After well more than two years of planning, chefs Jaime Martín del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu have finally opened the first of their two restaurants in Baldwin Hills. Flautas, which is actually more of a counter than a restaurant, opened Sunday in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza shopping mall. Yes, inside a mall. Their larger, sit-down restaurant Mexicano, adjacent to Flautas, will begin its soft-opening phase on Jan. 26.
If you're one of the legions of fans who has pilgrimaged to Bell for years to eat at La Casita Mexicana, the pair's justly lauded restaurant that has often been called the spiritual home of Mexican cooking in Los Angeles, you may wonder why del Campo and Arvizo picked a mall, of all places, for their long-awaited new restaurants. (Your tired city of Bell joke here.)
"It's a new demographic, a new area," said del Campo, taking a break at Mexicano's pretty new bar, between rounds of flautas and appetizer taste-testing. "There are no sit-down Mexican restaurants here," he says of the neighborhood. "We wanted to change the idea of food in this area, making everything from scratch."
It's worth noting that he means both the dishes and the restaurants themselves, which were constructed on the first floor of the mall near the food courts. "There was nothing here," del Campo says of the restaurants' location, which now features a 120-seat dining area and an open kitchen.
Flautas and Mexicano form a tandem, with Flautas as a kind of quick-order window into the same kitchen that serves the larger and more formal Mexicano. At Flautas, you get, well, flautas — the crisp, fried flutes of tortillas wrapped around various fillings and topped with sauces. These include flautas made with chicken mole, cochinata pibil, shrimp or fish, and various other fillings, notably potatoes, beans and cheese. All of these are made to order and handed to you, presumably to fuel your mall shopping.
This is not, however, fast food. The corn tortillas are handmade in the kitchen, rolled around fillings, toothpicked and cooked, then sauced with salsas and moles and other things that have also been made there in the kitchen.
If you've spent any time eating the chiles en nogada at La Casita Mexicana, you know that these chefs are astonishing sauciers, capable of coaxing tremendous flavors out of chiles and nuts, herbs and various produce. It should also be noted that the flautas are crunchy rather than greasy, as if your favorite taco had been rolled into a cone and crisped to the point of shattering.
As for why the pair chose flautas for the concept and not, say, tacos, del Campo says: "It takes me back to my childhood," when he'd eat the crunchy snacks instead of a full meal. (Both del Campo and Arvizu are originally from Jalisco.)
At the Flautas window, you can thus order any number of flautas, as well as totopos, which are basically plates of housemade tortilla chips loaded with the same sort of things that can go into the flautas. There are also vitroleros of aguas frescas and lemonade with chia seeds.
(Yes, the chefs know how great a concept this is. Are they planning more Flautas restaurants? "I'm thinking about it," says del Campo. And yes, he's smiling.)
When Mexicano opens, there will be more — much more, although you'll only be able to get your flautas fix at the window. Del Campo and Ramirez will be doing dishes more familiar to La Casita Mexicana diners, including stuffed chiles, tamales, soups and ceviches.
There also will be lots of small plates, which del Campo says they'll also serve at the bar around which much of the main dining room is centered. The bar is already a focal point, as there's a huge, colorful painted mural behind it, depicting "the most famous people in Mexico," says del Campo.
The bar menu will be specifically Mexican, with wine, beer and liquor from the chefs' homeland. In other words: tequila and mezcal, and lots of it. There's also an ice-shaving machine for drinks and desserts — with and without booze.
Del Campo says he's adjusted the cooking that he, Arvizu and their staff are doing in Baldwin Hills, but "I didn't change any of the recipes. It is what it is." What it is, of course, is some of the best Mexican cooking in Los Angeles — and you don't even have to go to Bell for it.