Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Latin America in LA: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

As pan-ethnic as the Bay Area is, Los Angeles is indisputably the epicenter of of Latin-American, Hispanic, and (especially) Chicano life in California and (maybe) the country. From eastside taco trucks, tamale carts, and traffic island fruit salesmen, to the scores of taquerias and that indisputed king of fusion cuisine, the Bacon-Wrapped Hot Dog, LA is home to a wide variety of authentic regional Hispanic cuisine and contemporary Cal/Mex dining.

So it's surprising that the Nuevo Latino dining movement that took hold on the east coast (primarily in Miami and New York) never really reached California in any major way. There're a handful of places in the Bay Area: Fonda, Limon, and Platanos jump to mind immediately, but none of these restaurants really developed the reputation of some of the powerhouses in New York.

But with the recent openings of Rivera, Casa, and Provecho in downtown Los Angeles, as well as the lone Nuevo Latino attempt from the late 90's, Ciudad, still hangint around. are we finally seeing Nuevo Latino in LA?

The answer is.... Not really.

The Good:
Rivera, the new restaurant from pioneering American Southwestern chef John Sedlar, is pretty freakin' great. Stellar, impeccably prepared food (the highlight was a piece of black cod that was one of the freshest pieces of fish I've ever had), innovative wine list featuring selections solely from Spain, Portugal, and Latin-America, and cool cocktail selections at reasonable (for LA) prices. We went soon after the restaurant opened and they were being conservative with their menu, so it wasn't taking the risks that I think I think the restaurant intends too, but Rivera will grow with the neighborhood and the talented kitchen and knowledgeable service staff will grow too. The best meal I've had in LA so far.

The Bad:
Ciudad's food felt as dated as the space: a holdover from an era before there was a Chevy's on every block and mango salsa with corn was a novelty. The concept is cool enough, bringing signature cuisine from all over the Spanish-speaking world to one location, but the execution was less than great. The empanada tasted like something one might buy frozen from Costco and reheat at home; not bad, just boring. My fish entree was nicely done but the tres leches dessert was just a pile of sugar-loaded sponge cake with sugar on top and some sugar on the side. Service was very friendly and knowledgeable but the wine and cocktail list was unremarkably mainstream, and the general vibe that of an expense-account lunch/happy hour cash cow. Which I suppose is fine if that's what they're going for, but with the pedigree of their chef-owners I would think they'd be looking for something a bit more cutting-edge.

The Ugly:
Did lunch at Casa, the new place downtown helmed (until recently) by Kris Morningstar. Didn't do their dinner fare (where the place turns a bit more chic) and instead had the taqueria-style lunch. Once again, a pretty cool concept: pick your vehicle (taco, burrito, huarache, ensalada) and pick your meat (pollo asado, pulled chicken, carne asada, chile colorado, al pastor, cochinita pibil, Baja fish, or veggie) and then tweak your accompaniments as desired. Receive your food. Pay. Simple in theory, but with lines out the door and time-consuming freshly prepared food, there are massive backups in more than one location, and lots of things are forgotten, so don't count on your special requests being fufilled. Once you get your food, there's often nowhere to sit, the box your food is in is difficult to eat from, and additional condiments are hard to come by, including the offered "additional salsa on the side" which never came with any plate I saw come out of the kitchen. They really need to tighten up the ship on the service/logistics end because the food is really fucking good. My cochinita pibil burrito was rockstar and pretty authentic to my gringo palate. But although fairly-priced for the quality of ingredients offered, Casa is still close to double what you'd pay for in a taqueria or taco truck, and if you're not offering any extra amenities (prompt service, easy seating), then there's a lot of competition out there.

Didn't do Provecho yet. I'm intrigued and I'll let you know when I do.

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