El Faisan y El Venado: Yucatán Food Beyond Cochinita Pibil in Northeast L.A.

There comes a time in every young writer’s life when you just say fuck it, and move out of your parents house with your awesome significant other and try to take over the world together, in high hopes of pursuing your dreams in the creative field and making enough for rent as a writer. For me, that time lagged it a little bit and just happened last year. We moved to a New York-sized studio, in Angelino Heights. Though, the speed of gentrification there was a little too fast, well for me at least, pushing us out since we eventually got tired of paying the stupidly overpriced rent and had enough of our inconsiderate landlord.

Though I am thankful for his inconsiderate actions, as I found my dream quarters in the hills of Highland Park, just a few blocks away from places like El Faisan y El Venado.

El Faisan y El Venado signage

The place caught my eye as soon as we drove by looking for a now-defunct, birria truck that was once favorited by J. Gold. Though, we waited until we were more settled in the neighborhood to check it out.

Ambiance at El Faisan y El Venado
Ambiance at El Faisan y El Venado

I love me some Yucatan food but haven’t really found a solid place that came close to the stuff I had when I was down there a few years ago. Except for that one time that Gustavo Arellano took me to an awesome Yucatán bakery somewhere in his hood that I forgot the name of. I know I’m supposed to love Chichen-Itza here in L.A., but as much as I respect it and the family behind it, I haven’t really ever been crazy wowed by their dishes (though their house-rendered manteca is the best in L.A.).

So, when I saw El Faisan is El Venado sporting a sign that claimed Yucatán food, I got excited. The place is tiny, with about 20 seats in total. It used to be a Mexican restaurant specializing in the food from Puebla but a Yucatán man by the name of Angel acquired it a few years ago and revamped it. It’s now a bona fide, too-cool-for-credit-cards Yucatan restaurant, widescreen television bumping heavy cumbia and everything.

Breakfast and lunch menu at El Faisan y El Venado
Breakfast and lunch menu at El Faisan y El Venado
Dinner menu at El Faisan y El Venado
Dinner menu at El Faisan y El Venado

The only employees I’ve seen working there is Angel, his wife and another line cook in the kitchen. So, one of them will probably serve you. It is apparent that this will at least be a decent Mexican restaurant as soon as you taste one of their totopo chips from the welcome basket. Thick-cut, crunchy triangles that are on the ultra browned side, with a deep corn flavor. You’ll notice the chips are flaky, flecked with shards of salt and puffed up like puff pastry, a product of a deft hand in frying no doubt but more importantly, the tortillas they use for chips are probably on the thinner, better-quality side.

Totopos fo

As we are every time we sit at a  new restaurant, we were famished beyond belief so we got a little crazy with the ordering, we sampled a few things: a taco de Cochinita Pibil, a Panucho, Escabeche Oriental, a tamal colado and a Brazo de Reina tamal. The last two being only available on the weekends. The menu is pretty small, which is usually a good sign for specialized regional places like this one.

Cochinita Pibil at El Faisan y El Venado
Cochinita Pibil at El Faisan y El Venado
A Panucho
A Panucho

The basics were decent, the cochinita pibil was oozing with its notorious citrusy, porky juices. Though, the usual LA taco paradox of crappy Guerrero-esque tortillas weighed it down. They used shredded chicken instead of the usual turkey for their Panucho, but the core puffy tortilla was light, puffy and spot-on.

Brazo de Reina at El Faisan y El VenadoBrazo de Reina at El Faisan y el Venado: Not as dense with a soft-cooked egg
The classic dense tamal Yucateco, flavored with the lightly-floral yet meaty Chaya leaf was a lot softer than other ones I’ve had in town, and for once, the egg was not overcooked to the point of powdered sulfur. Instead, still tender.

Tamal Colado at El Faisan y El Venado: Pudding-like

But the joint’s true standouts are the Tamal Colado and Escabeche Oriental. Tamal Colados had their comeback last year when they were picked up and adapted by Alex Stupak at Empellón Cocina in New York. Though, many people still don’t know about them. It’s yet another Southern Mexican treat, basically a banana leaf tamal where the masa has been strained and then boiled, which then creates this pillowy, gelatine-like cloud of earthy corn. It’s airy, fluffy and unlike any other tamal you’ve had before, here they have a pork and chicken version.

