Saturday, March 16, 2024

La Casita Mexicana (Bell, CA) [2]

La Casita Mexicana Restaurant
4030 E Gage Ave, Bell, CA 90201
323-773-1898
www.casitamex.com / www.jaimeandramiro.com
Sat 03/16/2024, 06:30p-09:15p




La Casita Mexicana Exterior

Some friends and I were recently on the lookout for a suitable venue for a birthday dinner. Our initial pick was actually Mountain House in Rowland Heights, but the lack of alcohol there made us reconsider that choice, and we ended up at La Casita Mexicana. Opened in 1999 by Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu, the place is easily one of the most iconic Mexican restaurants in the Southern California region, and given that it'd been a while since I'd eaten there, I was pretty eager to return.

About the Chefs: Born in August 1959, Arvizu hails Tecolotlán, in the western Mexican state of Jalisco, and inherited his interest in cooking from his abuela, who ran a cenaduría. As a teenager in the late 1970s, he moved to LA, where his parents operated a restaurant-slash-tortilleria called El Indio, located at 4579 S Centinela Ave in Del Rey, near Culver City. After finishing up high school, he went to East Los Angeles College and was subsequently able to secure employment at Aeroméxico. During his tenure at the airline, he was able to travel extensively for his job, which allowed him to further his appreciation of regional Mexican cuisine. Arvizu spent 17 years in the industry, and it was at an industry event where he first got to taste the cooking of his future business partner Jaime Martin del Campo, who'd handled the catering.

Coincidentally, del Campo is almost exactly the same age as Arvizu, having been born in July 1959, also comes from Jalisco (Tototlán, where his dad ran a farm), and also learned to love cooking thanks to his grandmother. He studied tourism in college, then made his way to the US in the 1980s, and eventually landed a job at Garuda, an Indonesian airline. After meeting Arvizu at that fateful party circa 1988, the two--with del Campo's prodding--ultimately decided to open a restaurant together, and thus the idea for Cenaduria La Casita Mexicana was born (they later dropped the "Cenaduria" part from the name).

La Casita opened in February 1999, and while the Chefs may have had to "educate" people on traditional Mexican cookery in those early years, the eatery did catch on, establishing del Campo and Arvizu as trailblazers of sorts in the LA dining scene. The two even began appearing on television, and in 2008, they were James Beard semifinalists. In January 2015, the Chefs expanded their empire with the opening of Flautas at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza mall, which was followed a month later by the much fancier Mexicano, at the same shopping center (though both are now closed). July 2016 saw the publication of their cookbook Salsas: A Simple Guide to Great Salsas!, and in 2017 and 2018, La Casita Mexicana was awarded "Outstanding Restaurant" semifinalist status by Beard.

La Casita Mexicana Interior
Pictured above is the main dining room, which has been greatly expanded since my last dinner here. The eatery originally occupied just the rightmost portion of the space (the kitchen was smaller back then), but the team eventually took over the storefront two doors down, and turned it into a gift shop called La Tiendita Mexicana circa May 2011. They were then able to take over the old Bertha's Beauty Salon in the middle of the two businesses, and in February 2013, incorporated it into the restaurant. Finally, La Tiendita was converted into La Casita's bar area around October 2019.

La Casita Mexicana Outdoor Seating
La Casita Mexicana Patio
The restaurant now boasts a rather welcoming patio out back, which I believe was added during the pandemic.

La Casita Mexicana Menu: Cover La Casita Mexicana Menu: Botanas/Appetizers La Casita Mexicana Beverage List La Casita Mexicana Menu: Chiles en Nogada + Las Carnes-The Meats La Casita Mexicana Menu: Las Enchiladas La Casita Mexicana Menu: Moles & Pepianes + Las Flautas La Casita Mexicana Menu: Pescado -- Fish + Camarones -- Shrimp La Casita Mexicana Menu: Postres - Desserts + Guarniciones - Side Orders
The menu here draws from across Mexico, and has actually been expanded quite a bit since my last visit. Drink-wise, the restaurant received its liquor license in 2011, so there's a small booze selection, but given how limited it is, you'll probably want to make use of the corkage fee, which for us was $15. Click for larger versions.

Sliced Passion Fruit
Upon being seated, one of my dining companions inquired about the maracuyás (passion fruits) growing overhead, and the staff was kind enough to pick a couple ripe examples for us to sample.

Chips and Mole
We were quickly provided some properly crunchy tortilla chips, drizzled with sweet, nutty mole.

