Some of the best restaurants we discover are not flanked by marble lions or offer VIP parking. Instead, our curious appetite for rooting out the finest in ethnic foods can lead one into older parts of towns or past vacant buildings, to find a seat, in this case, at the finest Mexican restaurant I have ever found.
La Casita Mexicana in Bell, California (a suburb of Los Angeles), is no secret. Since the restaurant opened nearly a decade ago, acclaimed food critics and celebrity chefs, including Jamie Oliver, “The Naked Chef”, have collaborated here in the cucina and dabbed their mouths in wonderment at authentic Mexican cuisine.
We at The Place recently visited La Casita Mexicana, and por favor, if I may, I’d like to let you know that you won’t find typical guacamole and processed, shredded cheese dishes here.
Savoring Heritage Dishes
Chefs Ramiro Arvizu and Jaime Martin del Campo will bring you dishes inspired from generations of family recipes fusing the flavors of Northern and Southern Mexico. Our server, Osvaldo, was the link between past and present.
L-R: Chef Owners Ramiro Arvizu and Jaime Martin del Campo
We’re an adventurous bunch, and because we want to tell you about the best bets in SoCal, we accepted the chefs’ offer to “ trust us” as they reincarnated the legacy of their Mexican grandmothers and heritage, and delivered authentic, unfamiliar Mexican dishes.
Highlights of Authentic Mexican Refreshments and Dishes
We began with Agua Frescas delivered in tiny cups—filled with pineapple and prickly pear cactus chunks. This delicate drink refreshes the palate and is purported to help the body cleanse of toxins.
Coffee lovers will want to order de la Olla Café, infused with cinnamon and presented with hunks of brown sugar for sweetening, if you like. Or lemonade sprinkled with chia seeds—who knew!
Seated by the window, the urban landscape offered contemplations as the restaurant began to fill at lunchtime. Outside, two young children walked by and we wondered if they were cutting school. A woman entered to ask restaurant patrons if we’d like to purchase tickets to an event. Had there been no windows, we might have been in Chiapas, Jalisco, or right here in Bell.
Admire the fusion of fiery and mild pipian sauces, with chocolately mole (not to mention its beauty).
I love dining with The Nightowl, our vegan representative, whose dietary needs are met with creative solutions. Her Mushroom and Cactus Chile Relleno (vegan) was stuffed with freshly cooked and diced cactus and mushrooms, seasoned with red tomatoes and onions, and served with white rice.
In 1821, nuns of Puebla brainstormed in the kitchen to commemorate the first President of Mexico, and created a dish with the colors of the Mexican flag: green, white, and red. Vaya con Dios when eating Chile en Nogada, Mexico’s traditional school of "haute cuisine", stuffed with meats sweetened by fresh and dried peaches, pears, apples, walnuts, and candied cactus. Hot pink pomegranate seeds dripped down with the pecan cream sauce.
“This reminds me of my Aunt Emma’s cooking when I was a kid,” said Mike Maxsenti. These flavors brought back memories of a time when his Mexican aunt cooked wonderful dishes at family events. When flavors bring on memories, a chef is working his magic.
I bit my tongue because of the variety of textures, spices, meats, vegetables, and fruits. This is a sign of high quality and a sense of eagerness for the most excellent combinations of flavors.
Here comes Osvaldo, our culinary historian representative, with the next creation: Tres Moles dish (chicken or pork), combined with mole poblano, and green and red pipian (mildly spiced—red pipian sauce has a wonderful kick!)
The colorful interior will make you smile.
Along the walls of the interior room, large oil paintings of saints and religious figures are adorned with heavy, wooden frames. Each table’s brilliant magenta cloth was overlaid with colorful Mexican tapestry weighted down by glass.
We didn’t ask for dessert, it was assumed, and the first of treats arrived: cinnamon churros filled with warm, Mexican caramel. “These are better than Disneyland churros,” Varius Batty remarked. In under a minute, all were eaten but one (which was left out of politeness, but once given the go-ahead, was quickly consumed). Corn flan arrived, pleasantly not as sweet as flans I have tasted before, and just as creamy.
And finally, raw tunas were set down: prickly pear cactus fruits sliced and prepared fresh, bringing us full circle to the fruity agua frescas we’d started. More red in color like pomegranate, but with the consistency of watermelon, and ever so slightly sweet, the tunas had seeds that might be described as “acquired taste” but can be consumed whole.
Next door, you can try on Mexican clothing for purchase at La Tiendita, in addition to browsing selections of traditional Mexican candies, pastries, toys, garden, and interior décor pieces in the adjoining shop. In celebration of the upcoming Día de los Muertos, The Nightowl bought a pair of traditional Mexican jade calavera earrings.
Come hungry (but don’t bite your tongue) and come open-minded. Mike has already been back with friends and family, and I’ll be there again soon, too.
Bienvenidos! La Casita Mexicana is located at 4030 East Gage Ave., Bell. For more information, call 323-773-1898 or visit CasitaMex.com.