At first, I just glimpsed past the unique sounding “Escabeche Oriental” on the menu, and had actually ordered something else. A rookie move, but that’s what happens when you forget your blogging roots! Fortunately though, I have a relentless mind that rarely ceases to be be satisfied and asked about the dish a few minutes after ordering it. “Oh, es una delicia, bien rica!” Angel said, going on to describe it as turkey leg that is cooked with a bunch of charred chiles, spieces, pickled onions and seasoned vinegar. I immediately and annoyingly, asked if it too late to change my order. It probably was, but Angel didn’t care and still switched my order without a a single quibble.

Tamal Colado at El Faisan y El Venado: Turkey leg, roasted with Yucatan pickled onions
Tamal Colado at El Faisan y El Venado: Turkey leg, roasted with Yucatan pickled onions

His enthusiastic response was not exaggerating it, in the least. To think, that I almost missed out on this! The hulking traditional drumstick was served with a pile of onions, charred chiles guerros, half a ripe avocado and a bunch of tangy turkey juices enhanced with cracked black pepper and vinegar. The flavors were similar to Jamaican Jerk Chicken, but enhanced with the big ol’, bad, bold tropical flavors of El Yucatán. With a big steaming pile of tortillas, this Yucatán plate was among the best I’ve had in this city yet.

I remember I went to a Mexican food panel a long time ago and hearing someone from El Yucatán say: Someone that is from El Yucatán will always say that are Yucateco, not Mexican, because of the way different techniques and ingredients that only exists in that state of Mexico. After eating here, I understood their prideful solidarity in Mexican gastronomy.

El Faisan y El Venado
231 N Ave 50
Los Angeles, CA 90042
(323) 257-1770

Good Morning Merida! A Typical Breakfast at a Local Mercado in Merida, Yucatan

The early bird gets the worm, but in Merida, the early [loud and tropical!] bird gets things like Panucho’s, Salbutes, Papadzules, Polcanes, Mondongo and much, much more…

It’s a little known fact amongst seasoned travelers and thrifty backpackers alike that to truly experience a destination, you must bypass the boundaries of the popular tourist zones. The food at La Chaya the night before was absolutely fine but I knew that if really wanted to eat like the locals, I had to visit the local mercado de comidas.

mercado hustle

The local mercado is where the workers who work those tourist destinations eat at, there will never be any air conditioning or glossy menus here and you will eat off a plastic bag-lined, weathered plastic plate. But if you are like me, you will consider the almost unbearable tropical heat and humidity just another terrific ambiance factor for the Mercado actually.

Not to mention the food will also be about ½ the price. The portions may not be as large but you can rest assured knowing that the flavors of the food not be either dumbed down or jacked up. See, the food at a mercado is made specifically to satiate the town’s working-class residents, people who most likely have lived in that town for generations and know what a dish should taste and look like. Hence, the food at a Mercado is almost always… bomb!

Our hotel Residencial was fortunately located about eight blocks away from the town’s zocalo, adjacent to the towns local Mercado.

A mercado will always have more than a handful of stands and most of them will be slanging the same thing. It can become a bit of a daunting experience to choose one with each one of the vendors trying there hardest to get you to eat with them over the rest. I usually settle with the one with most people, as the food will be more often rotated, ie. fresher. But whatever you choose, chances are it’s going to be pretty good.

La Lupita Signage

My family and I sat La Lupita’s, one of the cocina’s located inside the mercado as opposed to the ones you initially walk by on the outside. I am pretty infatuated with my roots and culture but even then, I need a break from the almighty tortilla once in while. Fortunately in Merida, they also have some quite exceptionally crusty French baguettes that are used for tortas instead of the more fluffier telera or bolillo rolls.

Merida Mercado offerings

The display case with the morning’s offerings was pretty exciting, boasting a colorful array of things to sample. Being a full time advocate for the beyond-thanksgiving consumption of turkey, I was ecstatic to realize that Pavo in Yucatan was just as common a filling as Al Pastor or Asada is in the rest of Mexico.

torta de relleno negro

I jumped at the opportunity to have the meaty fowl as a breakfast option, especially when bathed in that wondrous, jet-black Yucatan Relleno Negro mole like sauce and propped atop some toasted baguette. Exercise a bit more caution with the salsas on the table though, they will tentatively have some sort of habanero effect in them.