2014 Council Nicene
I brought along several beers this evening, all of which were from the 2014 vintage (the idea was to celebrate each brew's 10th birthday). Up first was the 2014 Council Nicene, produced during the first year of operation at the now-defunct San Diego brewery (closed December 2018). This was a Belgian farmhouse-style saison barrel-fermented with Saccharomyces, finished with Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus, aged for four months in French oak Gewürztraminer barrels, then blended with non-aged saison. Its nose was pretty stellar, with loads of juicy apricots all over the place, undergirded by a persistent yeastiness. On the palate, the ale was gently sour, with a touch of bitterness up front before those sweet stone fruits came in, joined by more earthiness and a touch of spice. This one has aged beautifully over the past 10 years, so it's a shame that Council is no more.

CEVICHE VERDE / GREEN CEVICHE
CEVICHE VERDE / GREEN CEVICHE [$18.95] | Refrescante aperitivo de pescado marinado en jugo de limón, chile Serrano, cilantro y pepino, acompañado con crujientes tostadas de maíz recién hechas / Refreshing fish appetizer marinated in lemon juice, Serrano peppers, cilantro and cucumbers. Served with freshly made tostadas
We got things started with an invigorating ceviche that incorporated meaty, substantial cuts of fish, perked up by a bevy of bright, refreshing flavors and just a smidge of heat. I was quite the fan of those crisp-yet-chewy tostadas, too.

Extra Salsa Verde
We were given an extra serving of the wonderfully zesty marinade used in the ceviche, which paired quite well with some of the other dishes we had.

TAQUITOS DE POLLO 'El Mercado' (6) / CHICKEN TAQUITOS
TAQUITOS DE POLLO "El Mercado" (6) / CHICKEN TAQUITOS [$10.95] | Doraditos servidos con crema mexicana, queso cotija y bañados con salsa verde / Made with crispy corn tortillas served with Mexican cream, cotija cheese and with green tomatillo salsa
The rolled tacos were as crunchy as I was hoping for, and came enveloped in a delightful duet of crema and salsa, with the cheese imparting an extra layer of salty goodness. My only gripe was that the chicken wasn't as juicy as I would've liked.

MARGARITA – JAMAICA / HIBISCUS
MARGARITA – JAMAICA / HIBISCUS (Pitcher) [$36.99]
A hibiscus tea-boosted margarita showcased the floral tartness I wanted, paired with a tamarind-like, sour-n-spicy rim.

QUESO AZTECA / AZTECA CHEESE FONDUE
QUESO AZTECA / AZTECA CHEESE FONDUE [$22.95] | Especialidad de la casa. Cuatro quesos mexicanos, fundidos, rellenos con rajas de chile poblano, nopales, hongos, y epazote. Envuelto en hojas de plátano / 4 different Mexican cheeses filled with poblano chile slices, cactus. Mushrooms and Mexican herbs wrapped in plantain leaves
We were in the mood for something cheesy, and this specialty of the house was calling our name. An amalgam of queso cotija, queso panela, queso Oaxaca, and queso fresco, the dish ate rich and just-salty-enough, its heft countered both in terms of taste and texture by the combination of mushrooms, cactus, chilies, and the pungency of epazote.

COCHINITA PIBIL
COCHINITA PIBIL (Unwrapped)
COCHINITA PIBIL [$23.95] | Carne de puerco marinada con achiote y cocinada en sus jugos, servida con arroz blanco, frijoles negros y salsa de habanero / Pork shoulder marinated with achiote and braised in achiote paste and bitter orange juice. Served with white rice, black beans & habanero sauce
The puerco pibil was another must-order for us, and didn't disappoint. The shards of long-cooked pork were as tender as I was hoping for, but the key here really was how well the piquancy of annatto was incorporated. To make the perfect bite, be sure to tuck the meat into a tortilla, and apply a dash of salsa.

2014 Russian River Pliny The Elder
Our next bottle was the 2014 Russian River Pliny The Elder, a legendary West Coast double IPA. It's a beer that you definitely want to drink fresh, so tasting it after 10 years of aging was done in the spirit of experimentation. The citrusy, piney aromas you'd expect were absent, replaced by something quite sweet and rather dank. In terms of taste, I found a malty, almost toffee-like sweetness, with the bitterness of the hops still there, but faded--this seemed like it was in the process of transforming into a barley wine. I will also note that the beer gushed all over the place upon opening, and made quite a mess.

Tortillas
Tortillas were soft, floppy, and mildly-flavored, without too much overt maíz character.

Frijoles Negros
The hearty black beans that arrived with the cochinita above effectively played foil to the pork.

