The best Mexican dish I have ever eaten in Los Angeles may be the birria at the Pico-Union restaurant El Parian, a big plate of crisply roasted goat in a rich tomato broth. They make tortillas to order at El Parian, thick, chewy things that pretty much serve as edible eating utensils, and the smoky chile salsa is intense enough to strip the enamel off your teeth. The beer is cold. The jukebox is good. The chips come straight out of a bag.
El Parian may be the best birrieria in town, but it is by no means the only place to get your goat: In any neighborhood where you find more than half a dozen Mexican bars, there will be at least one birrieria ready to soak up the beer. Birria , the famous goat dish from the area around Guadalajara--banners for the soccer team Guadalajara Chivos are common at birria joints--may not normally be the first food you think of at breakfast time, but it can be as palliative as it is delicious, especially on a queasy stomach.
As you drive narrow Maple Avenue south from the freeway, warehouses give way to soaring Eastlake mansions long ago segmented into triplexes, gabled apartment houses with grocery stores on the ground floor, neat, low Victorian houses with intricate jigsawed filigree. This could be the neighborhood in central Los Angeles least marred by mini-malls or postwar dingbat apartment buildings; this is probably how Los Angeles looked at the turn of the century, when the city was still famed for its public transit and people walked to the local market.
On a street corner down past Adams, Birrieria Baldomero No. 2, impossibly large, looks almost like what you’d imagine a Depression-era restaurant to be if Depression-era restaurants also featured orange Formica benches and soccer-blaring TV. The vast, high-ceilinged dining hall is the size of your high-school cafeteria, with steam tables at one end and a picture of Guadalajara’s central square toward the other, acres of wood-grain Formica, dozens of empty beer bottles crowding the tables. Payment is on something like the honor system.
There may be more than birria or weekend menudo here, but it would be hard to tell by looking at the plates of the men around you, at the signboards above the steam table or at the menu, which doesn’t exist. Here it comes, even if you didn’t bother to order, a plastic bowl of goat meat in a rich pan-dripping broth, accompanied by a dish of cilantro and another of finely chopped onion, a half lime, a bowl of searingly hot chile salsa to mix in to taste. Some restaurants serve birria in plates so brimming with soup you wonder how the waiter makes it from the kitchen without spilling; other places roast the meat to a frizzly crunchiness or season the stew with strong doses of mint. This is plain-wrap birria , good and strong, tasting mostly of goat, the meat itself stewy and soft as a long-cooked lamb shank, generous in bones and cartilage and secret bits of flesh.
If you’re thirsty, grab your own Bohemia or apple-flavored Sidral soda from one of the wooden glass-front iceboxes that look as if they have been around since Repeal. If you want your birria to go, go down the block to Birrieria Baldomero No. 1, which is a little goat-centered takeout stand on the corner. And if you’re, you know, in need of birria on Saturdays and Sundays, the hangover-friendly restaurant opens at 6 a.m.
* Birrieria Baldomero No. 2
3104 S. Maple Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 231-1682. Open Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Beer and wine. Cash only. Lunch for two, food only, $7-$9.
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