Monday, March 30, 2009

A Journey to Yucatan: The New Seasonal Menu of Chichen Itza

*** Update: Chichen Itza's 6th Street Location has shuttered. Their original Mercado location is still open however: 3655 S Grand Ave #C6, Los Angeles, CA 90007. Tel (213) 741-1075

Years ago, when I first had my eyes opened by what "Mexican food" could be - beyond the ubiquitous "combination plates" of enchiladas, burritos and the like - I began asking around in the hopes of finding more places that offered Mexican specialty or regional cuisine. The second place that I eventually tried was Chichen Itza, restaurant focusing on the cuisine of the state of Yucatan, Mexico, which was just mind-blowing to someone who had previously only experienced the standard, typical offerings around town. Years later, I find myself continually revisiting this Yucatecan specialist a few times a year (and I figure it's about time to catch up on some of the places I take for granted :).

Chichen Itza's original location on Grand Avenue opened up about 8 years ago, by Chef Gilberto Cetina, who learned many of the classic recipes from his mother while growing up in Yucatan. His son Chef Gilberto Cetina Jr., learned the core recipes from his father and serves as the Executive Chef-Owner at their more relaxed, full-service location on 6th Street.

Chichen Itza's 6th Street location features simple, clean decor, with warm tones to help with a consistently pleasant dining experience.

On this particular visit, we're greeted with their trademark complementary Chips and Salsa, only Chichen Itza's version has their Tortilla Chips topped with their housemade Frijol Colado (Black Bean Puree) and Pico de Gallo Salsa. It's slightly messy, but so addictive as the clean, earthy flavors of the Frijol Colado really matches perfectly with the Chips. :)

And for a little bit of heat, they also serve a housemade Habanero Salsa, which is simply explosive, lightly smoky and delicious.

We start off with their Antojito Sampler featuring four of their most popular Yucatan Appetizers: Panucho, Salbut, Kibi and Codzito.

Their Panucho (Handmade Crispy Corn Tortilla, Black Bean Puree, Shredded Turkey, Tomato, Pickled Red Onions and Avocado) has been consistently delicious and today's visit is no different, with a very *fresh*, clean-tasting Shredded Turkey (tasting like it was made that morning - which is sadly not the case with many restaurants around town), which pairs nicely with the slightly tart Pickled Red Onions, Tomatoes and the fresh Avocado. The Crispy Tortilla provides the perfect textural contrast for this simple appetizer.

Their Salbut is almost the same as the Panucho, except that it features a Soft, Fluffy Handmade Corn Tortilla topped with the same Shredded Turkey, Tomatoes, Pickled Red Onions and Avocado. While I enjoy the softness of the fluffy Corn Tortilla, the crunchy crispy contrast of the Panucho is more enticing.

Their Kibi (Fried Ground Beef and Cracked Wheat Patties, Seasoned with Mint and other Spices, topped with Yucatecan Pickled Red Onions) is one appetizer I enjoy but some of my guests have had mixed reactions to it. According to the menu, the Kibi were brought to the Yucatan by Lebanese immigrants over a century ago, and the result is an interesting dish with the Fried Ground Beef and Cracked Wheat Patties tasting similar to a Latin American version of Bratwurst crossed with Corned Beef. It's tart and savory, and has a very clean meat flavor.

The Codzitos (Petite Crispy Taquitos served with a Light Tomato Sauce and topped with Baby Edam Cheese) has always been puzzling for me. Every time I've ordered this dish (about 5-7 times), it has unfortunately been extremely dense and hard, tasting almost as if the Taquito was stale (but it tasted fresh). It's just really hard to break through. The Tomato Sauce and Baby Edam Cheese is a nice pairing and impart great flavors, but the Taquitos themselves are frustratingly too dense to enjoy.

The last component of their Antojitos Sampler would be some straightforward Fried Plantain Slices, which have been consistently good, lightly sweet and addictive. :)

Chef Cetina's version of the classic Yucatecan Poc Chuc (Thinly Sliced Marinated Pork, Charbroiled and Garnished with Fire Roasted Tomato Sauce, Pickled Red Onions) arrives with a good char and smokiness that lends itself to the Pork Slices. Over the years, this dish has been slightly inconsistent at times, with some visits resulting in a slightly over-charred dish (so that the smokey quality overpowers the Pork), while most of the time, it's been right on.

The accompanying Chorizo Sausage is very intense and extremely salty. It's an acquired taste and one that I still haven't quite mastered over my multiple visits.

