Los Angeles is one of the world’s top destinations for Mexican food, second only to Mexico City. And in this city of extraordinary Mexican dining from taco trucks to camerones stands to upscale nouvelle restaurants, the very best may be Lotería Grill.
Sunday morning of July 4th weekend. As families converged on the coast from every corner of the Los Angeles basin and beyond to frolic in the Pacific, we went the opposite direction: east. After the decidedly Angeleno experience of attending a carefully curated exhibit of the macabre work of Tim Burton at the L.A. County Museum, we headed for lunch at the Original Farmer’s Market at Fairfax. My wife wanted Mexican, and here is where you will find the original Lotería Grill.
The Fairfax Farmer’s Market is an urban culinary institution, one of those defining places like Pike Place Market in Seattle or the Ferry Building in San Francisco. It’s been there since well before Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz dumped a pie in William Holden’s face at the Brown Derby. My father, whose psychology practice was not far away, used to bring home the sugared donuts and English toffee on Saturday afternoons when I was a kid. You can still get both — as well as good French baguettes and imported cheeses, handmade pastas from Italy, charcuterie and fresh seafood. You could say it’s one of my favorite places.
Among the newer faces in the market is the Lotería — which by “new” means it has been there nine years as compared to the half century some of the other places have been there. It was opened by a guy named Jimmy Shaw who grew up in Mexico City — how can you not like that? Skip outlets in Hollywood, Studio City and soon — rumor has it — in Santa Monica. If you happen to live in Los Angeles, there’s no finer way to spend a hot Sunday afternoon than to meet some friends at the Farmer’s Market, get a pitcher of Sierra Nevada from the 326 next door, grab a table, cover it with plates from the Lotería and dig in. It doesn’t matter who ordered what, you’ll want to try it all. And you can always order more. If you don’t live here, you’ll have to make do with the queso fundido recipe below — inspired by the Lotería’s version — and pretend.
This particular hot Sunday afternoon, we settled the family around the table, I got the beer from 326 and went to order. You must get the queso fundido, of course — your choice with either chorizo or mushrooms — served with toothsome flour tortillas. From there I was overwhelmed with the choices — I’m not a big-fat burrito fan, but they’ve got those. And there are 12 different kinds of tacos, there are enchiladas and chili rellenos, there are sopes and soups. I tend to be attracted to specials, and they were offering a Plato Botanero — fried chicharron, grilled Mexican cheese, seared jalapeños and Mexican scallions, refried black beans, toasted spicy pepitas, fresh guacamole and handmade corn tortillas. My wife didn’t like the pork skin — good for me. They have the best chips and salsa on the planet, so I got those too. (No luck yet reproducing it at home. But I’m working on it, Jimmy, I’m working on it…) After we were done, I ordered more salsa to take home. If there was a Lotería Grill near my home, we would never be without.
The Tim Burton exhibit is around until October. The Lotería Grill will be here well beyond. If you don’t live in L.A. and were looking for a summer getaway, may I suggest an approximation of our July Sunday afternoon?
Don’t forget one of those sugared donuts for dessert. Grab one for me, too, if you would…
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Queso fundido, Lotería Grill-style, with spicy pepitas
serves 4 as a snack or appetizer
2 cups grated Monterrey jack cheese
4 oz. Mexican pork chorizo
1/2 cup finely chopped scallions, white part only
1/2 cup finely chopped white mushrooms
4 additional scallions, preferably Mexican-style
6 flour tortillas
In a pan, heat chorizo over medium high heat, stirring frequently and breaking up. It will take 3-5 minutes for chorizo to cook, during which time it will render much of its oil. Scoop cooked chorizo from the pan and set aside. Cook chopped scallion and mushrooms in the chorizo oil, stirring frequently, until soft and golden, about 10 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place cheese in a large, low ceramic dish (I like to use a small cazuela or oval gratin dish). Sprinkle top of cheese in an attractive pattern with the chorizo and cooked scallions and mushrooms. Place in oven and cook for 10 minutes, until bubbly.
Meanwhile, brush the four scallions with a little vegetable oil and sear in a hot pan or on the grill. Lightly grill the tortillas in a pan, on the grill or over the stove, until soft, and stack and wrap in a clean dishtowel.
Place the queso fundido on a hot plate directly out of the oven. Serve with tortillas, scallions and spicy pepitas (see below), and let each guest tear pieces of tortilla off and scoop out queso fundido.
1 cup raw pepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds)
1 tsp. vegetable oil
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tsp. salt
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium high heat, and add pepitas. Toast, tossing or stirring frequently, until pepitas puff and begin to brown (you may have to duck a popping pepita or two in the process). Remove from heat and squeeze with lime juice. Toss. Add cayenne and salt, and toss again. Serve in a bowl as a condiment.