled a delicious and sweet mole de xico they learned from a woman on their recent trip to Vera Cruz. The cooking at their restaurant features gastronomy from their home state of Jalisco and regional Mexican cuisine. The ingredients are genuine, and the two chefs have gone to great lengths to procure their native ingredients, even knocking on strangers doors if they happen to have a bitter orange tree on their property, offering to buy the otherwise unused sour citrus fruit. They work with some urban gardens around town that grow nopales(cactus), romeritos, and other valuable products from home.
While La Casita Mexicana have done so many complex dishes for special events, it would be a mistake to overlook their daily menu. La Casita Mexicana is the only restaurant of its kind that still resides in a traditional latino neighborhood which is definitely in the boondocks. They get a mixed crowd, but it’s often the locals that are there ordering these fantastic regional plates. I have a feeling Bell can’t keep these guys forever, but in the meantime, don’t be afraid to ask if there are any specials, or have one of the guys whip you up something off menu. But seriously, this is a cenaduria, and its real gift to Los Angeles isn’t to impress with names of plates, but to deliver deep, soulful cooking from the heart of Mexico, the food of their grandmothers. This is authentic Mexican.
Pozole verde, though the state of Guerrero is known for green pozole, they also do this dish in Jalisco, but of course, Jalisco style. Here is dish that Jaime and Ramiro grew up with, a beautiful pozole like no other in town. This soup is green from tomatillo, serrano chiles, poblano peppers, cilantro, and fresh epazote. Ramiro told me that “the corn in Guerrero is cooked more soft, we like it al dente”. The slow cooked pork soaks up all those aromas, and adds comfort to this pre-Columbian dish. It was made with turkey, or other native proteins before the arrival of the conquistadores. The other two pozoles at La Casita, red and white, are delicious,too.
The quesos fundidos(cheese fondues) at La Casita Mexicana are must have starters.The Queso Frito “La Casita Mexicana” uses their house blend of panela, oaxaca, cotija, and queso fresco with a touch of epazote. The cotija is a salty cheese and is included to impart its mineral qualities. They’re perfect for stuffing into Jaime and Ramiro’s house made tortillas with guajillo chile mixed into the masa, or the tortillas blended with nopal(cactus).
Have you heard about the breakfasts at La Casita Mexicana? The aromas of sweet café de la olla(pot coffee with cinnamon) and chiles linger stimulate the chismes(gossip), and familial celebration. Chilaquiles verdes(green), rojos(red), or go divorciados(divorced), both red and green on either side of the plate. It’s more of an amicable split! Get the chilaquiles with La Casita’s mole poblano, pipian rojo, or pipian verde.
Classic huevos rancheros and other egg preparations, or omelettes filled with cactus and mushrooms that are inspired cover the tables. This is the best traditional Mexican breakfast eatery in town. It’s like being at Café Tacuba in Mexico City on a Sunday morning.
The ceviche verde is perfect. Epazote,yerba buena(mint), hoja santa, chile serrano , fresh chile de arbol , jalapeno, a bit of chile poblano, lettuce, cilantro, and garlic are blended with lime to create a tangy, nuanced composition. The multi-layered ceviche juice tames the strong flavor of the pollock used in this plate. It’s finished this sea salt and a drizzle of olive oil.
There are a couple of baked fish entrees, on this visit it was fish filet in an adobo of guajillo and ancho chiles. Here a simple fish is glorified in medium spice, brilliant color, and just the desired level of season. Try their more subtle Filete de Pescado con Chile Morita or Al Chipotle if you want your lips to tingle with pleasure.
I was not always wowed by Jaime and Ramiro’s cecina(salt cured beef) plates when I first tried started going around three years ago.Often they were ordinary and the meat lacked tenderness. I never minded because there were so many other dishes to choose from. But, I recently had their Cecina al chipotle and it was a more delicate texture and the chipotle soaked tomatoes were great. Looking at some older photos of cecina I’d ordered a couple of years ago, the present version even looks better. The boys are always tweaking, playing, and perfecting.
The Plato “Conquista” is another classic meat option at La Casita Mexicana, a thin steak over grilled cactus and oaxacan cheese, covered in a chile guajillo sauce.
