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Cochinita Pibil and Other Mayan Delights at Chichen Itza in Los Angeles
Far from the ancient Mayan ruins that bear its name sits Chichén Itzá the restaurant, a Los Angeles stalwart in the booming fast casual Mexican food world. There are no temples, no hidden secrets; there isn't even a full-fledged restaurant. Chichén Itzá exists in the Mercado La Paloma near USC, where walk-up counters and open, shared seating are the way of life. But much like the original Chichen Itza, there are always tourists. And this Chichen Itza is pretty amazing, as well.
Most of the camera-snappers that come to Chichen Itza (the restaurant) have heard of one thing: The cochinita pibil. The slowly roasted pork dish is a calling card for the state of Yucatan, and nowhere is the pig handled with such tender love and care as at Chichen Itza. This is low-and-slow cooking, where all you need is a little bit of achiote paste, some onion, a touch of citrus, lots of banana leaves to wrap up the pork shoulder and a few hours of your time to watch it all simmer down. The final product is a soft, juicy mound of slightly acidic pork, pulled into rough shreds and laid over with a pile of pickled red onions. Order as a plate ($9.50) or a pair of tacos ($4.50); either way, you'll be more than satisfied.
Of course, not every dish at Chichen Itza takes as long. The Poc Chuc ($4.50) is a simpler pork rendition, served as a full plate or onto a stack of corn tortillas. Impressively thin pork loin is marinated in the same sour orange juice as the pibil, then fire-grilled over charcoal for a smoky, chewier finish. Here, the red onions are roasted, not pickled, which lends more sweetness to the finished product. That's a good thing, considering the chunky tomato salsa that accompanies the pork. A leaf of lettuce is an unexpected turn, but its slight crunch will keep your tacos from falling apart into piles of delicious mush.
There are other Mayan and Yucatecan specialties on the Chichen Itza menu, including thin, steamed tamales laced with achiote known as Vaporcitos ($2). You should also try the Sikil Pac ($4), an earthy antojito served with warm tortilla chips.
The dip is a blended mix of roasted tomatoes, pumpkin seeds and chives, whipped into a chunky creaminess and topped with a few dices of tomato. It's a deeper, more pungent replacement for the clean, creamy flavors of guacamole, but after a few chips you'll find the sikil pac to be as irresistible as everyone else.
If you need to walk off some of your hefty lunch, give the diminutive Mercado La Paloma a spin. There are, of course, Mexican knick knacks and overpriced tortilla presses, but peek around the corners of the co-op and you'll find big plates of warm Thai food, freshly pressed juices and shops selling hand-woven Ethiopian scarves and mason jars of uncooked red lentils.
Chichen Itza is an important Los Angeles Mexican restaurant. Owner Gilberto Cetina's inspired work in the Mercado La Paloma -- which once used to house Ricardo Zarate's heralded Peruvian joint Mo-Chica -- has not only helped to keep the industrial strip near the University of Southern California afloat, it has expanded what's possible for Yucatecan food in the city. And while not as old or quite as impressive as the original Chichen Itza, L.A.'s own version stands tall in its own way.