CHILES EN NOGADA
CHILES EN NOGADA [$24.95] | Relleno con carne, frutas frescas y secas, nueces de Castilla y biznaga. Bañados con salsa de nuez y granada. (Granada en temporada). Servido con arroz blanco / Mexico's traditional school of "haute cuisine", stuffed with meat, dried fruits, walnuts, candied cactus, pecan cream sauce, and pomegranate (pomegranate in season). Served with white rice
In another one of La Casita's signature dishes, a poblano pepper arrived stuffed with a nutty, sweetly-spiced picadillo, then was enrobed in a creamy pecan-based sauce, with the pomegranate offering up pops of countering acidity. Given the strong flavors at play, the mildness of the chile itself was key for balance.

2014 The Alchemist Heady Topper
To compare with the Pliny above, I also brought along a can of the 2014 The Alchemist Heady Topper, a quintessential East Coast double India pale ale that's also meant to be drunk fresh. Not surprisingly, the beer's typical notes of citrus and tropical fruit were absent. Instead, the IPA was almost barleywine-like, with a distinctly malty sweetness joined by a bit of a metallic edge, both in terms of its bouquet and its taste. It definitely seemed like it was going in the same direction as the Pliny, though we gave it the edge tonight.

3 MOLES (Pollo / Chicken)
3 MOLES (Pollo / Chicken) [$22.95] | Servidos con arroz blanco / Served with white rice. A delicious combination of mole poblano, and green and red pepian
Mostly tender cuts of chicken were served with a trio of moles. I began with the pipián rojo, and found it nutty and tangy, with a great "dry spice" character. On the other hand, the pipián verde was almost medicinal at times, but also lighter and much more vegetal. Unsurprisingly, the mole poblano was the headiest of the troika, with a sweet, earthy, nutty depth that was potent, but never domineering. It was lovely to be able to compare the three sauces side-by-side.

Arroz Blanco
The rice made a whole lotta sense with the mole, and is just what you want to even out all the assertive flavors happening.

2014 Beachwood Barrel Aged Jean-Quad Van Damme
Here we have the 2014 Beachwood Barrel Aged Jean-Quad Van Damme (love that punny name), a Belgian-style dark ale aged a year in bourbon barrels. The quadrupel smelled intensely of candi sugar, with a dark fruit backing and a smidge of barrel. Tasting it, I got bittersweetness and oak up front, while the mid-palate and finish were once again all about that candi sugar, intertwined with toffee and caramel. I last sampled this beer fresh at El Condor a decade ago, so it was great to revisit it tonight, especially since apparently only 100 bottles were ever released.

ENCHILADAS DE MOLE VERDE (POLLO ó QUESO) / GREEN MOLE VERDE ENCHILADAS (CHICKEN or CHEESE)
ENCHILADAS DE MOLE VERDE (POLLO ó QUESO) / GREEN MOLE VERDE ENCHILADAS (CHICKEN or CHEESE) [$20.95] | Exquisita combinación de semillas de calabaza, tomatillos, cilantro, chile Poblano y epazote / Exquisite combination of roasted pumpkin seeds, tomatillos, cilantro, Poblano pepper and epazote (Mexican aromatic herb)
The enchiladas really met the mark as well. The chicken itself was lovely, but of course, the star of the show was that mole, a bright, well-seasoned, unabashedly nutty concoction with just a trace of heat. Nice crunch from the pepitas, too.

FLAN CON KAHLUA / FLAN WITH KAHLUA
FLAN CON KAHLUA / FLAN WITH KAHLUA [$9.50]
It was now time to move on to dessert, and we opted for this crème caramel, with its rich, sugary flavors that meshed beautifully with the Kahlúa's trademark coffee notes.

2014 Firestone Walker Sucaba
Last to drink was the 2014 Firestone Walker Sucaba, a bourbon barrel-aged English barley wine. Aromas here were malty and nearly candied, but with an oaky undercurrent. Taking a sip, I got barrel, bourbon, and bitterness initially, while malty, cacao-like, and dark fruit elements appeared later.

Sweet Lady Jane Triple Berry Cake
Sweet Lady Jane Triple Berry Cake (Slice)
Birthday cake duties were handled by a Triple Berry Cake from the newly-resurrected Sweet Lady Jane bakery in Santa Monica. It seemed to taste like I how remember, with the tart fruits (blueberries, raspberries, strawberries) playing nicely with whipped cream and butter cake.

La Casita Mexicana served as a very fitting location for our birthday dinner, and the food was even better than I remember. Given that the LA dining scene has evolved dramatically in the 25 years since the restaurant opened, the cooking may not seem nearly as groundbreaking as it once was, but this is still some damn fine eatin', and you can certainly see why the place is considered one of the preeminent Mexican spots in the Southland. I really should come here more often.

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