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Chile

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As a Mexican food town Los Angeles has taken me on the highest highs and the lowest lows. You know, like a personal relationship with its share of cuddles and door slamming goodbyes.

My expectations ran a little high when I moved here eight years ago. Since my first visits in the early 1990s I'd marveled with an archeologist's interest at those old restaurant signs advertising "Spanish" and "Mexican-American" food, remnants of a time when Mexican was a derogatory term west of Central Avenue.

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And what was up with all those pastrami-taco-hamburger joints? Were they remnants of a time when Easter European, Mexican, and Midwest immigrants rubbed elbows in post-Depression L.A.? Were they safe spaces like the Mexican taco shop where upper-class and working-class patrons are equal in the eyes of a taquero making suadero, adobada and carne asada tacos?

The carrot soup at La Cabañita in Montrose led me to believe there was more to this city than tacos and burritos. The origin of some of the Mexican food is clouded by time. The beef stew at Philippe the Original is a cocido in disguise. Food, I also found, is a great way to flirt. I love asking the ladies who take my order at La Llamarada in Lincoln Heights how tasty their tongue is today. You won't find much better tomato sautéed lengua de res. And food's a textbook. You get the history of fishing in the L.A. Harbor with your mahi mahi fish taco at Baja Fish in San Pedro.

The lows include chilaquiles at a Mexican restaurant in East L.A. by the 710 freeway that made me want to open up a Doritos bag to get rid of the flavor. And the beans that are so runny at the burrito joint on First Street in Boyle Heights that you ask for a spoon to get rid of them and get to the beef.

S. Irene Virbila's recent review of Rivera near the Staples Center got me thinking about all this.

I'd taken my wife there back in February after reading Jonathan Gold's claim in the L.A. Weekly that chef John Rivera Sedlar fathered Southwest cuisine at several Los Angeles restaurants in the late 1980s. We spent nearly three hours, rapt in various levels of excitement as the curtain rose and each act left a smile on our face. I'll just talk about two items, the mezcal cocktail and the chile relleno. The week before I'd thrown out a bottle of Oaxaca mezcal that was about ten years old. The liquor has a chemical aftertaste that I don't like anymore. Yet there at the top of the Rivera menu sat the Donaji cocktail; mezcal, pomegranate, and citrus blended with agave nectar. Tequila comes from agave. Brilliant.

The burrata cheese-filled chiles rellenos are a cold dish without the traditional egg-white and flour coating. Tasty, but the chef wants to mess with your taste buds and your mind. Using the large rectangular plate underneath the chiles, he'd used a stencil and chile powder to re-create the Caltrans sign of the immigrant family running across the freeway. What???!!! I didn't know what to think. Immigration overlapped with Mexican food, with haute cuisine, with popular culture. We left Rivera feeling like we'd just done a threesome-cuddle with the food.

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