Not on the regular menu, but quite easy for them to whip this up for you, Relleno de Chile Guero filled with the house cheese blend. La Casita Mexicana takes their chiles rellenos seriously, and know that these dishes are the pride of a family’s kitchen. There are so many tired chiles rellenos around town filled with jack cheese and cooked by indifferent line cooks
At La Casita Mexicana, you get a variety of stuffed chiles, battered, not battered, and with interesting fillings, as they should be, as you would encounter in Mexico. The chile relleno de verduras is a roasted poblano pepper in a light tomato sauce,packed with a sautee of cactus, mushrooms, tomatoes,and onions.
You can’t go wrong with La Casita Mexicana’s stuffed chiles, but the truest indulgence is Puebla’s celebrated state dish, Chiles en Nogada. An elegant roasted poblano pepper stocked with a savory, sweet picadillo of minced pork,dried fruits, candied cactus, and nuts, blanketed in a fresh walnut sauce during the season and creamy pecan sauce for the off-season ,and crowned with fresh pomegranate, when in season .
Chiles en Nogada season runs from around August through early October.This is Mexican haute couture,and a difficult dish to balance. The presentation adheres to the original recipe as created for the first emperor of Mexico, Agustin de Iturbide by Pueblan nuns, which was not battered. It’s a challenge to join these flavors, it often tastes like three separate dishes that shouldn’t be paired, but La Casita Mexicana knows that the key is in the picadillo, which bridges the spice, and sweetness of the recipe. The same little cenaduria that brings hearty pozole,deftly performs the opulent, and sophisticated Chiles en Nogada. Excellence!
La Casita Mexicana is also house of moles. You get a taste as soon as you’re seated, all three of their labor intensive sauces are on the chips that come to your table. Enchiladas tres moles with chicken or cheese, comes the dark mole poblano (Pueblan mole), pipian rojo, and pipian verde(red and green pumpkin seed moles).
The moles are an exhausting trio of sauces to maintain, made fresh daily in the restaurant, though they are labors of love. The pipian rojo is a favorite of mine
Mole is a dish you pass down from generation to generation. Most home cooks remember the day when their abuelita sat them down and said, “it’s time you learned how to make our mole.” Whole restaurant empires have risen from such profound gestures, and some of these guarded secrets have been liberated for all to share the wealth by cookbook authors such as Diana Kennedy.
Jaime and Ramiro’s mole poblano has 46 ingredients as given to them by their grandmothers. Unsweetened chocolate, with chiles guajillo, ancho, and mulato, spices, stale bread, fruits, seeds, and nuts that are toasted, ground, liquefied, blended, cooked, and stirred to reveal an intense color and aromatic mélange.
And, the desserts? The traditional Mexican flan is as good as it gets. The desserts at La Casita are the memories of their grandmothers, who indulged Jaime and Ramiro, as all grandmothers do, with the best sweets fit for their favorite grandsons.
The texture, the sweetness, the flavor.Amazing.
Those little coconut candies stuffed into candied lime are given a more esteemed presentation than their usual street sweets vendors can afford. These are too good, it just isn’t fair.
Envueltos de arroz con leche y crema de nuez, the sweet rice with milk stuffed in a pastry with a walnut sauce shows a flair for invention.
The Guayabas(guavas)in rompope(Mexican egg nog)fit for a king.
Just recently, Jaime and Ramiro opened a store next door, specializing in gift baskets full of Mexican food products. It’s like walking into an open air market, there are moles, bread, candies, coffees, and even sweet cooked agave as a snack.
The gift baskets are perfect for your novia, abuelita, or Dia de Madre(Mother’s Day).
The Tiendita(little store) is open, and authentic Mexican is here, as it has been for the last 12 years. Jaime and Ramiro have brought the cuisine of their home towns, the food that has passed from generation to generation.
Whether it be a classic Mexican breakfast experience, a mole tasting, classic comfort food, or the high cuisine of Mexico, La Casita Mexicana is a leader in bringing the best and truest Mexican food to Los Angeles, and the US.
It may be the only cenaduria that’s open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but no need to fret. My only dilemma is whether to do breakfast, lunch, or dinner?
These two chefs have given everything they had to show us real Mexican cuisine, they are the antidote to the adulterated Mexican restaurants of the combo plate variety, and can strike fear into the kitchens of superficial celebrity chefs trying to sell their beads and glass to us native Angelinos.
Come taste the authentic flavors of Mexico. Buen Provecho.
La Casita Mexicana
4030 Gage Ave
Bell, CA 90201