Monday, October 30, 2006

Alamada Swap Meet and La Casita Adventure

One hot summer day, I hosted a really special event for my dining group. It was a two-part event where the morning was spent taking a tour of the Alameda Swap Meet and our tour guides were none other than Chefs Jaime Martin Del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu of La Casita Mexicana Restaurant and this was followed by a lunch at their restaurant.

First, let me talk briefly about the Alameda Swap Meet. While waiting for our two guides in front of the Swap Meet, we were just amazed at the eye-catching colors of the buildings from the bright yellow and green of the building housing the Swap Meet to the tropical blue of the building across from us. One of my members even commented on how the area was like being in Mexico.

Once Chefs Jaime and Ramiro arrived, they took us into the produce section of the Swap Meet and immediately started talking about the various greens, veggies and fruits that can be used for different styles of Mexican cooking. There was produce in that market that I never even heard about until they were pointed out to me. Things like epazote leaves that can be put into tortillas or put raw into salads. There were things I heard about, but have only seen one kind of usage like alfalfa. I'm used to alfalfa sprouts again in salads or sandwiches, but full grown alfalfa plants that can be blended, strained and with the addition of ice, lime juice and sugar made into a refreshing drink was definitely new to me.

The amount of information coming out of the two of them was just amazing. I only wish now that I had a tape recorder or something so that I could have captured more of the verbal gems they were giving to us.
Once you're able to pull yourself away from the produce section and walk towards the back, past a whole section devoted just to Mexican candy, you'll make it outside to the plaza where culinary delights will await you.

Mexican juices and waters, especially on a hot day, are there to refresh your palate. Golden brown churros dipped in sugar await your sweet tooth. If you're looking for a more substantial meal, there are a couple of places there where you can feast on tacos, burritos or whatever catches your fancy. There was really something there for everyone. Just those couple of hours with Chefs Jaime and Ramiro at the Alameda Swap Meet would have made my day, but the second half of the event really made my month. After exploring the Swap Meet, we all trekked over to La Casita Mexicana for a feast that I'll never forget. When this event was first set up, Chefs Jaime and Ramiro promised a culinary tour of Mexico and they certainly delivered.

Upon our arrival at the restaur
ant and our drink orders were taken and throughout the lunch, we were able to quench our thirst with either the lemonade with chia seeds or the cactus pear water. We were also given the option of having the alfalfa drink that I mentioned earlier and I have to tell you that it was my favorite aqua fresca of the three. I'm not even sure how to describe it, but I liked the "grassy" taste combined with the lime and sugar. It was a very refreshing drink without being overly sweet.

While waiting for our drinks, we started snacking on tortilla chips that had their dark mole sauce drizzled over it. With that delicious mole sauce, I didn't ev
en need the salsa that was also on the table. The mole sauce had a rich, dark smoky flavor to it and was a good preview to the traditional mole poblano that was going to be coming later on in our meal. Some of the members in the beginning part of the lunch were able to go back to the kitchen to see some of our dishes being made.

One of them brought back to the table a quesadilla made with a homemade corn tortilla. Mixed in with the masa before it was cooked, were little bits of the epazote leaves and the quesadilla was stuffed with melted cheese and squash blossoms, purchased. Already here are two appetizers that were so impressive that I was definitely looking forward to what was going to follow and look below for what that comprised of:

1. Aztec Cheese Fondue with Epazote Tortillas
(4 different Mexican cheeses filled with poblano chiles slices, mushrooms and herbs wrapped in plantain leaves and grilled.) --- The consistency of the four cheeses combined was stretchy. If you keep pulling at it, you could probably stretch it pretty far and wide.. It was an interesting texture and when eating it with the tortillas, it gave me a meaty feel as opposed to the more runny nature of most melted cheese that I'm familiar with. I liked it, although I think it needed more flavor.

2. Divorced Chilaquiles (fried tortilla chips topped with salsa verde on one side and a red sauce on the other side) -- This dish was actually a revelation for me. In the past when I've had chilaquiles, the tortillas were mushy to me. I never understood why people liked chilaquiles so much, but these tortilla chips stayed crispy even with sauce poured over them. Now that takes skill and of course, the two sauces were very flavorful.

3. Blue Corn Pozole (from Jalisco) or Cream of Pork Rinds (from Puebla)
-- We had a choice of soups so I opted for the cream of pork rinds just because it seemed so odd to me that I had try it. Let me tell you that the soup definitely tasted like pork rinds and since I happen to love pork rinds, I made a good choice.

4. Red Enchiladas (from Jalisco)
(filled with cotija cheese, smothered with a red sauce) -- The tortillas were cooked just right, not too hard around the edges that happens when it's overcooked. The red sauce, which I found out is made of simply tomato and cascabel chile, combined with the slight saltiness of the cotija cheese was in complete flavor harmony, which gave this dish a definite yum factor.

5. Cauliflowe
r Cakes(from Zacatecas) (smothered with a red mild sauce) -- The cauliflower cakes was actually one of my favorite dishes. Cauliflower in itself is a pretty bland vegetable, but I actually think they added some spices to this vegetable before dipping it into an egg batter and than deep frying it and with the addition of the sauce, this cauliflower certainly was no longer a wallflower.

6. Traditional Mole Poblano with Chicken (from Puebla) -- I can't say enough good things about this mole sauce. Made out of 46 different ingredients, the sauce rocked my world. Even when the chicken was gone, I grabbed tortillas and was mopping it with that so that I can continue to experience its greatness.

7. Conquista Plate (from Oaxaca)
(thin steak over grilled cactus; Oaxaca cheese, chile guajillo sauce served with white rice) -- I have to say that this was my least favorite dish. The combo of the cheese, the meat, which seemed a little tough to me and the cactus didn't appeal to me at all. Like all sauces at La Casita, the chile guajillo was wonderful, but that was the only part of the dish that I liked.

8. (2) Fish Dishes
-- We actually had two substitutions for what would have been the chili en nogada and instead got two different fish dishes. One of them had this very tasty chipotle sauce that was just out of this world. The other fish dish seemed blander to me, even though it was cooked with garlic, onions and green peppers.

9. Dessert: Guayabas Con Compope (a La Casita Original)
(stewed guava in a Mexican eggnog liquor) - This dessert was fantastic. I love guavas and eggnog and to somehow have both of them combined was a win-win for me. I don't even know how to describe how it tasted. Tart-sweet is what comes to mind.

10. Dulce de Jicama (a La Casita Original) (candied jicama with cinnamon in a creamy sauce) - While at the Alameda Swap Meet, the Chefs mentioned candied jicama as a dessert and somehow the concept seemed kind of odd to me, but after experiencing it in person, it definitely works. This dessert reminds of me rice pudding but instead of rice, you get the crunchy sweetness of the jicama.

Overall, our adventure with Chefs Ramiro and Jaime, both at the Alameda Swap Meet and than lunch at their wonderful restaurant was just truly amazing and even with the scorching weather both at the swap meet and at the restaurant, since their air conditioning wasn't working, I would not trade this experience at all and in fact, would definitely try to plan a repeat sometime in the future.
By the way, the items described are on their regular menu, so definitely check out La Casita Mexicana whenever you get a chance.

To see all the pics, click here!

Alameda Swap Meet

4501 S Alameda St
Los Angeles, CA 90058
(323) 233-2764

La Casita Mexicana
4030 East Gage Ave.
Bell, CA 90201
(323) 773 - 1898

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