Day 1: Mexico
La Playita on Lincoln Boulevard in Santa Monica
Twenty five years old, unemployed for six months, moved cities twice, money is running low and I’ve been worried like hell about how I’m going to pay for this Personal Food Project in Blog Form that I’ve been so excited about. Then yesterday I get a phone call offering me a four day job helping to cover the World Championships of Fantasy Football for ESPN. The catch? It starts today. I’ve got to pick up camera equipment at 9 AM, pick up Lucas and Adam from the airport at 10:20, then drive to Las Vegas. And I’m not even sure I’m getting paid for it.
La Playita on Lincoln Boulevard in Santa Monica. The moment I drove past it looking for parking, the memories started flooding in. This was the place of my childhood. The place I watched Mexican laborers slurping oysters from the back seat of the car on the way to school. Where I ate before I knew the difference between “carnitas” and “carne asada”. Where I thought the big sign up top meant it was a restaurant was called “Marisco’s”, rather than just pointing out that they had seafood. Just a kid running away from the parental urgings of vegetarianism when all I knew was that a carnitas burrito was two dollars and it tasted like everything I wanted out of life: inexpensive meat wrapped in a tortilla that I could eat with my hands while I waited for a turn on the Super Nintendo. So of course, this is where my journey had to start.
Turns out oysters aren’t on the menu. “Do you have oysters?” The guy behind the counter looked at me like I was crazy. “No. No oysters.” Did they ever have them? I swear they used to have oysters. They had to have oysters. Who the hell does this guy think he is? Or maybe I’m losing my mind. But either way I just found out the flight is getting in early and I’ve got to start doing some eating. The horchata is sweet and soothing like I remembered it, but the nostalgia of Styrofoam has been tossed aside for something more biodegradable. On to the main event: seafood. It’s what the place is known for, even if I only found that out long after I’d last been here.
The pescado ceviche tostada is nice, but it doesn’t really sing until you add another crispy tostada on top and eat it like a sandwich. The shrimp version however, had no hope. No amount of lime, hot sauce or extra crunchiness could make that thing even worth finishing. It is the seafood cocktail mixto, though, that is the star— and as my eating companion (who has decided with great confidence that for the purposes of this blog, he shall be called Bosque) put it, “half the fun is sipping the juice out of the cup.”
I even found the imitation abalone strangely satisfying. Bosque also had some more than passable tacos in shrimp and chorizo forms. A tasty start to a busy day, but the buzzing cell phone in my pocket lets me know the plane has landed. Another round of wistful childhood memories will have to wait.
La Casita Mexicana in Bell, CA. I’ve heard this place called nothing if not “authentic”. I’ve been super excited about this restaurant for a while— and hey, it’s sort of on the way to Vegas, right? Luckily, Lucas and Adam are up to the task.
We all order agua de limón, the sweet, fresh limeade of a child’s dreams, with the added perk of chia seeds (rich with Omega-3 fatty acids!).
The chips come out, spotted with sesame seeds and two different types of mole and we start ordering. First, our orders all come with the daily soup— cream of rice. Somehow cheesey, watery and faintly spicy all at the same time.
One of the strangest soups I’ve ever tasted, in that it gives you a half second moment of brilliant flavor followed by a long stretch of what Lucas called “thin, watered down Mexican cheese grits.” We agreed it was tasty, but that if given the opportunity we probably wouldn’t order it. Then came the queso azteca.Four cheeses mixed with mushrooms, nopales, herbs and poblanos all wrapped up in banana leaves. An incredibly tasty dish with a brown chewy bottom that went beautifully with their tender homemade tortillas. But man oh man…that’s a lot of cheese. The tres carnes plate and the tres moles were simple and delicious— the cecina tasting almost like the best beef jerky you’ve ever had in your life, and each mole adding something special and unique to the table.
In fact, every dish so far has been incredibly precise in its execution (except maybe the soup). They make flavor decisions and they commit to them like crazy. Which leads us to our final dish: chile en nogada. A chile pepper stuffed with fruits, nuts and meat, covered in a white walnut sauce and topped with pomegranate seeds.
This is a very traditional dish, it’s very pretty, it has all the colors of the Mexican flag and it’s just asking patrons to order it. But this dish is sweet. Really sweet. We’re talking instant-cavities-call-your-dentist-and-order-an-emergency-filling sweet. If Santa Claus and Willy Wonka had a Mexican love child, it would be chile en nogada. Am I glad I had it? Absolutely. Would I ever order it again? Dear God no. And with that, we paid our bill, got back in the car and started driving to Las Vegas.
Now let me just say that when I decided to choose Mexico as the first day of this blog I figured I was picking a country whose cuisine I somewhat understood. A country where there may not be too many surprises. I mean, I know Mexican food, right? I’m from from Southern California! I’ve got salsa running through my veins! Well it turns out I was pretty wrong. Even just a taste of La Casita Mexicana reminds me how much I’ve got to learn and how excited I am to do it. If I still have this much to learn about Mexico, what’s going to happen when I eat my first Ghanaian meal? Or have my first truly great bowl of pho? So maybe in the end the most beautiful thing about Mexico is that no matter where my taste goes, no matter how much my opinion of food changes, it will be there for me. When I learned the beauty of slow cooked meats, crispy skin, juicy head meat, heart, tongue or any other more gradually “different” foods— Mexico has been right there by my side. Developing me, cultivating me, even raising me. So I guess all I can say is thank you Mexico. I owe you one. And tomorrow I move on to day two of what could theoretically be two hundred consecutive days of trying something different. Life can be fun.
3306 Lincoln Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90405
Food Breakdown: 1 non-alcoholic beverage, 2 ceviche tostadas, 1 small seafood cocktail.
Distance From My House: 5.3 miles
La Casita Mexicana
4030 Gage Ave
Bell, CA 90201
Food Breakdown: 3 non-alcoholic beverages, 1 appetizer, 3 entrees.
Distance From My House: 17.4 miles