Los Angeles’ food scene has definitely got it going on these days — from the opening of Eataly and Dominique Ansel Bakery, as well as Ansel’s first restaurant, 189, to the jaw-dropping, mind-blowing Vespertine.
Before any of them, though, there was — and still is — one of the most dynamic landscapes for Mexican cuisine in the United States. From taco stands to food trucks to mom-and-pop restaurants to celebrity chef-run fine-dining establishments, Los Angeles has a wealth of places to experience thoughtful, authentic, and cutting-edge food that takes influence and inspiration from every region in Mexico.
One couldn’t ask for a better culinary guide to all of that than Bill Esparza, a Mexican food expert who won a James Beard Award for his exhaustive and exhilarating coverage of the taco scene in Los Angeles.
His cookbook, “L.A. Mexicano: Recipes, People & Places” (Prospect Park Books, 2017), of which I received a review copy, is filled with profiles and stories of the Mexican chefs and restaurateurs who have made Los Angeles their home and their livelihood, and along the way, made the region all the more delectable.
There’s everyone from Ray Garcia, the award-winning chef of Broken Spanish, who shares his recipe for “Corn & Summer Squash Tamales” and celeb Chef Josef Centeno of Baco Mercat, who offers up his take on “Steak Fajitas” to Maria Ramos of Gish Bac, a third-generation barbacoa master form Oaxaca, whose “Enfrijoladas,” a black bean sauce, is second to none, Esparza says.
“Chicken with Pipian Rojo (Chicken with Red Pumpkin Seed Mole)” is from Ramiro Arvizu and Jaime Martin del Campo of La Casita Mexicana and Mexicano. The two dared to bring authentic Mexican cuisine to the tiny city of Bell, where residents originally were only interested in burritos, but eventually came around to embracing its regional moles and pipianes.
To entice locals with their moles, Arvizu and del Campo first served them on chips. With this pumpkin seed mole, there’s no need for such baby steps. You’ll want to dive into this spicy, earthy, and nutting tasting sauce.
Esparza calls it a gateway mole, and it is definitely less intimidating to make than many others. The list of ingredients is more concise, with most items are available at any well-stocked supermarket.
The backbone of this mole is a blend of pumpkin seeds, peanuts and sesame seeds that get blitzed with charred tomato, onion and chile peppers.
The chicken is first poached in water, which creates a pure tasting chicken stock. You’ll end up with leftover stock. Do save it to make a restorative soup later in the week. I added more chicken pieces, sliced bok choy, ginger and noodles to it for chicken udon a few nights later.
The chicken finishes cooking in the deeply flavored sauce that boasts a brick-brown color, even though the photo in the book shows a more golden brown hue.
Serve with rice and tortillas to mop up all that satisfying sauce.
It’s a taste of soulfulness from a city more known for glitz.
Chicken with Pipian Rojo (Chicken with Red Pumpkin Seed Mole)
(Serves 4 to 6)
1 whole chicken, cut into pieces, skin on
1/2 medium onion, quartered
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 California chiles
1 chile de arbol
1 ancho chile
1/4 cup peanuts
1/3 cup pumpkin seeds
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1 clove garlic
1 whole roma tomato
1/2 small onion
2 allspice berries
Corn or other vegetable oil for cooking
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
6 cups cooked white rice, for serving
1 dozen corn tortillas
Place chicken pieces in a large, sturdy pot, add water to cover (about 8 cups), and set over high heat. Add 1/2 onion, 2 garlic cloves, bay leaf, and salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to barely a simmer, cover, and cook over low heat until the chicken is almost but not quite cooked through, about 50 minutes. Remove chicken pieces and set aside. Strain the stock through a fine-mesh sieve.
Put 2 cups of the strained chicken stock into a large bowl. Toast chile peppers over medium-high heat on a comal or in a skillet for about 15 seconds per side. Remove and discard stems, seeds, and membranes and place chiles in the bowl with the chicken stock. Toast peanuts, stirring constantly, with a wooden spoon, until golden brown, about 3 minutes, and add them to the stock. Toast pumpkin seeds, stirring constantly, until they take on a golden color and start to jump; do not overcook. Add to the chicken stock. Toast sesame seeds for only a few seconds, taking extra care not to burn these tiny seeds. Add to the stock.
Toast 1 tomato, onion, and remaining garlic clove on the comal, turning occasionally to obtain an even char. Add them to the chicken stock. Toast allspice and cloves and add them to the stock.
Place saucepan over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add about 2 tablespoons oil and pour all of the bowl’s contents into the saucepan, stirring to combine. Cook for 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and set aside to let all the ingredients soften for about 15 minutes.
When softened, pour pipian mixture into a food processor or blender and process (in batches if necessary) until you have a smooth blend. Pour sauce into a large skillet over medium-high heat, add chicken pieces, and cook, stirring occasionally, until chicken finishes cooking through, about 10 minutes. The sauce consistency should be that of a milkshake. If it seems too thick, add more stock. you might need to add as much as 2 cups. Taste and add salt and pepper as desired. Serve with white rice and warm corn tortillas.
From “L.A. Mexicano” by Bill Esparza
More Mexican-Inspired Recipes to Enjoy: Tacos de Pescado Al Pastor by Nopalito