The delicate petite sandwich didn’t quite satisfy my voraciously curious tummy so I ventured into the neighboring stand to see what else I’d find.

Score! They had yet another exclusive turkey rendition! This time, the roasted whole bird was drenched pickled in a vinegary, onion-heavy marinade called escabeche.

Yucatan offers many more cool-sounding, carby vehicles to enjoy these fillings with, its not just tortillas or bread anymore in the land of the South. No, there are things like Panuchos, Sambutes and Polcanes. I didn’t know what the hell any of these really were so I decided on the craziest sounding one to try naturally, “un sambute de pavo en escabeche por favor, con todo!”

Salbute de Escabeche de Pavo
It turned out to be quite the lovely surprise. A thick, handmade pocket of yellow corn dough that is fried medium hard and then topped with the filling of your choice. It reminded me a lot like a Mexican version of the Indian street food classic, Pani Puri.

Another plus of eating at a mercado is the high probability of a roaming vendor stopping at your table to offer you some of his home cooked bounty. Like this dulces tipicos hawker that stopped at ours. I forgot what each of their names were but I got one of each of course. My particular favorites were the meringues, the crisp meringue clouds that exuded sweet syrup and were still creamy on the inside, this piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar) taffy with bits of chewy young coconut baked within it and the chili pepper-shaped pumpkin seed candy that had a similar texture to Italian Marzipan even.

dulces tipicos de yucatan

Ahh…pansa llena y corazon contento!

A Moment for Marquesitas: A Southern Mexican Street Food Dessert Favorite

If it’s a summer night and you are in downtown Merida, a “Marquesita” will most likely be in your near future. The pedal-powered street dessert hawkers are basically in every corner of the Zocalo and central tourist district. No, they aren’t swordsmith’s crafting metal as they push down on their blue-flamed, huge waffle-machine like cast-iron griddle set up with all their might, they are just making Marquesitas.

marquesito griddle

The traditional filling is actually a base of shredded “Bola de Queso” or Edam cheese with whatever else you’d like. The older couple who were in front of us asked for theirs with peanut butter and the zesty cheese, while the lady behind me ordered hers with the cheese and smothered with cajeta de cabra envinada (Mexican goat’s milk caramel flavored with red wine).
Marquesitas

If the smell of toasted sugar and vanilla doesn’t lure you in, the curious Indian dosa-like funnel shape of it will. The French have crepes, the Italian have pizelles, the Indonesian have Teram Bulan and well, this is like a combination of all those but better. A sweet version of a paper dosa? Err, even more crispy and fragile than that, it is almost like a freshly made pirouette cookie even. Especially when prepared with creamy nutella and lechera like I did when I got mine in Merida.

marquesita in action

You might also luck out if the local feria is in town; I caught one at the Feria de Playa during my stay in Playa del Carmen too. The ingredients to stuff it with were more varied there. Nonetheless, I got mine with nutella and sliced banana. As if it wasn’t going to taste bad, haha. Whatever stuff’s your Marquesa with…its all good. Just make sure you eat it with your arms extended because the filling tends to leak from the bottom. Or you can just eat it like a sword-swallower like I did.

marquesita money shot
Marquesita in 3D!

La Chaya: Yucatan Food in Merida and Finally Eating It (Merida, Yucatan)

We arrived to Merida a little before sunset. I couldn’t believe it; I was finally in the south of Mexico! After years of being fascinated by the unique cuisine of the motherland’s south I was finally going to get to eat it. Until now, my knowledge of the cuisine was strictly limited to L.A’s “Chichen-Itza” restaurant.

Keeping it strictly adventurous, we didn’t reserve any hotel so that was first on the list. We settled for “La Residencial” eight blocks away from the central zocalo. We walked and walked around the town, I couldn’t believe the chirping clamor of the tropical birds were not coming out of a speaker or something.

