Pacific is the grooviest street on the south side of L.A., a mile or so of wide boulevard lined with Mexican boutiques, faux gaslights, antique towers and pretty two-story buildings, Spanish-language movie theaters and a jillion stores selling wedding cakes as elaborate as . . . well, wedding cakes. People walk here in Huntington Park as they do hardly anywhere else in the L.A. area, stopping at one place for a gordita , at another for a glass of fresh-pressed tropical juice, maybe sitting for a while in the sidewalk cafe built around the original El Gallo Giro. It’s a little like Broadway downtown without the grime; a little like a Mexican-American take on Main Street, U.S.A. Polka rhythms split the air.
And toward the bottom of the boulevard, across from El Gallo Giro and just down the block from a popular quebradita club (the cowboy-hat vendor just outside the dance club seems to do a brisk business on weekend midnights) is El Chamizal, the Mexican steakhouse that is the swankiest place in the area, a sprawling restaurant with a velvet rope, a million kinds of margaritas and some of the best Mexican cooking on the south side.
On weekends, you get a decent salsa band doing cumbias , charangas and the like for the sharp-dressed couples on the dance floor; toward the beginning of the week, you get a one-man band slaughtering “Feelings” en espanol . Sit down in the front near the music or in back where you can talk, and the parade of vendors begins: some children selling chocolate bars for their schools, others selling little bundles of Chiclets; mariachi bands eager to serenade you and photographers ready to capture the moment for posterity; women selling flowers and hats and giant stuffed bears. The beer is cold, the salsa with the chips quite hot. Guacamole, mashed tableside in a big stone mortar, is stunning, creamy and rich, sharp with the flavor of fresh chiles. Caesar salad, not made tableside--whatever the menu may say--is a weird, sweet thing that tastes mostly like bacon.
The basic unit of currency at El Chamizal is the parrillada , a squat, iron brazier shimmering from the heat of the charcoal within, brought to your table piled high with thin grilled steaks, pork chops marinated in chile, hunks of chorizo sausage, fried bananas and whole jalapenos burnt black, little ramekins of melted cheese and scallions bronzed and wilted to a superb sweetness. The meat is terrific, well marinated, rich with crunchy carbonized bits--rather overrich in them if you leave the stuff on the grill too long--very nice folded into a little taco with the house’s fine smoked tomato sauce and a spoonful of the smoky bacon-stewed beans.
Half the parrillada combinations include crispy, well-done tripitas (small intestines), which may not be to everyone’s taste; many include grilled chicken breast (OK), the spicy pork stew cochinita pibil (pretty good, if not up to the stuff at Yucatecan places) or half a grilled lobster (luxurious, if dry). The baby lamb chops, like the swell “burn your fingers” chops they serve in small restaurants in Rome, are crisp, spicy and full of juice.
Something called “steak cazuela ,” nearly a pound of thin, sliced steak, served in glazed pottery, buried in a tomato-based vegetable stew sharp with the flavor of capers, would probably be a special at most places, but here seems almost an afterthought. You can get enchiladas here, and you can get fried fish, but basically, El Chamizal is a palace of grilled meat. People who’ve ordered sensible stuff like chicken mole or shrimp in garlic sauce sort of sniff longingly at the smoking heaps of animal protein that pass by on trays.
* El Chamizal
7111 Pacific Blvd., Huntington Park, (213) 583-3251. Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Full bar. Entertainment and dancing. Street parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$28.