Monday, January 3, 2011

La Casita Mexicana

The little city of Bell, California has been in the news lately, and not in a good way. Bell is in Southeastern Los Angeles County. Bell and its neighboring cities of Vernon, Maywood, Huntington Park and Cudahy are located south of downtown, between the Los Angeles River to the east and the Harbor Freeway to the west.

Like its neighbors, Bell is small - 30,000 people in the 2000 census - and working class. It was incorporated in the 1920s to serve a booming industrial base and provide housing for workers. These cities' governments were very accommodating to industry - the auto factories, metal workers, pork slaughterhouses and trucking distribution centers employed the mostly white, blue collar residents until the 1970s, when recession, job loss and riots caused flight to more distant suburbs. Immigrants moved in, and today these small cities are demographically almost 90 % Latino.

Bell's corruption scandal, with the revelation how city officials gave themselves excessive salaries and perks, outshone most nearby scandals, but, sadly, corruption in municipal government is not that unusual among these cities. Another neighboring city, Maywood, is so poorly managed that it recently laid off all city employees and contracted out all city services. South Gate, another nearby city, was embroiled in a corruption scandal in 2003, sending the city treasurer to federal prison. You can read a fascinating excerpt from journalist Sam Quinones' account of the South Gate scandal at this link.

The nearby town of Vernon is an example of how easily this corruption can take hold. Vernon's five square miles is home to over a thousand businesses employing over 50,000 workers, yet there are only 91 residents - 91 voters - to provide oversight and checks on the power of its City Council, City Administrator, and other city officials. In 2006 the mayor, his wife, and son were all convicted of voter fraud.

Powerful corporate interests combined with an uneducated, poor population base makes it easy for dishonest people to seize power. The people of these small cities deserve better.

One good thing they do have is in Bell is great food.

La Casita Mexicana chefs Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu strive to cook the kind of traditional food their mothers and grandmothers cooked. Both raised in Jalisco, they worked in the travel industry before opening a restaurant they modeled after the traditional cenaduria - or supper house, usually featuring food cooked by women. Since it opened in 1998, La Casita Mexicana has gained a reputation for authentic regional cooking featuring impeccable ingredients. The two chefs have become celebrities in the Spanish language media - and have given back to their community as well, sponsoring cooking education for kids and promoting local communal farms that grow their ingredients.

We've been meaning to come here for ages, and finally made it one weekday afternoon for lunch.

The restaurant is cozy and attractive, with bright orange-washed walls covered with art - paintings, a baroque sculpture, huge funny giant vegetable replicas, stained glass screens and framed reviews and articles. Our waiter was helpful and informative. A bowl of chips drizzled with three different sauces (moles, pronounced "moh-lays") was placed before us. We enjoyed a fresh lemonade that included tiny pulpy chia seeds that added a refreshing tartness and texture to the drink.

Our waiter suggested an appetizer of Queso fundido a las finas hierbes - a melted cheese fondue seasoned with herbs - wrapped in a banana leaf. You scoop it up with fresh handmade tortillas. It was rich and tasty. There was a brick-colored chile salsa if you wanted to add some fire.

We also tried the ceviche - chunks of white fish marinated in lime juice with serrano chiles and herbs. This was wonderful, bright and fresh flavors. You spoon it onto small round tostadas, and crunch.

La Casita Mexicana is known for two things - its moles - the complicated flavorful sauces of Puebla - and its version of chile en nogada.

This last is a kind of specialty dish, often thought of as Mexican haute cuisine. It was first invented, they say, to honor Mexican independence, and because its ingredients are the colors of the Mexican flag, it's a patriotic dish.

A roasted green poblano chile is stuffed with picadillo - a mixture of ground meat, savory vegetables and sweet diced fruits. It's napped in a creamy sauce flavored with pecans or walnuts, depending on the season, and garnished with pomegranate seeds.

Our waiter warned me that it wasn't what most people expect of Mexican food. He needn't have - I've enjoyed the version served at Babita's Mexicuisine in San Gabriel, and was eager to compare.

The dish is a lesson in contrasts. The crema sauce is cool - not cold, but not hot. More like the way you put cool sour cream on a hot potato as a garnish, then let it meld. The chile itself, and the rich pork filling were warm. A bite of the rich porky goodness - complex, with the savory and sweet additions - napped in a cool cream was lovely - and then a pomegranate seed bursts in your mouth with brightness. So delicious.

Our son got a dish called "Conquista" which is a thinly sliced grilled steak served over grilled cactus. My photos didn't come out.

[The Man I Love] decided to sample the moles, choosing chicken enchiladas a Tres Moles. Three enchiladas were sauced with - left to right - red pipian mole, mole poblano, and green pipian mole. Each a little different - my favorite was the poblano, made with 46 different ingredients including nuts, chiles, chocolate, and herbs.

It was all so delicious we didn't have room for dessert - or so we thought.

Our waiter presented us with a special treat - three candied limes stuffed with creamy coconut filling, doused in rompopo, or Mexican eggnog custard. The combination of flavors was nice - the coconut tooth-achingly sweet, the candied lime rind slightly bitter, and the sauce creamy and cool.

The restaurant offers something unusual to both Anglos and Mexican diners - the owners say that many local Bell residents were at first unreceptive to some of the regional offerings of Jalisco. But business has been good as the years have gone by - if nothing else, the recent scandal brought lots of media and reporters down to cover the story, and they have to eat lunch somewhere!

La Casita Mexicana is right next door to a bakery that looks worth exploring, as well as a small, more typical taqueria, La Perla Tapatia.

Hmm. Maybe we'll have to come back.


cactus petunia said...

Wow. I just had breakfast, but now I'm already hungry for lunch!

Anonymous said...

Oh. My. God. (And that is a prayer!!)
If I could hop on a plane to eat dinner there with you tonight, I would.
Don't think I'm kidding, either. I've already been to the airport once this afternoon, and I could easily turn right around and go there again.

I can't begin to tell you how much I'm craving good Mexican food right now. It's Tuesday, which means it's the night to get crab machacas at Kiki's in El Paso... if I still lived there.
I do wish you'd posted the picture of your son's meal, even if it wasn't a good photo. My imagination isn't doing it justice, I am sure.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

A lot of our Mexican immigrants are from Jalisco state, which is perhaps best known for its paletas, popsicles made from fresh ingredients. I'll have to look for chile en nogada on the restaurant menus.

Pumpkin Delight (Kimberly) said...

Oh, that place is so on my place to visit in the near future. Everything looks divine.