Restaurants : A Taste of Mexico City in Los Feliz
Mexico City may be the name, but this newly opened Los Feliz Village cousin of Mexica is not your usual Mexican restaurant--for one thing, it has the mildly stark and edgy atmosphere of a diner in an Edward Hopper painting. The commodious red booths house blond wood tables, and the walls are the matte, tamped-down orange of an ancho chile sauce.
Add a casual, neighborhood clientele, and this is all plenty attractive, but I do have a couple of complaints about Mexico City, mostly having to do with the service. The personable waiters always ask you whether you want corn or flour tortillas when you order, but we found that half the time they didn’t bring us tortillas of any description, and when they did, it was only after we reminded them. And just try to catch their attention to do so.
The food, though, is mostly a pleasure. The menu virtually duplicates Mexica’s, meaning that it’s interesting and large enough that you’ll still have new things to try even after numerous visits.
When you’re seated, thick corn chips arrive with two salsas, a fresh salsa Mexicana (so named because tomatoes, onions and green chiles provide the three colors of the Mexican flag) and a smokier, hotter, dark puree. It’s made of essentially the same ingredients as the fresh salsa, but owner Sylvia Solis says they have been broasted on the grill, so the onions are browned and the chile seeds have released their more volatile oils.
The quesadillas will be a surprise if you’re only familiar with the kind served in Los Angeles restaurants, made with flour tortillas and cheese. Mexico City does serve that sort, but it calls them nortena quesadillas, and they’re a platillo fuerte or entree, rather than an appetizer. The name nortena refers, of course, to Northern Mexico, where wheat is more common than elsewhere in the country.
The appetizer quesadillas, however, are the Central Mexican variety, made from fried cornmeal masa--they look like fat little yellow turnovers. There are six varieties, with fillings ranging from chicken to mushrooms, and only two contain cheese at all. So basically, if it’s melted cheese you’re after in an appetizer, get the queso fundido con chorizo (melted cheese and sausage served in a cunning little frying pan) or the nachos with beans and cheese.
Sopes are little cups made from the same chewy masa as the quesadillas. The ones I tried, filled with potatoes, chorizo sausage and cheese, turned out surprisingly bland. The crab cakes--not the American kind, but crunchy deep-fried masa envelopes filled with very lightly seasoned, and not terribly crabby, meat--were bland too, despite a hot tomatillo sauce.
Another warning is in order for the green corn tamales, which have no filling; they’re a sort of steamed corn bread, and terribly sweet. Speaking of green, though, all the salads are fresh, juicy and judiciously dressed.
One entree not on the Mexica menu is the glorious pollo en menta , half a chicken marinated in mint, baked, then dusted with ground chile de arbol and crisped under the broiler before serving. My portion was over-done, but the flavors were so resonant, the skin so crisp, I scarcely cared. The accompanying charro beans were also awesome.
Another beautiful and enormous plate of food is the carne asada Tampiquena : small slabs of grilled, marinated beef, refried beans, rice, a green enchilada, guacamole and chile strips. With all these taco possibilities, though, one really misses those tortillas.
Seafood is also well handled here. There are clean, crunchy-fresh shrimp in a buttery garlic haze called mojo de ajo . Camarones enchipotlados are those same fresh shrimp in a sauce of bright tomatillos and subtly smoky chipotle chiles. A friend has cautiously declared the red snapper Veracruzana among the best he’s ever had.
There’s a cold, firm flan for dessert, and crepas de cajeta , little crepes filled with a dark, slightly sandy, caramelized milk custard with a little halo of pure butter.
At the moment, Mexico City is only open for dinner. But the marquee out front says it’s also open for lunch, and there are rumors that this will soon be true.
* Mexico City, 2121 Hillhurst Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 661-7227. Open for dinner daily. Parking lot. Full bar. Visa, Master Card and American Express accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $24 to $56.
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