But perhaps the most famous dish from Yucatan and at Chichen Itza would be the Cochinita Pibil (Long-Cooked Pork Marinated with Achiote, Sour Orange Juice and other Spices, Cooked in Banana Leaves). Chef Cetina Jr. marinates the Pork for over 12 hours before baking it in the Banana Leaves for 5 hours before serving.

The result is a nice dish of soft, tender Pork Chunks, slightly tart from the Orange Juice, with a fragrant tone from the Achiote and other spices. While I enjoy Chichen Itza's version more than Babita's, it loses out to La Flor de Yucatan's delicious version (which unfortunately is Take-Out Only (
special thanks to Dommy for the rec! :)), so if you're in the mood for Cochinita Pibil in a sit-down experience, Chichen Itza is still one of the better choices in L.A.

On a side note, I love their handmade, wooden tortilla serving bowls. :)

On another visit, the waitress is offering each table a second type of Salsa: a new Roasted Habanero Salsa that Chef Cetina was experimenting with in the kitchen. While their standard Habanero Salsa is already fiery, it is nothing in comparison to trying just a *dab* of this new chunky Roasted Habanero Salsa, which is probably the second most spicy item I've ever tried in my life; it was ridiculously hot, but *so* smoky and enticing... too bad my entire mouth was on fire within seconds. :) It's something that only Spicy Food Lovers should attempt. :)

While Chichen Itza makes their own Horchata (Rice, Almond and Cinnamon Drink) and Jamaica (Cold Hibiscus Tea), their Agua de Guanabana (Soursop Juice) stands out the most. Guanabana is at once sweet and tropical (with subtle notes of pineapple-like flavors) as well as a touch tart. Simply refreshing.

We begin with their Xcatic Relleno de Atun (Mild Blonde Chiles Stuffed with Albacore Tuna, Battered and Pan Fried, served with a Tomato Sauce with Onions and Epazote).

This is a nice twist on the more commonly found Chile Relleno, but with fully cooked through Tuna, it becomes a touch too dense and flaky. The Onion-Tomato Sauce is light enough, but it's the light sprinkling of fresh Epazote (also known as Wormseed) that gives this dish a nice, fragrant herbal edge.

Our server also shows us their personal Epazote and Chaya Plants on the way out.

During one visit, Chef Gilberto is tinkering in the kitchen and offers up an amuse-bouche to every table: Roasted Red Bell Pepper Soup. It's easy to take Bell Peppers for granted, but this particular soup is simply delicious with a focused, garlicky and creamy soup that celebrates the flavors of the Bell Pepper.

We continue with another popular dish: Puerco en Pipian Verde (Pork Tenderloin Medallions Simmered in a rich Pumpkin Seed Green Mole Sauce).

The Pumpkin Seed Green Mole Sauce is delightful, smooth and creamy and surprisingly fragrant. It complements the Pork Tenderloin perfectly.

But perhaps even more delectable than that dish is their Queso Relleno (A ball of Baby Edam Cheese carved out and filled with Raisin, Almond, Caper-flavored Ground Pork, served with a Tomato & White Sauce).

Chef Cetina Jr. imports in El Gallo Azul, a Dutch Cheese made in Holland exclusively for the state of Yucatan, which serves as the basis for his Queso Relleno.

The Queso Relleno turns out to use a mild cheese, and the Ground Pork with Almonds, Raisins and Capers establishes a great center for the dish, a mix of the savory and nutty-sweet. But it's the gentle White Sauce that serves as the real star of this dish: An absolutely delicious blend of Chicken Broth, Romaine Lettuce, Radish Leaves, Serrano Peppers, Yellow Bell Peppers, Peanuts, Tomatillos, Olives, Capers, Masa, Tomatoes, Garlic and Onions. The result is a satiny, smooth sauce that caresses the tongue and taste buds as you take each bite. Excellent!

On a recent visit, we try out Chichen Itza's Tasting Menu, which is being offered at a reasonbly low price of $35 per person.

For the first course, Chef Cetina Jr. starts us off with Sopa de Chaya (Light Chicken Broth with Chaya Leaves and Sliced Carrot). This is a different preparation from their usual Crema de Chaya Soup, which is a creamier, thicker version of the soup. The Sopa de Chaya is a purer, cleaner version, using a fresh Chicken Broth base, and the freshly picked Chaya Leaves and Stems from their Chaya Plants at the restaurant. According to Chef Cetina Jr., this dish is believed to have medicinal healing properties as he recalled his grandmother making Chaya Soup whenever someone in the family was feeling sick.

The second course arrives soon after: Empanada de Carne Molida (Ground Beef in a Corn Dough Turnover, served with Tomato Sauce and crumbled Baby Edam Cheese).

