A staple of Mexican restaurant combo platters and meal bowls around the world, rice is nowhere on the menu at Milpa Grille in Boyle Heights.
“A lot of customers don’t believe me when I tell them we don’t have rice,” owner Deysi Serrano told me recently. “There is pressure as a restaurant to serve what we’re used to eating. But it’s not necessarily what our ancestors used to eat.”
What you will find is corn, along with other vegetables native to the Americas.
Milpa Grille — a small Mexican restaurant with the anodyne appearance of a fast-casual chain — opened in early 2018 as a tribute to one of the world’s oldest agricultural systems, the Mesoamerican milpa. The all-female kitchen crew wears T-shirts that say Hecha de Maiz (“Made of Corn”), and a sign in the storefront window reads: “Milpa Grille, Established 5000 B.C.”
Archeological evidence suggests milpa farming developed at least 5,000 years ago in southern Mexico and Central America, where it’s still practiced. The system is based on the concept of intercropping — planting more than one crop in the same field — to increase yields and improve soil quality.
Mesoamerican farmers gave the world tomatoes, chile peppers, avocado and multiple varieties of squash and beans, among other foods. But la milpa is most closely associated with the symbiotic triad of corn, squash and beans, known in North America as “the three sisters.”
Serrano, whose professional background includes sales and graphic design, partnered with co-owner Dan Torres with the aim of paying homage to the past, but also bringing more healthful and affordable food to the neighborhood.
Milpa Grille is not alone in its mission; L.A. kitchens like Alchemy Organica and Todo Verde have also been re-centering Mexican cooking around pre-Columbian ingredients and dishes. In doing so, these restaurants are reshaping what we mean by “traditional” Mexican cooking.
“We think of rice and beans as traditional, but rice was never truly Mesoamerican. It was never ours,” Serrano told me recently. “But corn — it was so important for the growth of civilization of the Incas, the Maya, the Mexica.”
Corn — the culinary heart of Mexico — is the thread that holds Milpa Grille together.
Crema de elote is a thick, herb-green soup flush with smoky pasilla chile and cilantro, every spoonful vivid with crisp, fleshy corn kernels. Elotes — long, plump ears of white corn — are coated in what the restaurant calls its “Mayan” blend, a creamy-white paste of butter and cotija cheese jolted by a dusting of Tajin.
The signature dish — the Milpa Bowl — is a crisp, fibrous blend of grilled corn, black beans and cubed summer squash topped with pink swoops of pickled onions.
Tomato soup is tart and brothy, plumped out with seasonal squash and gently charred grilled corn. The house salad is a wholesome, bountiful mix of crunchy greens overlaid with black beans, grilled nopalitos and corn, the veggies galvanized by a summery lime-cilantro dressing.
Pork and chicken are meaty outliers on the menu, non-native imports lurking among indigenous American vegetables. The pork is succulent, especially shredded over a thick, slightly toasted corn tortilla (the restaurant uses the sturdy, rough-textured yellow and blue corn tortillas made by the Boyle Heights tortilleria Kernel of Truth Organics).
Chicken is smeared with a citrusy marinade, grilled and roughly chopped into cubes that are scattered over salad greens or rolled in enchiladas. The meat, smoke-tinged and lightly mottled with char, tastes freshly picked off a backyard grill.
You will want to order a plate or two of the taquitos, tightly rolled, deep-fried flutes stuffed with shredded chicken, pork or potatoes.
Enchiladas are essential: cooked to order, the corn tortillas are dunked in a chile guajillo sauce with contours of garlic, salt and tomato before they sputter and pop in a vat of hot oil. The scent of red chile heat bubbles across the counter. They are filled with whorls of pork or chicken, then blanketed in the excellent sauce.
Dessert is a jiggly wedge of coconut flan, the slice preternaturally smooth and milky.
Or there is atol de elote, the thick corn drink that has been consumed across Central America and Mexico for more than a millennium. Milpa Grille’s version is creamy and not too sweet, spiced vaguely with the woody scent of vanilla. It’s served in what resembles an insulated Starbucks coffee cup. Even on the sweatiest day, the first hot sip feels comforting in its warm smoothness, an easy benediction between past and present.
Location: 2633 E. Cesar E. Chavez Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 269-2995, milpagrille.com
Details: Credit cards accepted. No bar. Street parking. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices: Soups and salad $5.25-$8.25; enchiladas $6; taco plate $8.99
Recommended dishes: Crema de elote, pork enchiladas, Milpa bowl, pork and chicken tacos, potato taquitos