L.A. Mexicano: Recipes, People & Places, written by Bill Esparza, showcases the Mexican food culture of Los Angeles and the people behind the incredible dishes. Highlights include Lamb Barbacoa with Consommé from Paco Perez, Tamales de Pollo from Maria Elena Lorenzo, Michelada Verde from Ricardo Diaz, Hollenbeck Burrito in honor of Manny Rojas, Red Aguachile Tostada from Raul Ortega, and so much more. Following the review, I will be including a recipe for Fish Tacos from Ricky Piña.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Prospect Park Books in exchange for my honest review. All comments and opinions are my own. This post contains affiliate links.
Bill Esparza is an L.A. native and considered one of the country’s leading experts on Mexican food. He received a bachelor of music degree and is a noted saxophone player. While on the road performing, he learned about the regional cuisines of Latin America. He started his blog, Street Gourmet LA, and was recruited by the Los Angeles Times. Since then, he has been featured in Los Angeles Magazine, on CNN, KCRW’s radio show Good Food, I’ll Have What Phil’s Having, Bizarre Foods, and Top Chef. He also curates the annual Tacolandia festival in Los Angeles and is a recent winner of a James Beard award for his coverage of the L.A. taco scene in Los Angeles Magazine.
Chapters are divided based on type of cuisine: Mexico’s Culinary Regions, Nuestra Cocina (Our Kitchen), Pocho Cuisine, Regional Mexican Cuisine, Alta California Cuisine, Bebidas (Drinks), Ambulantes (Trucks & Takeout), Centro de Abastos (Marketplaces), and Neighborhood Resources.
Esparza begins with his experiences growing up as a Mexican-American and the development of his love for Mexican cooking. He focuses on the creation of the different Mexican specialties in L.A., haute cuisine, and some of the difficulties faced by the chefs. This quote especially stood out to me: “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.” You will find some notable recipes here, but there is just as much, if not more, emphasis on the forty faces behind the food. I am hoping to move to Los Angeles in the near future and can’t wait to try some of the restaurants and dishes highlighted here in person.
For those new to Mexican cooking, there is a breakdown of Mexico’s culinary regions, basic kitchen equipment, techniques, ingredients, and foundation recipes for beans, rice, salsas, and guacamole. The photography is provided by the Los Angeles-based Staci Valentine. You will find over 100 photos of the people and most of the recipes. Measurements are provided in US Customary with serving sizes ranging from 1 to 20. The neighborhood resources section at the end of the book includes a comprehensive guide to Esparza’s personal favorites in the greater Los Angeles area divided by region- including restaurants, cafés, trucks, markets, tortillerias, bars, stands, coffeehouses, mercado, bakeries, and carnicerias.
This book is a great pick for home cooks interested in Mexican cuisine and as a guide for those local to or planning on visiting Los Angeles. Recipes range from easy weeknight meals to intricate feasts. Many are followed by additional recipes for making the accompanying sauces and toppings (which can often be prepared ahead of time). The focus tends to be on savory. The only sweet-based recipes I came across were for the Isthmus-Style Cornbread and Soledad’s Tepache. With the heavy emphasis on corn, you will also find a lot of gluten-free options. Having a market nearby with Mexican ingredients will be helpful in locating items like tomatillos, various chiles- fresh and dried, corn and flour tortillas if you don’t make your own, crema mexicana, banana leaves, lard, hominy, chicharrones, queso Oaxaca, piloncillo, fideos, epazote, cactus paddles, Mexican chocolate, chorizo, and more.
I apparently have gone way too long without trying a fish taco. Between years of avoiding seafood due to pickiness and having not spent any significant time on the west coast (minus two days in L.A. last year), they just haven’t been on my radar. So these fish tacos were the first I ever tasted and now I am completely hooked.
This recipe for Baja-style Fish Tacos comes from Ricky Piña of Ricky’s Fish Tacos. He started his own stand when he moved to Los Angeles from Baja (born in El Maneadero and grew up in Ensenada- the fish taco capital of the world). Strips of firm white fish fillets are coated in a thick mayonnaise/mustard-based batter and fried until golden. They are then nestled into corn tortillas and topped with fresh Pico de Gallo, Salsa Verde, shredded cabbage, crema mexicana, and lime juice.
Esparza includes a note to not use handmade or heirloom corn tortillas since these will overpower the balance of flavors. White corn tortillas warmed on a comal then cooled to just above room temperature are best.
I also made Mexican Rice, Taquitos with Avocado Sauce, Tinga (Chicken Chipotle) Burritios, and Isthmus-Style Cornbread.
Mexican Rice is one of the fundamental recipes available along with beans and white rice. Basmati rice is seasoned with onion, garlic, and pureed tomato before simmering on the stove in chicken stock until tender.
The Taquitos with Avocado Sauce come from Susanna Macmanus of Cielito Lindo. The taquitos are filled with shredded chuck roast that has simmered in a crockpot for 8-10 hours (I did this overnight so the taquitos could be assembled at lunchtime). The fried Taquitos are topped with a green sauce made from avocados, tomatillos, güeros chiles, and cilantro.
Tinga (Chicken Chipotle) Burritos come from Alberto Bañuelos of Burritos La Palma. Chicken breasts are simmered until tender, shredded, and combined with a chipotle chile sauce and diced potatoes. The mixture is formed into burritos and toasted on each side. These burritos were a huge hit with the entire family. Claire especially enjoyed their small, portable size.
The Isthmus-Style Cornbread comes from Ricardo Cervantes and Alfredo Livas of La Monarca Bakery. This Pan de Elote uses fresh sweet corn as the base instead of cornmeal which creates a more creamy texture. I especially loved the use of condensed milk. While cornbread from Oaxaca is traditionally fried, this version is baked.
Fish Tacos Recipe
Excerpt from L.A. Mexicano- from Ricky Piña
Ricky's Salsa Verde:
- 2 jalapeños stemmed
- 6 medium tomatillos husked and rinsed
- 1 large onion cut into chunks
- 1 sprig cilantro
- Sea 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 chipped
- Juice of 3 key limes
- Sea Salt
- 3 pounds cod, swai, or other firm white fish fillets
- 1 cup plus 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 5 cloves
- 2 tablespoons garlic powder
- 1 cup all purpose flour or a Mexican brand of flour like El Rosa from Baja if you can get your hands on it
- 2 tablespoons dried Mexican oregano
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder or beer
- 1/2 cup yellow mustard
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1 pound lard such as Farmer John's pork lard
- Ricky's Salsa Verde
- Ricky's Pico de Gallo
- 1 cup crema mexicana or mayonnaise
- 2 cups thinly shredded green cabbage
- 6 limes cut into wedges for serving
- 1 dozen white corn tortillas
To make the salsa verde: 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.
To make the pico de gallo: 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.
To make the tacos: 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˚F 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˚F (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 bake to 350˚F 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.