Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Passionate, Culinary Artist from Sinaloa - Babita

When one mentions the term "Mexican food" to the mainstream consciousness, it usually (and unfortunately) connotes big plates of gloppy food: The usual suspects of Enchiladas, Burritos or Tacos, served with a huge side of Spanish Rice and/or Refried Beans. Years ago, when I didn't know any better, that's what I thought was "Mexican food" around L.A.

But then one night, about 5-6 years ago, I dragged my best friend along to a small Mexican restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley that I had heard about. People said that it was "really good, special Mexican cuisine" and I was curious. What proceeded to happen that night was the start of a revelation about what "Mexican cuisine" could be about. I say "start" because that night, we were subjected to some bad service from an inexperienced waiter (who has long since left), but we had some very interesting food: "A Lamb dish at a Mexican restaurant?!" "Where were the Carne Asada Burritos?" I thought to myself back then. Silly me. (^_^;;

Flash-forward to today, and since that eventful night, I've been going back to Babita a few times every year, delighted at the dishes that Chef Roberto Berrelleza has created for his restaurant. A native of Sinaloa, Mexico, Chef Berrelleza was never formally trained in Culinary School. Instead he grew up learning the recipes of his family and his native homeland and from restaurants he worked in. When asked how he would describe his cuisine, he emphatically stated that it was "Creational Cuisine mixed with the Classics." And after eating from Babita over the last 5+ years, I would say that sums it up best.

(Note: This entry is the summation of multiple visits over the last 5-6 years at Babita. :)

On nearly every visit to Babita, I find myself starting off with a glass of their homemade Jamaica (natural drink made from the Hibiscus Flower). Babita's version has been consistently lightly sweet, a little tangy (naturally), fragrant and so refreshing!

Perusing their menu, it's immediately apparent that this isn't a "standard" Mexican restaurant. Their Appetizers immediately reflect the creativity of Chef Berrelleza, with items like Gueritos Rellenos (Stuffed Yellow Chiles with Ceviche of Salmon, Savory Strawberry Sauce), or Cilantro Margarita Sorbet (Tequila Reposado, topped with Snapper Ceviche and Caviar).

On this particular night, we started with something more traditional (and because I was in the mood for some good, fresh Guacamole (^_~)): Babita's Fresh Guacamole is made fresh-to-order, and it's as wholesome and delicious as a version you'd make at home, creamy, buttery, and so fresh.

Their Panuchos Yucatecos (Tostadas with Black Beans, Pollo Pibil, Pickled Cabbage-Onion) come 2 per order, and are giant Fried Tortilla rounds, topped with Black Beans, slow-roasted Chicken, and the house-pickled Cabbage and Red Onions. It's a nice crispy appetizer, with the crunchy texture from the Tortilla round, savory meatiness from the Chicken and Beans, helping balance out the tang from the Pickled Cabbage and Onions. I like the Panuchos from time-to-time, depending on the mood, but if you're not used to it, you may find it slightly overpowering with the amount of Pickled Cabbage and Onions there are. Still a nice dish that's not very common on most menus around L.A.

On this visit, we tried the Fresh Red Snapper Sauteed with Creamy Salsa de Pomegranate. The Red Snapper itself tasted fine, but it felt as if the Snapper was cooked by itself, and the Pomegranate Salsa was added on top just before serving; there was no melding of fish to sauce, which would've made this dish amazing. The house-made Salsa de Pomegranate was delicious - a light, natural fruit sweetness blended into the salsa base - and reflective of the creativity of Chef Roberto.

We also ordered one of my long-time favorites: Cochinita Pibil (Achiote Pork, Baked in Banana Leaves, Served with Pickled Cabbage and Onion). This is a traditional dish from Yucatan, with the Pork slow roasting with Achiote (a seed paste from the Achiote plant). Babita's version is extremely tender Pork, lightly-scented with the Achiote, with a beautiful color and nicely paired with the homemade Tortillas they serve with the dish. The Pickled Cabbage and Onions provide a nice lightly sour contrast as well. Delicious!

On another visit, Chef Berrelleza mentions a few Specials he's serving not on the menu (some of the best dishes at Babita are seasonal specialties, not on the menu :). We decided to try his Duo Soup Special for this evening: On one side of the bowl, a Roasted Guava and Mirepoix Soup(!), and on the other side, a Roasted Carrot Tequila Soup.