Chef Gilberto mentions that this is like an inside-out Chile Relleno, with the Baby Edam Cheese and Sauce on the outside, covering the Corn Turnover and Ground Beef. The Baby Edam Cheese and Tomato Sauce are delicious, but it's the light crunchiness of the Turnover and the fresh-tasting Ground Beef within that help bring the whole dish together.

The third course is an intersting dual presentation: Ceviche Mixto y Pulpo en Su Tinta (Shrimp, Fish and Octopus Ceviche. Octopus simmered in Octopus Ink Sauce).

I begin with the Ceviche Pulpo (Octopus) side. The Octopus is well-cooked, nice and tender without being rubbery, however the Octopus Ink is just intense. Extremely briny and tasting like the bad parts of the ocean, this is just too overwhelming, even though it's only a bite-sized piece.

The Ceviche Mixto (Shrimp, Mero (Grouper), Octopus Ceviche) fares much better. The Camarones, Mero and Pulpo are beautifully soft and tender while still maintaining aspects of its original texture and firmness. And the whole thing gives way with the gentlest bite, cooked through by the citric acid. Excellent!

Our next course arrives nicely-paced, soon after: Arroz con Mejillones y Azafran (Bomba Rice flavored with Saffron and Mussels).

This dish reflects the Spanish influence in Chef Gilberto's cooking, with the Bomba Rice cooked in Chicken, Shrimp and Tomato Broth, combining with the beautiful, seductive notes of Saffron mixed in with the Garlic and Cilantro and New Zealand Mussels to create Chichen Itza's version of a Paella-like dish.

Our fifth course falters a bit: Pescado con Sopa Borracha (Pan Seared Halibut served on top of Corn Tortilla and Black Bean Puree Mash).

The problem with this dish starts with the star protein: The Halibut is overcooked, seared for too long, so that it's pretty dry and chunky in texture and taste. Mixing in the housemade Mash of Pumpkin Seeds, Olives, Tomatoes, Corn Tortillas and Black Bean Puree help to generate a much more interesting flavor with good nuttiness and slightly sour and sweet notes, but it still can't hide the overcooked Halibut, unfortunately.

Fortunately, the sixth course bounces back nicely: Pipian de Venado (Venison Cutlets simmered in a Pumpkin Seed, Tomatillo and Achiote Mole Sauce).

It's nice to get Venison in a Mexican specialty restaurant and I was really looking forward to the dish: Chef Gilberto sears the Venison before adding it with the chunk Tomatillo, Onions, Garlic, Lettuce, Pumpkin Seeds, Peanuts and other spices to stew and combine together.

While the flavors combine nicely with the protein (and it's something I had hoped Monte Alban would do with their Chicken and various Mole Sauces), here, the Venison becomes slightly tough (not bad, but it would be even better if it were still medium-rare or medium for tenderness and juiciness), but the positive trade-off is that the Venison really soaks up more of this sauce throughout the meat.

And the Pepita (Pumpkin Seed), Achiote and Tomatillo Mole Sauce is delicious with a familiarity (from the Tomatillo, Onions and Garlic), a fragrant nuttiness from the Peanuts and Pumpkin Seeds, but also a new flavor profile from the Achiote and other spices Chef Gilberto is using in his recipe.

Our final course is homemade dessert: Helado de Mamey con Pastelitos de Atropellado (Mamey Sapote Ice Cream served with Sweet Potato and Coconut Turnovers).

This is the first time I've had Mamey Sapote, and its flavors come shining through in their housemade Ice Cream: It's almost like a more exotic Yam or Sweet Potato flavor but with an inherent fragrance that goes beyond the earthiness of those either of those two items. All of my guests and I enjoyed this new flavor. :)

The Sweet Potato and Coconut Turnovers, however, are a touch too thick and doughy: There's a slight taste of undercooked dough, but the Sweet Potato and Coconut filling is pure and straightforward, helping to make it a bit more pleasant.

Overall, it was an enjoyable Yucatecan Tasting Menu, and a nice way to spend a dinner with friends. :)

On the most recent visit, Chef Gilberto has just debuted some new Seasonal Menu Items (they'll be trying to rotate in new dishes every 3-4 months, tying in with the seasons according to our server).

We start with another popular and classic dish at Chichen Itza: Camaron al X'catic (Large, Black Tiger Shrimp cooked in a Spicy Chipotle-Habanero Sauce, with Chunky Tomato and Blonde Chile Salsa).

