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Mole Heaven and Top-Notch Churros at La Casita Mexicana, Los Angeles

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[Photographs: Noam Bleiweiss]

It's hard to imagine, but it's been almost 15 years since Chefs Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu opened their regional Mexican restaurant, La Casita Mexicana, in LA's semi-industrial southern suburb of Bell. Almost immediately, the pair became known for their authentic heritage cooking, which includes a lot of work with the molcajete—mortar and pestle—and the sort of hyper-specific moles at the heart of many of Mexico's home kitchens. Suffice it to say you won't find burritos—or even tacos—on the menu at La Casita Mexicana.

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What you will come across is some of the most inspired Mexican cooking in all of Los Angeles. Campo and Arvizu have maintained a commitment to quality since their 1999 beginnings, with a focus on local produce and regional south-of-the-border ingredients. There are stuffed and roasted chiles rellenos, Cojita-dusted enchiladas, and fish, always lots of fish, much of it dusted in a seed-based semilla de chile salsa that offers diners an earthy alternative to the goopy hot sauces you might find on lesser Mexican fare. But the true highlight of dining at La Casita Mexicana is the mole. It's among the best in Los Angeles, which means it's already better than most of the mole you can get anywhere else in America.

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The stuff is unavoidable. You'll find jars of it for sale in the small attached shop and much of Campo and Arvizu's menu is laced with the stuff, draped over enchiladas or filling out a plate of chicken. So instead of fighting the menu, why not go where the mole flows, particularly with their signature Tres Moles ($14.95) plate?

Offered in either pork or stewed chicken varieties, the dish's three moles—a dark mole poblano made with 14 different peppers and spices, plus green and red pipian moles—brighten up the otherwise uneventful protein. With the perfect amount of heat, depth and finesse, La Casita Mexicana's balanced sauces would leave you licking the plate, if not for the basket of warm, hand-patted tortillas served alongside.

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Elsewhere on the menu is the chile en nogada, an almost Christmas-y take on traditional stuffed peppers. The looming green chile relleno is warmed from the inside out with a well-seasoned scoop of ground beef, walnuts, and a touch of candied cactus. The exterior is then blanketed by a thick pecan cream sauce, served stark white, with pomegranate seeds for a little pop and color. A little sweet, a little savory and a little spicy, this beautiful pepper is a rare treat on Mexican dinner tables, and perhaps an even rarer sight in Los Angeles.

There are other dishes, like the thinly fried strips of pescado that are sometimes available as an appetizer. With a few pliant tortillas, they represent the closest thing to a taco you'll find at La Casita Mexicana, and come with a little bowl of incendiary salsa macha. It is dark and oily, strong and funky, a mix of too many pepper seeds and lots of olive oil. And for dessert, the churros, which are possibly the best you'll find from a sit-down restaurant in Los Angeles. Squat sticks of cinnamon and sugary dough are pressed through with a caramel cream that results in a warm, sticky, undeniably addictive after-dinner bite that alone makes the drive to Bell worth it.

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Of course, there's always the mole, too, for those days when you just can't bring yourself to splurge another forkful on dessert. It's almost as if those moles have always been down there in Bell, informing generations of Mexican restaurants as Los Angeles grew and grew. And while that's far from the case—La Casita Mexicana has only been around for 14 years—Chefs Campo and Arvisu have successfully tapped into a timeless Mexican tradition.

About the author: Farley Elliott is a writer and comedian living in Los Angeles. He writes about strip mall food for LA Weekly and covers the LA beer scene for KCET.

La Casita Mexicana
4030 E. Gage Ave., Bell, CA 90201 (map) CasitaMex.com

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