Hidden gems and overrated stars

Big cities often hide precious gems. The colorful “Mercado La Paloma” is for sure one of the finest I have been able to discover in Los Angeles.  It is located in the Figueroa Corridor of South Los Angeles – very close to the University of Southern California – a difficult area which for long suffered (and still suffers) from a lack of jobs and cultural opportunities, community services and offer of quality food. In 1999 in response to the suggestion of some residents, a former factory of garments has been converted into a vibrant community gathering space. The Mercado – it currently hosts 14 businesses, providing 200 jobs – is now consideres a best practice in community revitalization that provides opportunities for residents and showcases local creativity to the broader Los Angeles area. Mercado La Paloma hosts shops and restaurants and it’s also home to six non-profit humanitarian organizations.

The gastronomic side of the Mercado is possibly the most interesting and successful. Among the different restaurants and bars which offer a wide variety of food and drinks, I would mention in particular three of them which I consider really special.

“Oaxacalifornia” fuses Oaxacan taste with California style. It serves colorful homemade agua frescas, fresh squeezed juices, Oaxacan tortas (delicious pressed sandwiches), and clayudas (Oaxacan pizzas). “Chichen Itza” is a corner of  Yucatan. They prepare traditional dishes such as cochinita pibil, papadzul or fantastic banana leaf wrapped tamales. Chef and owner Gilberto Cetina, has been recognized as one of the top Latino chefs in the country. Finally, the real star of the market, Mo-Chica offering traditional and modern Peruvian dishes. Ceviches are obviously great but my favorite is the unusual “estofado de alpaca“. Mo-Chica has received excellent reviews from food critics and Food and Wine Magazine selected chef and owner Ricardo Zarate as one of top ten best new chefs of 2011. Well, after that Ricardo Zarate decided to move to a new trendier location in Downtown L.A. which is fair enough and understandable. Still I wish he will not trade his soul and will keep his cuisine as rigorous and neat as it’s been at La Paloma.

I hope he will not become one of those overrated and overpriced stars as for example the one I have come across last night. I refer to the highly acclaimed Spanish Chef José Andres of The Bazaar Restaurant in Beverly Hills, a trendy place to see and to be seen. He’s a guru of molecular cuisine, which I admit is not my favorite. Still, the experience in his spectacularly decorated restaurant was deceiving. In comparison to other avant-garde chefs he gave me the impression to lack creativity by simply presenting in a nicer way, classic Spanish tapas preparations. Everything is good but portions are minimal and in any case not worthy the high price he asks for. However, to be fully honest I have to admit that his re-interpretation of an American classic as the “Philly Steak and Cheese Sandwich” was awesome.

Ricardo Zarate, I hope you read these lines.



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