It sounded engaging from the moment he spoke about it, and when it arrived, it did not disappoint: The gorgeous aroma from the Roasted Guava wafted towards us before it even reached our table! It was so fragrant, lightly sweet (from the Guava fruit), and the Mirepoix base was a great counterpoint. The Carrot Tequila Soup was also delicious, a little more savory than the Guava, and with the alcohol cooked away, the Tequila residual gave the Carrot Soup a great subtle accent. My companion and I were blown away by this soup!

We also order another favorite, the Tequila-Cured Salmon Sope (Lacing of Beans, Chopped Onion, Cilantro, Cream and Caviar). Usually a simple appetizer with a fried round of cornmeal dough, Chef Berrelleza's version is elevated with his creative twists on the classics. The Tequila-cured Salmon is wonderful, with the savory, strong flavors of the Salmon making a great base for the fresh Cream, Onions and Cilantro, and the Whitefish Caviar.

We also try another Special for that evening: Chile de Oaxaqueno, which really shows off the dedication and creativity of Chef Roberto. It's like a Chile Relleno taken to the next level: He takes an Ancho Chile (peeled and seeded), and stuffs it with a house-made Pork Ragout (slow-roasted Pork, which he hand shreds when it's done, cooked with Tomatoes, Garlic, Onions, Capers, Raisins, Almonds, and a few more ingredients), then egg-battered and fried, before being topped with a special Mole Poblano sauce (which Chef Roberto happily points out is his tribute to both Puebla and Oaxaca (^_^)).

I've had his Chiles en Nogada special before, and this was something very different, and just beautiful in every way! The Chile de Oaxaquena that he's created is simply outstanding! The "Pork Ragout" is so much more than a typical Ragout, with a nice, rich porky savoriness mingling with the sweetness of the Raisins and nuttiness of the Almonds. But it's the creative, fresh Mole Poblano sauce that really sets this dish off: It's wonderfully smoky, spicy (not too "hot," with more emphasis on the beautiful spectrum of spices in general), and not overly sweet like some generic Mole (pronounced "Moh-Leh") sauces can be. My companion wanted to just eat the sauce with some of the complementary, house-made Tortilla Chips; it was that good! :)

We also tried another Daily Special: Lingcod Poached in Pork Fat(!), with Sea Scallop over Pesto Cuitlacoche! This sounded amazing as well, and did not disappoint. The Lingcod was perfectly cooked, extremely moist and flavorful, and poaching in Pork Fat only made things better! (^_~) There was a beautiful, mouth-watering fragrance from this cooking method, and the Sea Scallop was nice and moist as well. And further reflecting the creativity of Chef Roberto was a Pesto sauce made from Cuitlacoche (a Mexican Fungus from the Corn Plant, sometimes referred to as the "Mexican Truffle")! The combination of cooking ideas from two different continents really worked, and the Pesto Cuitlacoche was woodsy, earthy, yet still very much a Pesto which complemented the seafood nicely.

On another visit, we started with the Babita Green Salad (Tomato, Cucumber, Nopales (Prickly Pear Cactus) and Chile Guacamaya Vinaigrette). For some reason, over all my previous visits, I had never ordered either of the Salads on the regular menu. I like Nopales and wanted to try something with it tonight. :) The Salad arrived quickly, and we dug in: The Salad was probably one of the only disappointments I've had at Babita over the years. The Iceberg Lettuce didn't taste very fresh, but the rest of the ingredients were fine (the Tomatoes were really fresh and sweet, and the Cucumbers were refreshing and had a nice crispness). The Nopales were fine, with a slight tang and a good texture / bite. But since Iceberg Lettuce that is not fresh can really pervade and overpower a dish, that's exactly what happened here. Besides that, the salad had a low, slow burn from the Vinaigrette which was nice.

Their Sauteed Colossal Sea Scallops (Over Risotto and Squid Ink Sauce) arrived next. Chef Berrelleza uses a truly gigantic Scallop, and the three that are served with the dish are really meaty, plentiful and tender. The Risotto with Squid Ink Sauce is a great pairing with the Scallops, adding a deep earthy yet briny taste that only Squid Ink can provide. Chef Roberto likes to use whatever seasonal Microherbs work best with his dishes. For tonight, he topped this dish with two Microherbs known as "Bull's Blood" and "Hearts On Fire."

