Chichen Itza (Los Angeles, December 2017)

Chichen Itza, located in the Mercado La Paloma building in the Figueroa Corridor, right by USC and the Exposition Park museums, is one of the most celebrated Mexican restaurants in the city. This despite the fact that it’s not a restaurant per se but a counter in a food hall within a community center. It specializes in the food of the Yucatán (it is named for the Mayan city site there), which even in Los Angeles is not very widely available. A mainstay on Jonathan Gold’s annual lists of the best restaurants in the greater L.A. area, it doesn’t lack for publicity. As always with cuisines of which there are not very many exemplars available, it is hard to know to what extent enthusiasm is driven by relative uniqueness. As someone who has not been to the Yucatán (or any other part of Mexico), I can’t really evaluate this. I can tell you though that we liked the food a lot, even though it was not as revelatory as the talk had perhaps led me to expect it would be.

First a bit about the larger neighbouhood. I got my graduate degree at USC in the 1990s. And it’s fair to say that in those days it would not have occurred to any of us to go looking for trendy food anywhere in the area. Indeed, other than going to the DMV on Flower, we would not have felt any need to go east of the 110 freeway. The neighbourhood was very different then, and not always very safe. I lived about a 20 minute walk from USC for a couple of years and late night walks home from the library could be a bit of an adventure. And it’s not so long ago that Chinese students were assaulted and murdered in the area.

Since then, USC has purchased most of the immediate real estate around its main campus and gentrified it quite a bit. Passing it now on the way to the Museum of Natural History (a must-stop with the brats on every trip to L.A) I find myself occasionally nostalgic for the grittier texture of the old neighbourhood. But then I have to remind myself that I didn’t actually enjoy shopping at the 32nd St. market (run by Notrica’s, I think), where you could smell the meat department from about 10 aisles away and whose produce was rumoured to be delivered there after having past sell-by date everywhere else in town; the manager of the crappy apt. complex I lived in worked in the liquor dept. and would always warn me about having parties when I bought beer in any quantity above a 6-pack. Ah, the memories. Now, there’s a Trader Joe’s in the University Village! Still, it’s hard to get excited about Fortress USC.

Anyway, Mercado La Paloma is not actually in the University Village and so I should not have gone on the way I did. It didn’t exist when I lived there anyway. In development since the late 1990s, it only emerged in the early-mid 2000s, right when we left Los Angeles for Colorado (from where we later moved to Minnesota). It’s an interesting organization, seeking to help develop local entrepreneurship and community. The space itself is an ex-garment factory, with the ground floor now given over to restaurant counters, shops and a meeting room, and with non-profits located on the second floor. They also host cultural events.

Chichen Itza is not the only restaurant there and nor are all the restaurants/counters Mexican. Thai and Ethiopian food (vegan Ethiopian, in fact) are also available. At least when we were there, however, almost all the eating seemed centered on Chichen Itza and its recently opened seafood-only sibling, Holbox. I’m not sure how representative this is: it’s possible that all the other places get a lot of custom too (and I have no idea how many times the other counters may have turned over; Chichen Itza, I think, has been there since the beginning). I don’t think I’ve come across any write-ups of these other establishments (which is not to say that no one has written them up). If you are an Angeleno and know more about them, please write in below.

Mercado La Paloma

Before getting to what we ate at Chichen Itza, a quick look at the ground floor of Mercado La Paloma.

Chichen Itza

So to Chichen Itza. We met old friends there for lunch. We were four adults and three kids, but when the kids learned that grilled meats and rice and beans were on the go, they were very highly motivated. We tried to eat as much of the menu as we could, but could only cover so much ground on this outing.

To see what we ate, please launch the slideshow. Scroll down for thoughts on value etc.

All of this came to around $100, or about $20/head. It would probably be less per head when you consider that we overate a bit. In other words, a very good deal. I think the panuchos, salbtutes and chicharron tacos were my favourites—and the sikil-pak was damn good too. If I lived in L.A. I’d come back often to try more of their menu. Since we only visit once or twice a year though, on our next visit we’ll pair a visit to Exposition Park with a meal at Holbox. That is, unless someone tells me that the other places in the Mercado La Paloma are worth a look as well.

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