La Chaya

After buying our fair share of trinkets, it was time to eat. I asked around and was led to “Chaya”, one of the cities more popular restaurants apparently. I was a little turned off at the half-hour wait and strictly-tourist customers, but whatever, my dad was getting cranky.

tortillera
totopos con salsas mayas

It looked a little gimmicky with the handmade tortillas being assigned to two stations inside the restaurants but the chips and salsa proved to be an interesting surprise. Just like every other Yucatan food that has a cool-ass name, the chips are called “Totopos” here. They were served with a toasty, green-pepita paste, a black bean puree, a thin salsa and a habanero relish. Not a bad start.

Agua de Chaya
Agua de Chaya at La Chaya

When in Yucatan, drink Agua de Chaya! especially if you are eating at a restaurant that is called after it. The spinach-y green doesn’t really taste like anything different from any other meaty green, especially when combined with lots of lime and sugar but its good and its “green”, so its cool.

La chaya Menuage

I kinda wanted to order everything on the menu, everything sounded so cool! We started off with an order of “Vaporcitos”. Which I quickly found out were really just banana-leaf wrapped tamales with a stuffing of turkey. They weren’t the softest or most flavorful but the fried tomato salsa smothering made up for it.

I ended up ordering for my dad and little sister since they didn’t really know what the hell any of the food was.

I recommended the Tixin-Xic to my dad.

Mariscos Tikin-Xic
Tixin-Xic

This dish is a common Yucatan dish, an Achiote-marinated fish baked in banana leaf. Here, it was a mish-mash of a bunch of different seafood and was served “sizzling” style. It wasn’t bad.

And for my sister? Los Tres Mosqueteros Yucatecos
Los Tres Mosqueteros Yucatecos at La Chaya

Without a doubt, this was the winning dish of the evening. It consisted of three thin, yellow corn crepes enveloping braised turkey meat, each one showered with a different Yucatan sauce, then glued together with this sweet plantain mash. The most interesting was probably the Relleno Negro sauce, Yucatan’s emulsified, thinned-down, ink-like answer to a black Mole. The second one was their Pipian, the usually-thick pumpkin seed sauce got the velvety treatment as well. Last was the Papadzule sauce, another pumpkin seed centered sauce but more toasty. T’was bomb indeed.

The first dish that drew me to L.A’s Chichen Itza restaurant was Pan de Cazon so I decided to try it straight from the source here.

pan de cazon
Pan de Cazon at La Chaya

It was just as I expected, a hell of a lot better! The dish consists of lightly-fried stacked tortillas layered with black beans and seasoned Thresher Shark meat, then of course, showered with more of that signature Yucatecano, marinara-like red salsa. In other words, they are what enchiladas would look like if a contemporary architect had his way with them, an enchilada skycraper if you will. Note to self, lightly fried handmade tortillas is way better than spaghetti to sop up tomato sauce with.

The meal came out to about 350 pesos, aka “tourist prices” in the words of my cranky papa. Sure, I could had probably eaten the better versions of the same dishes we got for 1/3 the price at the local mercado but at least one splurge was imminent for me in Merida.

Now, it was time to make up for it and find some tasty street food dessert outside…

La Chaya Restaurante
Calle 62 X 57 local 2 |
Centro Historico,
Mérida, México

Chichen Itza’s Mayan Tasting Dinner On An Anxious Friday Night

So Friday night had finally come, one of the rare moments in my life where I actually get the urge to go out and be young. Meaning, just hanging with old high school friends (people my age in other words) and catching each others facetious gay bluffs, usually involving a local backyard punk gig, a pint or two of cheap beer, and the ever high hopes of suddenly “getting lucky”. NOT thinking about writing or food but instead just living the moment…

city terrace gig
City Terrace Gig w/ Corrupted Youth: December 2010

catching that bluff
Catching That Bluff After One Too Many Brewskies

This last Friday though was and exception. My food world had cut into my leisure time through a dinner invite from a Roosevelt High School teacher who I had given a guest lecture on the concept of Foodblogging. He had told me about a “Mayan Tasting” dinner that was happening at Chichen Itza that night and asked if I was interested. I said yes, but only to find out that one of my o.g homie’s two-tone reggae band was playing at the San Pedro Brewery that same night, meaning FREE craft beer and not-typical-scene chicks.

But anything for the sake of expanding my palate right?

