Los Angeles and Southern California are of course rampant with Mexican restaurants of every variety—stands and trucks doling out transcendent tacos; corner mom-and-pops serving Oaxacan tlayudas, smoky grilled fish dishes from Sinaloa, lamb barbacoa and kid goat roasted on a spit. I crave the true flavors of Mexico probably more than any other cuisine, since stellar renditions are so hard to find in most of the country.
In researching Mexican restaurants, arrows kept pointing to La Casita Mexicana in Bell, a working-class town of 40,000 about seven miles south of downtown L.A. Chef-owners Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu have roots in the tequila-producing state of Jalisco. Both were working in the airline industry when they met in the 1990s. They opened La Casita Mexicana in 1998 as a tribute to their grandmothers and traditional Mexican cooking. Apparently it took even the Mexican-American locals some time to embrace the regional specialties on the menu at La Casita; the restaurant took to dabbing tortilla chips with cocoa-colored mole to lure patrons toward the kitchen's kaleidoscopic flavors. It became a signature welcoming bite.
Del Campo and Arvizu have since become star chefs in the Spanish-speaking world: Their matching bald pates and dark, wooly mustaches appear frequently on Univision. Last year the duo bought the barbershop next to their restaurant and doubled the space to hold more than 100 seats. The two are also opening a second place, called Mexicano, in L.A.'s central Baldwin Hills neighborhood this summer.
The subtlety of the food at La Casita astounded me. Certainly, the zing of chiles and the warmth of spices zoomed around the taste buds, but the seasonings landed softly, often tempered by pureed nuts or cream or a judicious use of simple, melty cheeses. This cooking relies on the calibration of the sauces. The proteins, while all carefully prepared, act as another flavor and texture rather than dominating.
The subtlety of the food at La Casita astounded me.
Our server didn't blink when two of us ordered six dishes between us; in fact, she stepped in to help us select the broadest possible selection of the menu. We started with a classic La Casita plate of chicken enchiladas swathed in three moles—the famous nutty-sweet mole poblano and two pipiáns made with pumpkin seeds, one with the earthy edge of green chile and the other sharper with red chile. And I'm so glad the server didn't steer us away from pork smothered in a fluffy, sage-colored mole made with pistachios and the herb hoja santa, which lent an anise nip to the dish. Another saucy beauty: flaky white fish draped in a smooth zucchini blossom sauce that carried a whiff of mustard.
The "Conquista" plate—pounded steak over lobes of grilled cactus with a veneer of smooth Oaxaca cheese and an oniony chile guajillo sauce—proved the least interesting dish, though only because everything else on the table so fully intoxicated. And it was a given that we'd try the chile en nogada, a seasonal summer and fall standard in Mexico that is one of La Casita's masterpieces. The headache of a preparation involves stuffing sautéed ground beef perfumed with fruits, nuts, and sweet spices into a roasted poblano, which is swaddled in a pecan cream sauce and scattered with pomegranate seeds, nature's Pop Rocks. It's almost a dessert entree, better for sharing and nodding with intrigued approval after the first heady mouthful. I can't imagine eating a whole plate solo.
My L.A. friends tell me the traffic to Bell at night can be hellacious; at lunch I raced down the highways. "Come back next time for breakfast," said our server at the end of the meal. "Have the chilaquiles with chipotle." Sold.