Thursday, May 04, 2006

Waiter! -- This Food Is Too Fresh!

First, apologies for infrequent posts of late. I'm scribbling about food when my novel is being uncooperative, but I've had a good few weeks of writing -- which means less time for foodblogging. This is a good thing.

But you know, I've had something gnawing at me for awhile. My plan in this space was to write only about places I like, places that I think you should check out. I've had some pretty awful meals as research that you'll never hear about. But I have a little bit of rant for today that was inspired by my visit to Hot's Cantina in Northridge.

I read about Hot's when it came up #1 in an AOL Citysearch poll of L.A.'s top five Mexican restaurants, beating out places like La Serenata de Garibaldi and El Cholo. Not that I don't think anyplace could beat El Cholo for Mex food, but I'd never even heard of "Hot's." So I made the Conrad-like journey up the 405 to the Deep Valley to visit its shopping mall location.

Now over the years, I've been a fan of "Fresh Mex" joints. I loved the fish burritos at Poquito Mas, the shrimp tacos at Baja Fresh, and when you could finally get decent carne asada at the Beverly Center thanks to La Salsa, I was overjoyed. I still love the lobster burrito at Rubio's, but that's a topic for another post.

But you know what? I'm bored with the whole genre, and Hot's was the straw that broke the charbroiled chicken's back. The decor is fabulous, all tropical Mexican indoor thatch. There's groovy '70's deep tracks playing on the sound system. The waitresses are hotties of the type that only exist in that part of the Valley. The chips were delicious, greasy and stuck together three-thick the way I like 'em. The salsa bar had the usual array of mild green, hot red, and smoky chipotle sauces, fresh lime and onion/cilantro mix. My food was, indeed, fresh, and it comes on those faux-vintage metal beer trays.
But the recommended "BBQ Chicken Taco" was as bland as could be: a flour tortilla with a skewer of chicken breast covered with an utterly lame BBQ sauce. The fresh mex salad, boring. And the special board freaked me out. Sushi Burritos? Shrimp Tempura Tacos with Mango Salsa? Give me a freakin' break.

It was this day I decided: I'm sick of "Fresh Mex." I'm sick of that same salsa bar, the same tender grilled chicken, the watery salsas, the underseasoned pinto beans, the soggy burritos, the whole I-can-make-this-spicy-if-I-drown-it-in-Tapatio rigmarole. To hell with "fresh." When I go for tacos or a burrito or a plate of chile verde, the last thing I want is "fresh."

The Mexican food I love is poor people's food, a couple pieces of pork and beef stretched by a thrifty old matriarch into a week's worth of meals. I want chile colorado that's been stewing in that abuela's pot for days. I want pork that's been marinating for the adobado for a week. I want the crispy, caramelized edges of slightly burned barbacoa. I want bits of blackened carne asada, scraped from the same overworked grill that also gives the tortillas a bit of meat flavor when heated. I want thick smoky salsas that have congealed a little to concentrate the texture and flavor. I want moles that take months to prepare and taste like every ingredient in a barren cupboard was used. And every now and again, I want lard in my beans. I want my Mexican food down, amigo, and yes, I want it a little bit dirty.

Sure, I'll go to Poquito Mas if it's there, have a couple of tacos and some pasty black beans, and it'll be fine. But whereas a few years ago I couldn't wait for a Baja Fresh or La Salsa in my neighborhood, now that they're there I find myself wishing that just one of them had an abuela behind the counter, her chile verde getting just a little crispy in the bottom of the pot.

For now, I drive past those places, and go to Yuca's.


  1. Jim Kelly1:30 PM

    I go to Yuca's too, and to Puebla Tacos, near Kent, though that's not my favorite unit of this three-store mini-chain. Check out Villa/Allen where you can sit in amusing decor and have the waitress bring your food and drinks in funny glasses.

    I almost never go to chains if I can help it. Yes, I have enjoyed La Salsa when it first opened near Rumph's studio and we'd send a runner down for bags of tacos for the masses. Now, however, I like to go to one-shot units if possible where momma is in the kitchen and the kids run the front. Much better. I don't even care if it has a B rating, 'cause the grill holds all kinds of ancillary flavors. Oh, and hot means HOT.

    Jim K

  2. Anonymous9:09 AM

    I am with Jim Kelly re: One-Shots.

    Now Jess, YOU know better! But, alas, I can only surmise that you seek to give "everything a chance". Which I do to too. Personally, I still reel from the trauma of seeing the hole-in-the-wall stand in San Diego that I used to hit become a chain. Yep, RUBIO'S!!! It used to be the most adorable little stand and people would LINE UP. It didn't even have a name at first. Now, without getting too long-winded on a soapbox filled with Ensenada fish heads I do wonder: Jess - were you not screaming bloody murder when California Rolls brought sushi into the mainstream? I mean, you can buy Ramones T-Shirts at Urban Outfitters. Culturally speaking (with a little left-wing-pinko-rhetoric), The melting pot which is our great nation is hell-bent on bastardizing anything and everything. I'll stop there for now.

    I just got off tour and the gastro-tourism was tops! Dim Sum in Toronto, gator steaks in Florida and sushi in Vancouver.

    Food is glorious.