Finally, for this evening, we ordered another long-time favorite: Mixiote Lamb Shank (Marinated in a Chile-Beer Wet Rub, slowly Baked-Steamed in Beer). Generally, the Lamb Shank is extremely tender from the slow cooking, but tonight's order was slightly dried out (only the top portion (about ~25% of it)) with the rest of the Lamb Shank being just as tender as usual. The Lamb Mixiote has a slightly bitter, but savory, fragrant aroma and taste from the Beer and Chile and Spices, along with the inherent lightly gamey taste usually found in Lamb. It's a great dish if you're a Lamb lover, and it shows off a side of Mexican cuisine that's more than just "Carne Asada and Carnitas." (^_~)

One other dish that's a long-time favorite of mine is Babita's version of Chile En Nogada, which Chef Roberto only makes seasonally, when he has all his ingredients in (especially the type of Pomegranates he likes to use). Babita's version of Chile En Nogada basically takes a Poblano Chile, stuffed with a Pork Ragout (slow-cooked Pork with Bone that is deboned and hand-shredded), with fresh Peaches, Apples, Pears, Raisins, Dried Bananas, Walnuts, Pecans, Almonds, Biznaga (Dried, Candied Cactus - so good! :), and then it's egg-battered and fried, before topping with a Goat Cheese Cream Sauce and Pomegranites! It's a wonderful, wonderful, savory and sweet dish that just about sums up Chef Berrelleza's culinary style perfectly. (Note: Chef Roberto hopes to start serving Chile En Nogada in about "2-3 weeks" (whenever his Pomegranates are in season).)

Babita is a very small restaurant, homely and quaint, but you feel right at home. It even has the chef's personal collection of Tequila Bottles lining the walls. :) It only has 10 tables in the dining room, and Chef Roberto's family runs the front of the house. Since that unfortunate first visit over 5+ years ago, now that Chef Roberto's family waits on the tables and runs the front of the house, there haven't been any issues with the service at all. It can be a little slow at times, but they're always mindful to meet your needs in a down-to-earth manner. Appetizers range from $7.50 - 11.95; Entrees from $18.95 - 25.95; and Seafood from $19.95 - 31.95. We usually average about ~$40 - 45 per person (including drinks, tax and tip).

(It should be noted that one criticism some of my friends have felt (and I can understand their point-of-view) is that at these prices, Babita should have better decor and a higher-level of service. I agree with that sentiment, but at the same time, the cute, homely atmosphere adds to the charm of this quiet little eatery, and
after tasting so many of the creative, interesting, lovingly-crafted dishes at Babita, it's a fair price for the great food.)

At Babita, Chef Roberto Berrelleza creates some of the most interesting, creative dishes ever to grace a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles. Chef Roberto tries to come out and greet his guests, every night they're open, to genuinely thank them for coming, and chat with them when possible. In speaking with the chef, you can tell he has a genuine, still-burning passion for cooking, and absolutely *loves* what he's doing. He was telling me about a new dish he was developing, something involving Scallop Ceviche and White Sturgeon Caviar, amongst other ingredients. He then talked about the traditional Mixiote recipes, and how he tried to replicate them but improve on them when appropriate. You could see the Corazon (heart), the Passion in his eyes as he talked about his new ideas and his current menu items. He's a true Culinary Artist, devoted to bringing the best of Mexican cuisine to Los Angeles. Highly recommended.

Rating: 8.6 (out of 10.0)

1823 S. San Gabriel Blvd.
San Gabriel, CA 91776
Tel: (626) 288-7265

Hours: [Lunch] Tues - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
[Dinner] Tues - Thurs, Sun, 5:30 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Fri - Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Closed Mondays.


Anonymous said...

I believe that the perceived "lack" of upscale decor in the front of house is actually a strong validation of the quality of the kitchen and of the chefs... I'd rather they spend money in the larder.

As evinced by so many restaurants in the LA-area, any hack can put a pretty face on a restaurant, but you cannot buy a kitchen with heart.

If a diner is more obssessed with how "pretty" the dining room is rather than how good the food is or how skilled the chef is, that diner will be missing out on some truly great meals.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi anon,

Great comment! :) I totally agree: If given the choice, I would rather have great food with poor decor, than great decor and poor food.

Of course the ideal is to get both, but in the meantime, I'm still enjoying each meal at Babita w/ Chef Roberto. :)

ChristianZ said...

I've been to places (yes, Mexican ones) that had great food and great decor.

Darrell said...

Great review... I'm drooling all over my keyboard LOL. A correction, you must mean Lingcod, not Link Cod fish. It is an ugly fish with a giant head and monster teeth but it tastes so good and tender.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Darrell,

Thanks. :) I hope you make it down to Babita soon (and if you do, let me know how it goes).

Thanks for the clarification on the fish: I had heard of a few recipes that called for "link cod" before, but after your tip, I called up Chef Roberto and clarified the waitress' comments, it was indeed "lingcod". Thanks! :)

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