We had barely made it too, half an hour late, meaning half an hour beyond their closing time and being the last customers of the night. A huge thank you for still feeding us!

It was to be an eight course dinner highlighting tribal Food from the South of Mexico before Spanish Rule–

agua de chaya
Agua De Chaya: My Food Opt In For Beer

An Agua Fresca De Chaya was included in the dinner, a “medicinal herb” kinda like Spinach but with a heftier bite was apparent through out the meal. Here, it was blended with sugar and acted as a refresher.

1st
mayan chips and dip
Bu’ul, I’b and Sikil Pac: Mayan Chips N Dip

Shaved, Green Plantain pieces were fried and served as chips to go with our black and white bean purees, both smooth and creamy. The table favorite was the Sikil Pac (middle) though, a chunky puree of toasted pumpkin seeds and tomatoes.

2nd
empanada
Pumpkin, Green Corn and Tomato Empanada: Fried

No cheese to be found in here as there were no domesticated cows back then, instead a small amount of filling consisted of seasoned squash melded with starchier than thou corn. Liked the fried little edges of Masa the best of course…

3rd
jicama salad
Jicama Salad: Like A Frutero Doing Fine Dining

Up next was a dainty, composed salad of cutely shaped Jicama, Mango and Piña (Pineapple). Nothing much to be said here, tasted like a portion controlled, Fruta Mixta order you would get from a Mexican fruit vendor from any given East L.A corner…that’s all here.

4th
tamal duo
Duo of Tamales: Barely Warm Espelon and Chaya Variety

These duo of dense, Tamales were served just a couple of degrees above stone cold, not sure if that was on purpose. Espelon was described as a “traditional Mayan Bean” and had very similar qualities to a dried out Japanese Adzuki bean. Chaya prevailed as always with its faint, herbaceous notes.

5th
chaya soup
Sopa De Chaya: Umami or Salty?

The soup course was also Chaya centered, along with a couple of properly cooked Chayote, the leaf’s meatier qualities were more noticeable here, the teacher compared it to Wakame seaweed actually. The broth packed a fiercely savory punch, didn’t know whether to classify it as salty or just umami.

6th
pipian de venado
Pipian De Venado: Or Liver?

We were given an option from choosing two from four options as our mains. Seeing Venison on the menu made me full of glee as I love game but don’t get to eat it often. Although it was kind of hard to treasure it here, cooked to a point where it tasted portrayed a liver-like flavor and mealy texture. Good thing the delicate sauce was there to rescue it a bit.

7th
pato pibil
Pato Pibil: Sauce To The Rescue!

Excited to see the Pibil preparation applied on other meats, I jumped at getting the Duck version of the Yucatan infamous Cochinita Pibil. Wrapped in Banana leaves and baked, this protein also seemed to be cooked beyond recognition, including the bland black bean/rice mash up underneath. Albeit, that glorious, zippy sauce salvaged this dish yet again!

The one thing that truly did blow me away was something that I–of course–didn’t get: Tikin Xic (Fire Grilled Grouper Fish).

tikin xic
Tikin Xic: The ONE Day I Wasn’t Craving SeaFood

The last course was a dessert of Buñuelos De Yuca, Fritters made from the starchy Cassava root vegetable, drizzled with Honey and served with a shot of Milk-less Hot Chocolate.

buneulos de yuca
Buñuelos De Yuca: Mayan Beignets?

Dense, heavy and ever chewy, these were definitely no Beignets. Reminded me of dessert version of the Brazilian pão de queijo. The milk-less Hot Chocolate shot over-compensated with more sweetener in it, tasted a little to single note to be just sugar though, maybe Agave? Nonetheless, I dunked and enjoyed.

I really appreciate the concept that they are aim
ing for with this tasting, as I recently went back to my parents Zacatecano hometown and discovered my food roots.

But next time, I think I’ll rather go skank it up in the pit with the homies while drinking a double chocolate Porter…

*Price $35 per person. Tax and gratuity not included.
*Reservation Only
*Tasting will take place again in the next couple of weeks sometime, give them a call if interested

3655 S Grand Ave #C6
Los Angeles, CA 90007
tel 213.741.1075
fax 213.741.1046

Free Parking