Greenleaf Avenue, as it runs through Uptown Whittier, is rapidly becoming the Main Street of Pocho America, a welter of skateboard shops, black-clothing boutiques and comic book stores, record stores, coffeehouses, and slinky cafes — everything a subversive Eastside teenager could possibly need. Whittier natives Pat Nixon and MFK Fisher wouldn’t recognize the street at all.
Right in the middle of the organized chaos is Colonia Publica, the newest restaurant from Ricardo Diaz, whom you may remember as one of the architects of Guisados, and who runs both the taco bar Colonia and the nearby Bizarra Capital. The space, which used to house an Italian restaurant, is tall and dark, throbs with music, and has a giant portrait of Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California, splashed onto a wall.
Diaz has elaborate plans for Colonia Publica; the chef is nothing but ambitious. But at the moment, if you happen to stumble into the restaurant on one of the three days per week it is open, you will be asked if you are in the right place, be informed that the only dish on the menu is fideo, and be given ample opportunity to leave. Apparently a lot of people show up expecting to be served spaghetti Bolognese.
But if a Mexican restaurant served only one dish, fideo is exactly what you’d want it to be. Fideo is made with thin noodles, a bit like vermicelli, that are traditionally broken into manageable pieces and toasted in oil before being introduced to simmering broth. In Spain, fideo is basically an alternate form of paella. In Mexico and the Mexican diaspora, it is more of a soup, but almost infinitely customizable, at home with almost any kind of chile, meat, vegetable or garnish a cook could imagine.
So when you settle into a booth at Colonia Publica, order a pint of Negro Modelo and start wondering what you are going to eat, you are handed a checklist, like the kind you see at some ramen shops, asking exactly what you would like to put into your soup. The basic bowl is $5. For a few bits more you can get avocado, crunchy fried pigskin or cheese added to your soup; bananas or smoked sausage; pico de gallo, heirloom tomatoes, or chicken. I like the fideo with nubs of cotija cheese, crisply fried tortilla strips, and sweetish cilantro chutney, but that could be just me. And then your bowl comes, unlike any bowl in the world, and you tear into it as if it were a bowl of steaming tomato soup on a cold, rainy day.
Could Colonia Publica end up being the Chipotle or 800 Degrees of Mexican noodle soup? Please: I’d love to see this fideo in every mall in America.
6717 Greenleaf Ave., Whittier. (No phone.) Open Fri.,-Sun. 3 p.m. to 11 p.m.