The concept of the single-specialty restaurant is well known in Los Angeles: Lawry’s for prime rib, Tommy’s for hamburgers, Philippe’s for French dip. If you want lobsters, you might head for the Lobster; if chili, for Chili John’s. (We won’t even discuss the place subtitled Home of the Sashimi Burrito.) And when find you yourself cruising the boulevards south of downtown, El Parian is destination No. 1 when you’re in the mood for a steaming bowl of . . . goat.
The restaurant is located in the throbbing heart of the Pico-Union District, half a mile east of the pupuserias and ballrooms of Little Central America, just west of the Harbor Freeway. Here’s the kind of vital street life everybody tells you doesn’t exist in Los Angeles. On the sidewalk in front of El Parian, babies scream and vendors sell battery-powered puppies and charanga cassettes. For a dollar or two, you can buy a tamale, a hot ear of corn or a sliced mango seasoned to order with chile and salt.
The market next door sells masa by the kilo and pig’s snouts by the pound, but the action is in El Parian’s grease-stained picture window, through which you can see women stamping out tortillas, men with cleavers ripping into giant sides of roasted meat.
Inside, there’s a bright painted map of Mexico, a wall painting of Pancho Villa and an odd mural of Kennedy and Lincoln in a jungle, flanking a Mexican man who’s just broken free of his shackles. The jukebox is always on.
You can look toward the rear of the crowded restaurant, down the length of the trompe l’oeil brick arcade, and everybody’s digging into the same thing, birria , which is a portion of roast kid submerged in a thick, chilied goat broth. The sweet, mild meat has crispy parts and stewy parts, just like carnitas : It clings to the tiny goat ribs, which you suck and then spit back into the bowl. The broth, basically amplified pan drippings, is the rich essence of goat. (It’s the best single Mexican dish I’ve ever eaten in Los Angeles.) There’s a thicket of cilantro to flavor the broth, a heap of chopped onion, limes to squeeze and dried oregano to crumble, and a fat radish to sweeten your breath. The thick tortillas are warm and smell of fresh corn. The beer is very cold. Birria is supposed to be somewhat aphrodisiac and a palliative for hangovers too, which is a special bonus on a Sunday morning.
Of course, Mexican-food doyenne Diana Kennedy says the word birria has a first meaning in Spanish of “something deformed, grotesque.” And the stuff isn’t pretty. Once I took an order of El Parian’s birria to a chef friend at a chic midtown restaurant. He winced at the grease. Then he lifted the goat meat out of the broth, trimmed off the fat and the bone with a big knife, and made himself elegant little goat tacos, garnishing them with onion and finely shredded cilantro he chopped himself. His wife, also a chef, just slopped it from the container. She did it right.
Goat’s about all for El Parian, except for carne asada , which is on the menu for the same reason “Landlubber’s De-Lite” might be at a seafood restaurant, and clean, barnyard-y menudo on weekends , for those for whom goat might not be hangover cure enough.
El Parian, 1528 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 386-7361. Open daily for breakfast and lunch. Beer. No credit cards accepted. Street parking only. Lunch for two, food only, $7-$10.