The East LA chef who rejected the Mexican combo plate

I don’t think I’m alone among East LA-born Chicanas and Chicanos in my complicated relationship with Mexican food. I grew up with a grandmother who regularly made menudo and kept cactus paddles to simmer nopales. My mother’s cooking may have been largely Americanized, but she always charred chili peppers on an electric pancake griddle for salsa, which even to this day is a constant in her fridge; his eggs and bacon came with refried beans, enriched with fried bacon grease instead of lard. And about once a month, she would cook a whole beef tongue with onions and bay leaves for our homemade version of lengua tacos. These two women are the reason I’m not afraid of unusual flavors or textures. After years of eating and loving the food of my heritage, I have come to be known, sometimes with revulsion by my classmates and more recently with admiration, as an adventurous eater.

Yet when I went out to eat Mexican food as a child with my mother and grandmother, our choices were far from adventurous. Mexican restaurant food was mostly reduced to the classic combo platter. Hard-shelled tacos and heavy enchiladas with orange cheese drifts. I didn’t mind – indeed, to my childish palate, I found comfort and even joy in the way chewy melted cheese adheres to rolled enchiladas slathered in a much milder sauce than salsa. what my mother used to do at home,

In college, however, I became restless. Across California, Chinese and Italian cuisine was expanding beyond chop suey and giant meatball spaghetti. Regional specialties and gastronomic innovations emerged thanks to pioneers like Cecilia Chiang at Mandarin in San Francisco and Beverly Hills, Piero Selvaggio at Valentino in Santa Monica and Mauro Vincenti who set up his Rex il Ristorante amid Art Deco splendor. of the Oviatt Building in downtown Los Angeles.

But Mexican food during those years was mostly trapped in its guacamole comfort zone. Two white Midwestern female chefs, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, shook things up when they opened the Border Grill in Los Angeles in 1985 and served dishes inspired by their trips to Mexico, including sautéed calamari, veal tongue stew and black bean huaraches. Meanwhile, British cookbook author Diana Kennedy was revealing the depth of regional Mexican cuisine for home cooks. But as I wrote in a 1991 article for this article, “Waiting for the Revolution,” the transformational shift in opening people’s minds to the possibilities of Mexican cuisine in Los Angeles should be fought for by chefs mexicans.

Thirty years later, we have transcendent tasting menus from Carlos Salgado at Costa Mesa’s Taco Maria, Gilberto Centina’s gorgeous Holbox seafood restaurant and his Yucatan specialty Chichen Itza in downtown Los Angeles, the masters Oaxacan moles at the Lopez family’s Guelaguetza in Koreatown, Wes Avilia’s Hollywood-the lush fish restaurant Ka’teen and Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu’s La Casita Mexicana in Bell, not to mention – among countless others regional venues – the seasonal hotspot in the Damian Arts District opened by Enrique Olvera, whose restaurant Pujol de Mexico was ranked ninth on the list of the 50 best restaurants in the world in 2021.

However, in my opinion, none of this would have happened without the late Jose Hernandez Rodriguez, chef and owner of Garibaldi’s original La Serenata in Boyle Heights. After Rodriguez’s death in 2010, LA Councilman Gil Cedillo called the chef a “salsas maestro” — and yes, Serenata’s sauces, usually draped over fish, were famous. A sauce with orange hues of cascabel, arbol and habanero peppers. A red and green pipian sauce. In her 1989 review of the restaurant, Barbara Hansen wrote that it named a tomato, cream, and green chili sauce Golla, for Gregoria Golla, “who once had a small food stand in Torreon, Coahuila, where Rodriguez was born.” I remember a hot sauce with spicy coriander.

Rodriguez’s rotating repertoire of over 60 sauces has drawn diners from all over Southern California, including Hollywood and the Westside. People used to brag about how they left”to Boyle Heightsfor dinner at Serenata, just a five-minute drive from downtown Los Angeles and with gated parking for Mercedes and Jaguar drivers.

Rodriguez didn’t have much patience for the state of Mexican food in Los Angeles and was on a mission to open people’s minds.

“I think what we need to do is introduce real Mexican food, present Mexican food with dignity and pride — and also, educate people,” he told me in 1991. “To my opinion, the political and social conditions that existed 100 years ago – and I’m talking about racism – contributed to the creation of California-Mexican cuisine.

“Mexican food must have appealed to Americans, and at that time they didn’t like hot sauces,” he continued. “Trying to give Americans what they wanted, Mexican cooks started making sweet sauces. … What you have are a lot of big, beautiful buildings with terrible food.

This way of thinking caused some in the neighborhood to call it elitist and they said its food wasn’t really Mexican.

“When people suggest that, I say, ‘Why not?'” he replied. “First of all, I’m Mexican. Second, we use ingredients that are used in all Mexican cuisines. Serrano chili is neither Polish nor French. It’s Mexican. If French chefs can develop new cuisine and Italian chefs too, why not Mexican chefs?

