Counter Intelligence: Bizarra Capital, a dreamland Mexican-style gastropub
I’m not sure if it was the influence of some carne asada fries during a recent trip to San Diego or a dinner at Guelaguetza accompanied by a particularly potent dose of mezcal, but I had a dream about mole fries a few weeks ago. It was a rather vivid one, where the potatoes crackled with hot life, tangles of melted cheese stretched into infinity and whorls of ink-black sauce carried with them intimations of the yawning void. It wasn’t dinner on that plate — it was a cosmology summarized as a plate of drunk food. I awoke feeling still and small and a little scared.
Did it register that mole fries were actually on the menu when I visited Bizarra Capital in Uptown Whittier a few days later? I’m not sure that it did.
I had come to the restaurant because I had been tipped off to the existence of fried huauzontle there. An odd-looking thing that looks a little like broccoli subjected to electroshock treatments, huauzontle is one of my favorite vegetables, a highlight of the Lenten dinners at La Casita Mexicana in Bell.
I had bought huauzontle myself a couple of times from growers at the Stanford-Avalon Community Garden in Watts, but my attempts to cook it had been pretty unsuccessful. Boiled into limpness, steamed or blanched and sautéed with garlic, the huauzontle was bitter as a fistful of raw dandelions, and the stalks stuck in my teeth like twine. Like cleaning tripe or boning out whole chickens for ballotines, the preparation of huauzontle is clearly best left to professionals.
Bizarra Capital is a Mexican-flavored gastropub, the newest project of Ricardo Diaz, who is also behind the sandwich place Cooks Tortas in Monterey Park, the spectacular taqueria Guisados in Boyle Heights and the cevicheria Dorados in Monterey Park, all key restaurants in the evolution of Eastside Mexican cooking. Diaz’s family owns a chain of Mexican seafood houses, and Bizarra Capital, named for an allegorical poem by the symbolist poet Ramon Lopez Velarde, is barely disguised from its origins as an El Siete Mares, which is to say, a faintly nauticalized coffee shop.
The restaurant has the names of its specialties painted on its windows — “Mole, Capirotada, Guacamole,” rendered in the elegant, blocky letters a Parisian brasserie might use to advertise its oysters — and a bar stocked with top-shelf tequilas and mezcals that go for about half the price you’d pay on the Westside. There are about a dozen beers on tap, including craft ales from the likes of Cismontane and Allagash as well as the Mexican brews you’d expect.
You can have a full meal if you like, or a shot or two tempered with a taco or two made with freshly patted tortillas and the long-cooked Yucatan-style pork cochinito pibil, or a plate of Nayarit-style aguachile, marinated raw shrimp and tilapia that vibrates with fire-hot chile and lime. (A legend at the bottom of the menu says something like, “Items marked with a chile are really spicy. Everything else is just kind of spicy.”)
If you really want to barbecue your tongue, you’ll probably go with the tacos of chiles torreados, famous from Guisados, made with a bit of cheese and five kinds of grilled chiles, including the fearsome habanero. You can practically hear the hiss of steam when you gulp from the nearest glass of thick, milky horchata — a liquid, by the way, that, while delicious, will do nothing to alleviate your suffering. A plate of camarones a la diabla, the devil’s shrimp, may be even spicier; big, butterflied creatures in a smoky purée that may leave you gasping for a quick, merciful death.
Anyway, that huauzontle? Excellent, even months after Easter: dipped in beaten eggs, fried like chiles rellenos until crisp, and slashed with a vivid red stripe of chiles simmered with onions and pungent Mexican herbs. There are, apparently, lots of ways to eat huauzontle, but the preferred method seems to involve picking it up with your fingers and stripping the crunchy, bittersweet blossoms from the stalks with your teeth. A plate of huauzontle, a pint of the Mexico City lager Victoria and maybe a crisp Mexico City-style quesadilla, like a turnover, stuffed with house-made chorizo or with the tar-black Mexican corn mushroom huitlacoche and cheese, and you’re in business.
But if you buy into the program, it can be hard to stop ordering here. The guacamole is among the best I’ve ever had in a restaurant, less a dip than a salad of chopped, dead-ripe avocado with herbs and citrus, almost too special to be used as a condiment. There is another wonderful salad of grilled cactus paddles with chiles and cotija cheese, grandmother cooking taken high-rent.
The carne asada plate is a gargantuan thing for $14, an acre and a half of well-marinated skirt steak served with some of that guacamole, charred spring onions and a cup of bacony beans. The cecina, a similar quantity of thin, pungent, air-dried beefsteak, isn’t even listed as such on the menu. It comes as a surprise side dish with the queso fresco enchiladas, which are also pretty great (the restaurant makes its tortillas to order, presumably from the same fresh masa used at Guisados). The dish of costillas de puerco is essentially a great L.A.-style chile verde.
The only dessert here, besides a dryish flan, is the capirotada, an austere block of Lenten bread pudding flavored with cinnamon, raisins and cheese. I like it a lot, but if you are yearning for, say, the molten, butter-washed, chocolate bread pudding at Hungry Cat, you are probably going to be bummed.
And those mole fries? More pedestrian than the ones in the dream, to be sure, but not bad with a bottle of Bohemia.
The newest project of Ricardo Diaz, this Mexican-flavored gastropub continues his winning streak.
12706 Philadelphia St., Whittier, (562) 945-2426
Antojitos, $3-$6; ceviches, $5-$19; main dishes, $9-$13; desserts, $6
Open for lunch 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday and for dinner 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Lot parking.
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