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Fire in the Belly

And then there are the insane restaurant owners, the ones who grow obscure Cambodian vegetables in their back yards, the ones who regularly send envoys to a Veracruz village to bring back an especially fragrant strain of epazote, the ones who spend half the week boiling tropical fruits into delicate syrups to be consumed by customers already half-besotted with rum. Insane restaurant owners--all insane restaurant owners--believe that theirs is the largest bottled-beer collection in the United States or the best pepian in the world, and don’t mind telling you so. Insane restaurant owners enjoy spending six hours on the phone to Kuala Lumpur, tracking down seed pods for a special curry. They may talk your ear off, but they’ll always feed you extremely well. La Moderna, a bare, fragrant place in a Whittier strip mall, looks pretty much like every other Eastside Mexican restaurant, Coca Cola menu board above the counter, battered ranchero stuff on the walls, a scattering of bar mirrors and a line of wooden booths. The availability of menudo-cocido-birria is announced in bold paint on the front window.

La Moderna--not to be confused with the unrelated La Moderna Bakery a couple of doors down--serves all the groovy regular stuff, fat burritos stuffed with soft gobbets of pork, rolled tacos filled with crisp bits of grilled beef, giant nacho platters drowning in oozy cheese, luxurious refried beans, fragrant, yellow Mexican rice. The tripe soup menudo is fine, if a bit ordinary; the popular goat stew birria is tasty if unspectacular.

Among connoisseurs of small Mexican restaurants, there are theories about neon, about black-velvet bullfight paintings, about Aztec calendars, about the number of ranchero tchotchkes divided by the square root of the cubic footage of the dining room. Tropical-bird statues are thought to be a bad sign, calendars featuring Los Caballos Clydesdale de Budweiser a very good one. But of course, an insane restaurant owner is the best sign of all. And La Moderna’s food, prepared by a true restaurant maniac, is among the best Mexican food in Los Angeles.

Roberto, La Moderna’s owner, hunches over the restaurant table like a young Peter Lorre, wheezes a little, describes his favorite beverage, tepache , before running off to bring you a taste. Tepache , a fermented pineapple-juice brew that he makes himself, is a tart liquid with an odd eucalyptus kick, very nice in its own way. Roberto tells you that you won’t like it. You ask for another glass, and he grins.

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His barbacoa is closer to Citrus’ short-rib terrine than to anything you may have tasted at a Mexican restaurant--carefully braised beef, not lean but bursting with flavor, dressed with a warm herb vinaigrette, served on a plate striped the colors of the Mexican flag: red chile, white chopped onions, green cilantro. Shrimp mojo de ajo are large shell-on things, smacked with smoke and garlic. Chile verde tastes like the essence of the vegetable, mellow and sweet, perfectly complementing the rich pork that is braised in it.

“You have heard,” Roberto says, “of Sinaloa state? I am from Sinaloa, 100 miles from Mazatlan.”

He walks over to a map-of-Mexico beer sign on the far wall and stabs hard with his finger at a spot on the Pacific Coast. “From here,” he says, “Los Mochis. What they call sopes here, we called gorditas in Los Mochis.”

His sopes are fantastic saucers of crisply fried masa , with a crunch as delicate as sponge candy, and are garnished with salsa and a heap of fragrant stewed meat. His gorditas are like wonderful crisp Mexican pita sandwiches, carnitas, beans and vegetables stuffed into a fragile fried masa crust.

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He insists that you try something called gueritos rellenos , an appetizer of his own devise, which involves roasted yellow guero chiles stuffed with chopped marinated salmon, and served on a frothy pink salsa made with strawberries and chiles. He warns you that it is hot, and it is, stingingly so, though the fresh flavor of the fish comes through more clearly than you might expect and the acid of the unsweetened strawberry puree scrubs right through the chile burn.

His other great invention is shrimp Topolobampo, served atop a habanero salsa, that is among the hottest dishes in California, hot enough to close your throat and give you an endorphin rush that may last well until the next day, hot enough to make you flush after a single bite, hot enough to make most Thai food seem mild as McNuggets in comparison. (Although individual chiles vary, habaneros are generally considered the hottest chile in the world, some 10 times hotter than the hottest jalapeno .) After a bite of the shrimp--the flavors are miraculously amplified and brought into balance by the fearsome heat--a chip dipped in La Moderna’s plenty hot chipotle house salsa seems bland as frozen custard.

“I like to serve this dish my way the first time,” Roberto says, watching the smoke curl out of your ears. “You will order it again, I guarantee it, but you will order it half as hot.”

Wanna bet?

La Moderna Restaurant

8029 Norwalk Blvd., Whittier, (310) 699-2953. Open Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Takeout. Cash only. Dinner for two, food only, $6-$19.


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