One bite and it's easy to see why this dish is so popular: The Chipotle and Habanero blend establishes an immediately arresting fiery smokiness, a sexy enticing flavor that never lets go. But it's not overwhelmingly spicy, and the Olive Oil, Milk and the Shrimp itself help to balance things out. One other note is that the Shrimp tastes fine (clearly frozen Shrimp (which is common)), but not as fresh as the Mazatlan Shrimp that Mariscos Chente has been using in its Shrimp dishes (it's just something to appreciate after visiting Chente so often).

One of the new Menu items is Tacos de Bistec (Two Soft Angus New York Steak Tacos, with Black Bean Puree and Pico de Gallo, served with Confetti Rice and Fried Plantains). This is essentially their regular menu item - Bistec a la Yucateca (Whole Angus New York Steak) - in a more affordable Taco incarnation.

The Angus New York Steak is grilled to perfection: Lightly smoky with good grill marks, and the quality Angus New York Steak provides a good foundation; very tender and juicy. :) The Pickled Cabbage, Tomatoes and Avocado are a great complement to the Bistec.

Chichen Itza also makes their own Artisan Bread in-house, for all their Torta Sandwiches. Their Torta de Pollo Asado (Charbroiled Chicken Breast marinated in Achiote and Sour Orange Juice, with Lettuce, Tomato, Pickled Red Onions, Pico de Gallo, Avocado and Black Bean Dip on handmade Pan Frances Bread) is delightfully fresh.

The homemade Bread is soft, with a good chew (a touch too doughy for my tastes, but only a little). Their Pollo Asado is even better: The Chicken is refreshingly fresh (it's surprising just how many places use leftover Chicken /other meats), with a light touch of tart from the Achiote Paste with some notes of Cumin and other spices, while not being overpowered by it all.

The Side Salad is a bit too sour for my tastes, using some of the Sour Orange Juice (that's used in Yucatecan cooking) to make a vinaigrette that unfortunately dominates the entire salad.

Another new Seasonal Menu item is their Pollo en Pipian Rojo (Chicken Breast simmered in a Pumpkin Seed, Tomato and Achiote Mole Sauce).

This is a nice contrast to their regular Puerco en Pipian Verde (Pork Tenderloin in a Pumpkin Seed Green Mole Sauce). The new Pipian Rojo is much more mild and creamy, very smooth and lightly sweet, with a touch of tartness as well from the addition of the Tomatoes and Achiote. The only disappointment is something similar I've noticed at Monte Alban as well: The Chicken Breast isn't cooked with the Pumpkin Seed, Tomato and Achiote Mole Sauce long enough, so that the Chicken doesn't have enough of the sauce flavor throughout.

They've also added a Camaron al Cilantro (Black Tiger Shrimp with a Creamy Cilantro Sauce) dish to the menu, as well as a new rotation for Soup of the Day (with more Yucatecan classics supposedly).

The service at Chichen Itza has been pretty straightforward: They usually have one or two servers taking care of the entire restaurant (it's pretty small, so it's not too bad), with a busboy or two to back them up. Food has always been relatively quick to arrive to the table so no complaints there. Prices range from $2.99 - $15.99, with the Tasting Menu being $35 per person. We usually average about ~$25 - $30 per person, including tax and tip.

Note that the Tasting Menu requires a 48 Hour advanced notice.

Chichen Itza is a quality restaurant bringing Yucatecan cuisine to L.A. It's nice to have a specialist that brings some of the classic dishes of Yucatan in a relaxed, comfy setting. While the cuisine may not be for everyone - I've taken guests here that have never had Yucatecan cuisine and some of them didn't enjoy the tartness in some of the dishes and the overall flavor profile as much as others - it's refreshing to experience regional Mexican cuisine that rises above the usual mainstream connotations of what "Mexican food" is all about. It's not amazing, but it's comfortable, interesting at times, and a nice break from the more popular generalized Mexican cuisine.

Rating: 7.9 (out of 10.0)

*** Update: This 6th Street location has closed. :( Their original Mercado location is still open:

Chichen Itza

3655 S Grand Ave #C6
Los Angeles, CA 90007
Tel (213) 741-1075

Chichen Itza Restaurant (CLOSED)
2501 W. 6th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90057
Tel: (213) 380-0051

Hours: [Lunch] Tues - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.
[Dinner] Tues - Sun, 6:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Closed Mondays.


weezermonkey said...

I love Babita, so I'm excited to try Chichen Itza. It's so close to me!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi WeezerMonkey,

I hope you like Chichen Itza! :) Please let me know how it goes if you end up going. :)

Nanette said...

Always enjoy Chichen Itza. Looking forward to the tasting menu!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Nanette,

Hope you enjoy the tasting menu! :) Let me know how it turns out.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin