Bill Esparza, L.A. MEXICANO: RECIPES, PEOPLE & PLACES
Excerpts from L. A. Mexicano: Recipes, People & Places. Published by Prospect Park Books (June 2017). All photography by Staci Valentine
L.A.'s Mexican Food Comes Into Its Own
I’ve always found it curious that a cuisine so beloved and deeply woven into the American fabric could be the least understood by its fans and even by the Mexican American community, which is too often eager to attack cultural appropriators yet won’t pay for quality ingredients or support our Alta California chefs. It’s a revelation when a white American chef talks about mole, but all the Oaxacan restaurants in L.A. are just holes in the wall. This hasn’t been the case with other cuisines, which garner deference on behalf of immigrant chefs: the sushi master, the Burgundian chef, the émigré from Chengdu.
The story of Mexican food is an asymmetrical narrative told by outsiders, its origins discredited by self-appointed food anthropologists and prone to the fetishizing of delicious but less relevant snacks and treats like elotes, paletas, and chips and salsa (an Orange County food critic once claimed that he judged a Mexican restaurant by its chips and salsa). This is much less of an issue with Asian cuisines in America, where chefs like Roy Choi, Sang Yun, David Chang, and Kris Yenbamroong are rock stars who legitimately represent Asian American food. Where are the Roy Chois and David Changs of the Mexican community? It turns out they’ve always been right here in Los Angeles, and now their time has come.
When Colleen Bates of Prospect Park Books approached me to write L.A. Mexicano, we talked about our mutual amazement that this book hadn’t been written already—Los Angeles has been the center of Mexican cuisine in America since before we were a nation. From the pioneers of Mexican American cuisine, to the keepers of old-country tradition, to the young, revolutionary Chicano chefs (an inspired group on the precipice of one of the most important food movements in American history), a collective voice has emerged. These virtuosos are in a fight to take back their cuisine, because as Mexican cooking has become dominant in America’s culinary landscape, brown faces have been missing from the discussion. Mexican Americans are not on food television (with the exception of the talented Tijuana native Marcela Valladolid), are barely mentioned in major magazines, and are absent at major food festivals.
And if that isn’t enough, gringos tell our chefs they can’t charge top dollar for lowly Mexican food, while third-generation Mexican Americans who haven’t even been to Mexico bitch about pozole made with a miso broth. L.A.’s chefs, cooks, and restaurateurs have been dealing with extremes from both sides of the aisle for generations.
Ricky Piña, Ricky’s Fish Tacos
"In my family, we made fish tacos whenever friends or relatives came to visit,” says Ricky Piña, so when he moved to L.A. from Baja, it was a natural fit for him to start his own stand. Invite your friends, be sure to have plenty of Mexican beer on hand, and enjoy this Piña family tradition from the fish taco capital of the world, Ensenada.
Note: Don’t use handmade or heirloom corn tortillas for Baja-style fish tacos, because the corn flavor will overpower the balance of flavors. Use white corn tortillas, warmed on a comal or griddle, and then allow them to cool to just above room temperature. In Baja, the tortilla is merely a holder for the fried fish and chilled condiments.
Makes 12 tacos
3 pounds cod, swai, or other firm white fish fillets
1 cup plus 1 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 cup all-purpose flour, or a Mexican brand of flour like El Rosal from Baja if you can get your hands on it
2 tablespoons dried Mexican oregano
1½ teaspoons baking powder (or beer)
½ cup yellow mustard
½ cup mayonnaise
1 pound lard, such as Farmer John’s pork lard
Ricky’s Salsa Verde (recipe follows)
Ricky’s Pico de Gallo (recipe follows)
1 cup crema mexicana or mayonnaise
2 cups thinly shredded green cabbage
6 limes, cut into wedges for serving
1 dozen white corn tortillas
Cut fish into rectangular strips about 5 inches long by 1 inch thick. To make the brine, put 1 quart water in a large container or nonreactive bowl and stir in 1 cup salt, cloves, and garlic powder. Add fish to the brine (there should be enough to cover) and refrigerate for about 2 hours.
