~ By RICHARD FOSS ~Originally published in LA CityBeat in 2006
I didn’t have very high expectations when I went for dinner at a tourist trap, but a friend wanted to shop for something tacky and Mexican, so to Olvera Street we went. She found her garish piñata, which wasn’t surprising, and I found La Golondrina, which was.
It was rare to find excellent food in a historic building in a tourist area, and I enjoyed the experience so much that I wrote an article about it. My first published article, in fact, in January of 1988.
I ran across that review recently and was struck by the things that dazzled me back then. They offered carnitas (a rarity!), a chicken and potato burrito (how novel!), and chicken in mole sauce (astonishing!). To a white boy from the west side, it was fantastically exotic. I shook my head as I read the yellowing page, bemused at how much I had changed.
After a moment, I realized that it wasn’t just me – Mexican food in Los Angeles has changed a lot over the past two decades. Not that long ago, few restaurants here offered any meats other than chicken or beef, and the only sauces were green or red chili or the mild stuff they put over the enchiladas. Places that served carnitas advertised it on their sign, and homesick Mexicans and savvy diners alike hit the brakes when they saw eateries named Carnitas El Tarasco or Carnitas Patzcuaro. It was the secret code – restaurants that served carnitas were cooler and more authentic than the places nearby that didn’t. La Golondrina served carnitas, the only place on Olvera that did back then, and it was why I picked them over similarly picturesque places with more pedestrian fare.
I asked one of LA’s experts on Mexican cooking if she remembered things the same way I did. Mary Sue Milliken, co-owner of the Border Grill and Ciudad, laughed when I mentioned how rare carnitas was twenty years ago.
“Carnitas was the reason we decided to open Border Grill – it used to be a real novelty here. When we were still at City Cafe, we used to take the whole staff over to a little place called Anelfi’s that specialized in carnitas. It was out of our way and a nuisance to drive there, but we loved the food so much that we decided to serve it at Border Grill. ”
That was in 1985, and it was the first stylish place in LA where you could get carnitas. I didn’t go there at the time, hadn’t even heard of it, because I was haunting weird little dives of every description rather than places where the moneyed and connected dined in style. I wanted authenticity, and was willing to go into strange neighborhoods to find it. My brother and I ate Thai food before any of our friends had heard of it, and we nearly died because I incautiously told the owner that I liked things really spicy. This was before Thai restaurants automatically throttled back the spicing for gringos, and he hit us with a double-barreled blast of chilies and ginger. I tried Indonesian food in a spartan dive in Inglewood, Salvadoran in a crumbling mansion on Alvarado, Rumanian in a Hollywood café where all the other customers looked like elderly vampires. During my conversation with Mary Sue, I discovered that on those rare occasions when there was another Anglo or two in the booth next to me, it might have been her and her partner, Susan Feininger.
“Back in the early 80’s, if people wanted truly authentic cuisines, be it Korean, Mexican, or whatever, they had to go to places that weren’t in their comfort zone. There wouldn’t have been valet parking or fluent menus… A lot of the people who spend money in restaurants were sticking by their steak and potatoes because they weren’t willing to go to the kind of places Susan and I go. We opened Border Grill serving the kind of food they were too intimidated to go to East LA to eat. After a few times, maybe they decided they wanted to get the same thing for half the price in an authentic atmosphere, and they went to East LA.”
If that happened – and I’m willing to believe that it did – then countless little Mexican restaurants with regional specialties are indebted to Mary Sue and Susan, who took rustic cuisine and made it hip. Mary Sue was quick to disclaim responsibility, pointing out that Mexican food in LA may have been less varied because many ingredients were harder to find back then.
“When we were in Mexico studying food, we found all these things like achiote paste, chipotlte chilies, sour Valencia oranges, and guajillo, but when we came back, all we could readily find were anchos and jalapenos and serranos. We went downtown and scoured the Mexican wholesale markets, and we took our purveyors with us. We told them, I want this, I want that, and it was really hard in the beginning, but gradually we started getting what we wanted. There are still things I want to find, like real Oaxacan string cheese and fresh huitlacoche, but things really have changed. You can get chipotles at Von’s, these days…”
There is also the possibility that Mexican cooks themselves were less varied before the 80’s. Most of the early Mexican immigrants to Los Angeles came from the northern states of Sonora and Jalisco, and Oaxacan or Yucatecan food was almost as strange to them as Swedish or Chinese cuisine. There was a flowering in Mexican food here in the Forties, when the internment of Japanese workers opened up jobs for newcomers from the south, but after the war, the flow of migration slowed again.
About twenty years ago hard times in Southern Mexico triggered a mass movement of people with very different culinary traditions. I remember when restaurants in central LA and east Long Beach sprouted cardboard signs announcing the availability of Birria de Chivo (goat Michoácan style) and they didn’t bother to translate the signs into English because they were sure that Californians wouldn’t order it. I did, and I came back for more. The glories of Veracruz-style fish and Yucutan seafood were suddenly everywhere, and I came to love tostadas de ceviche and coctel de camaron. Despite barely passing high school Spanish, even I could hear that the servers spoke with different accents, and sometimes from the kitchen, I heard languages that were ancient when the conquistadores showed up. That influx of immigrants happened at the same time as a homegrown phenomenon – the children of earlier migrants had done well and had disposable income. As Mary Sue put it, “…the population of Mexican people in LA has grown, and there’s a different demographic – They still have connections to their old community and culture, but they’re makin’ it, they have enough money to go out and eat well. Both Border Grill and Ciudad have a good number of people eating there who are Hispanic, or of Hispanic origin.”
So are there more reservoirs of culinary greatness in Mexico, just waiting to knock us over with new recipes? Mary Sue thinks there are, but not where you expect to find them – in cities instead of the remote countryside. “When you eat at top restaurants in Mexico City now, it’s not like it was twenty years ago, when it was all crappy continental cuisine. Back then we went to dumpy dives because that was where the good cooking was, but now there’s a generation that is creating a modern take on their own food. Mexico City is abuzz with upscale, high end stuff.”
I will be looking forward to that wave of creativity, but I also enjoy looking back every once in a while. I went to La Golondrina again, and the food was still very good. Rather than marveling over carnitas, we enjoyed guisado de puerco (pork stew with cactus), cochinita pibil (pork marinated in orange juice, chilies, and spices), and chicken molé that was just as delightful as it was nineteen years ago. I’ll be back again, and I won’t wait twenty years this time. I’ll also go to Border Grill and Ciudad, and to Serenata Gourmet and Tlapazola Grill and Guelaguetza and wherever else someone decides to do something wonderful with one of the greatest culinary traditions on this little blue planet.