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You can still get shrimp in cilantro sauce or salmon in red pipian sauce at Serenata’s newest Westside location on Pico Boulevard, but these days many customers seem to opt for the fajitas instead. Now that we have witnessed the evolution of Mexican cuisine in Los Angeles and are no longer surprised at what is possible, we can look back to our combined roots and enjoy the familiar tastes that many of us have grown up. The roots of classic Mexican-American cuisine may be entangled in colonialism, but generations of Latino cooks and servers have worked in Cal-Mex restaurants and helped transform them into welcoming gathering places for friends and family.

Justino Romero at El Cholo in La Habra. Romero has worked at El Cholo for 43 years, the last 15 as a manager.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

With that in mind, Bill Addison, Lucas Kwan Peterson, Stephanie Breijo, Jenn Harris and columnist Gustavo Arellano from the dining team put together a guide to 38 must-visit classic Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles. At one point, Peterson had a list of over 100 restaurants that could have made the list. After discussions with editor-in-chief Daniel Hernandez — and lots of meals — the list was narrowed down to 38 key locations. Arellano, who happens to be the author of ‘Taco USA: How Mexican Food Won America’, wrote about his youngster’s ‘stupid and smug rejection’ of Cal-Mex food and what made him change. of opinion. Peterson hung out with five longtime El Cholo employees — all in the “20-year club” — who collectively have more than 200 years of service at the chain. And Harris got a behind-the-scenes look at how Tito’s Tacos famous fried tacos are made, starting at 3:30 a.m. On a busy day, Harris says, Tito’s fried up to 8,000 tacos. I love that Peterson and Harris give voice to restaurant workers who may not be famous but are essential to feeding this town.

Victorino Rodarte, left, poses in a cooler and cuts meat with a steel-gloved hand

Victorino Rodarte, left, poses in a cooler at Tito’s Tacos Commissioner and cuts meat with a steel-gloved hand, right. Rodarte has been in the business for over 45 years.

(Wesley Lapointe/Los Angeles Times)

The $10,000 Instagram Post

“It’s a phenomenon that is causing a paradigm shift in the restaurant world, transferring the power of influence from traditional media to anyone with a mobile phone and a love for food.” In her story about the world of food influencers, Jenn Harris looked at the effect of social media that even a stand of Van Nuys mariscos can feel – is it worth paying thousands of dollars for a TikTok post? Some say yes. What do restaurant reviews say? Harris asked. She also explained how to tell the difference between a journalist and a food influencer.

The next day at Roscoe’s

“After the initial shock of learning that a hip-hop artist had been shot in a restaurant in Los Angeles, my mind went to the cooks and servers who might have witnessed the violence and who would probably hope not don’t waste precious hours of work. in its aftermath,” wrote editor Daniel Hernandez a day after rapper PnB Rock was shot dead at Roscoe’s House of Chicken & Waffles on West Manchester Avenue. There had been plenty of talk on social media that Rock (whose real name was Rakim Allen) should have “knew better” than, as Hernandez wrote, “eating at a restaurant in a community that is sternly qualified of ‘dangerous’.” “I had a feeling that if Hernandez had a meal at Roscoe’s and saw the restaurant through the eyes of its employees and customers, he would come away with a nuanced story. His beautifully written story is worth your time. .

The climbs of Bub and Grandma

Stephanie Breijo’s restaurant column brings the happy news that LA Bub and Grandma’s Bakery — which almost always runs out of bread at the Hollywood Farmers Market — is opening a full restaurant.

— Jenn Harris ate a lot of good sandwiches last week. Among them: Italian jerk beef at Bernie’s Soul Kitchen, Mr. T’s croquette and egg salad sando at Culver City’s new Katsu restaurant.

Food Bowl this week

The LA Times Food Bowl is in full swing. Upcoming events include Mujeres del Maguey, a collaboration in four courses presented Sunday by Re:Her between Corissa Hernandez of Nativo in Highland Park and Todo Verde chef Jocelyn Ramirez with pairings of mezcal and other agave spirits. Also, coming on September 22 is a collaboration in nine courses between Chef Kevin Lee, better known on social media as @chefboylee and Chef Ki Kim of Kinn. And tickets are still available for our LA Times Night Market, September 23-25, which kicks off with a “Smoked Soirée,” featuring a barbecue demo by pitmaster Kevin Bludso, a burger battle judged by Alvin Cailan of Amboy and hosted by Eric Greenspan, and an Italian beef demo with “The Bear’s Matty Matheson and Courtney Storer, the culinary producer who made sure the show’s beef sandwich stayed true to its Chicago roots. Find it full schedule of Food Bowl eventspresented by City National Bank, at

About Margaret L. Portillo

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