When it’s almost time to fry the fish, combine flour, 1 teaspoon salt, oregano, and baking powder in a large mixing bowl. Fold in mustard and mayonnaise. You should have a smooth, homogenous batter about the consistency of a light pancake batter so that it evenly coats the fish fillets. Add water if the batter is too thick.
Lay your condiments out before cooking the fish: salsa verde, pico de gallo, crema, shredded cabbage, lime wedges, and corn tortillas for your guests to assemble their own tacos, Baja style. If you want to really spice things up, make a variety of salsas and maybe some shredded cabbage pickled in lime for contrast.
Preheat the oven to 250° and line a baking sheet with paper towels. Remove fish from the brine and pat dry with paper towels. Heat a large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat and add enough lard so fat melts to a height of roughly 2 inches. When the fat reaches 350° (check with a thermometer), use tongs to dip 2 or 3 fish fillets, one by one, into the batter so all sides are evenly coated. Lightly shake off excess batter. Place fillets carefully in the hot oil for 1 minute, then pierce the batter with the tongs and flip the fillets. Cook fish for 1 minute on the other side, then pierce the batter once more with the tongs and cook for another 1 to 2 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish. Transfer the fried fillets to the paper-towel-lined baking sheet to remove the excess oil. Put the baking sheet in the oven to keep fish warm while you fry the remaining pieces. Make sure the oil is back to 350° before adding another batch of fish.
To serve, put a hot fish fillet into a room-temperature tortilla. Let everyone add his or her own condiments and finish with a squeeze of lime.
Ricky’s Salsa Verde
2 jalapeños, stemmed
6 medium tomatillos, husked and rinsed
1 large onion, cut into chunks
1 sprig cilantro
Heat a large cast-iron skillet or ceramic pan over high heat. When hot, add jalapeños, tomatillos, and onion and cook until blistered, turning often to evenly char the vegetables.
Transfer the vegetables to a blender, add cilantro and 1 cup water, and blend until chunky. If the salsa is too thick for your liking, add a little more water. Season to taste with salt.
Ricky’s Pico de Gallo
8 roma tomatoes, seeded, diced, and drained
1 medium onion, diced
1 to 2 jalapeño chiles, to taste, stemmed, seeded, and diced
2 sprigs cilantro, chopped
Juice of 3 key limes
Gently fold tomatoes, onion, chiles, and cilantro together in a large nonreactive bowl (stainless steel or plastic). Squeeze lime juice over the salsa, season with salt to taste, and stir gently until combined.
Vicente Cossio, Mariscos Chente’s
This Nayarit-style ceviche, ideally made with fresh Mexican shrimp from the Pacific, is simple but full of vibrant flavor. It’s a staple in Don Chente’s hometown of Acaponeta in the state of Nayarit. Nayarit is famed for its raw bars (ceviches, cocktails, snacks, and tostadas), its spicy shrimp stews, and its grilled whole fish, known as pescado zarandeado. The true measure of a master cocktailer is how he or she prepares ceviche, a simple dish that relies on striking just the right balance between quality ingredients and technique. These cocktailers are Mexico’s sushi masters. In the United States, the patriarch of the Cossio family is the best ceviche maker I know.
A note about the shrimp: You’re not likely to find fresh Mexican shrimp in California, so quality frozen shrimp is fine. White shrimp is preferred, because of the resulting color after the lime marinade, but if you’re only buying sustainably caught seafood and can’t find white shrimp, that’s fine.
10 jalapeños, washed, dried, and stems removed
10 to 12 limes, divided, plus 4 whole limes for garnish
Sea salt to taste
2 pounds white Mexican shrimp, or other large shrimp, peeled and deveined
½ red onion, diced
2 large cucumbers, peeled and diced
3 medium tomatoes, drained, seeded, and diced
Tortilla chips, for serving
First, prepare a Nayarit-style salsa verde. Place jalapeños (remove seeds and devein if you want the salsa milder) into a blender with the juice of 5 limes, purée until blended, and add salt to taste. Set aside.
Combine shrimp, red onion, and juice of 5 to 7 limes in a nonreactive bowl and set aside to marinate for 5 minutes. Add salt to taste. Add cucumber and tomato, then stir in the salsa verde. Taste and add salt or a little more lime juice if needed. Arrange on a plate with chips and extra lime wedges and serve.