Imagine stumbling into a restaurant that at first glance seems like all other restaurants of its type, only to realize that you found the real thing, tap-tap-tapping ladies and all.
The last place you'd expect to find a real Mexican joint is among the Maraca vendors and befuddled German tourists of Olvera Street, but there it is, La Luz del Dia, stuffing soft tacos with delicious picadillo and serving cactus salad to the hordes. Otherwise, Olvera Street isn't exactly a center of fine dining, unless your idea of Mexican food begins and ends with the Number Two Enchilada platter.
La Luz's dark wood and gaily colored tiles don't look that different from the interior of any other restaurant on Olvera Street, and its menu is superficially the same. In its own way, it seems to be something of a prototype for the California-Mexican restaurants that dot every metropolis from Paris to Tokyo. But the food, long on pig parts and amped-up with chiles, is definitely tailored more for the Mexican families who pack the place than for the tourists who prowl Olvera Street looking for jumping beans.
You wait in line as at Philippe's, scanning a small menu posted on one wall, and when you finally get to the front you have about six seconds to order before the counter woman goes on to the man standing behind you. (Half the dishes at the place seem to be unlisted--pointing at interesting looking pots of stew or trays of chile relleno is perfectly appropriate.) She slaps the food on your plate cafeteria style; another woman puts on thick, hot tortillas; a third adds something else. After you've selected a Mexican beer and paid, a creaky waiter materializes to carry your tray to a table: Do your tipping on the spot.
La Luz is a simple place, and most of what it serves are basically permutations of the two or three things it does best. So whatever you think you ordered, you'll probably get at least one helping of picadillo, the chunky Mexican beef stew that La Luz puts in tacos, on tostadas and in combination platters. With its carrots and potatoes, picadillo looks like a stew somebody's mother might have made--provided somebody's mother has an industrial-size garlic press and the Thai tolerance for chile heat.
Chicharrones, fried pork skins, come sogged with a truly awesome version of what gets slopped on enchiladas in chain restaurants, a chile sauce that's as sophisticated in its slight bitterness as a dry martini. Crispy carnitas-- rich bits of fried pork just about perfect for folding into a tortilla with a bit of the good house beans and a dollop of guacamole--rank with the nicest in town. The rice, of a type utterly familiar to anyone who grew up on L.A. Mexican food, is fine. (Skip the dryish tamales.)
Don't forget to order a fresh cactus salad: crunchy, lively with citrus and not nearly as slimy as cactus can be. OK, so it's a little slimy, but kind of refreshing after all that chile. And 100% guaranteed spine-free.
La Luz del Dia, 1 W. Olvera St., Los Angeles, (213) 628-7495. Cash only. Lunch for two, food only, $6 to $10.