There’s a restaurant in Sherman Oaks where my family has been going for maybe 10 years, a Mexican restaurant called Tony’s Mexican Grill. We call it Mexican just like we call nearby Taste of India Indian. With the way they’ve named their restaurants, the owners aren’t helping us be culturally or regionally sensitive in describing their food. This is common wherever food is sold far from its origins, so it’s super common in LA. It’s especially hard to imagine Taste of India, excellent and varied as it is, representing the cuisine of more than a billion people.
El Tapatío makes no such claims. Tapatío is to Jalisco as chilango is to DF, i.e. a Jaliscan man can also be called a tapatío. It’s Jalisco’s gentilicio, an everyday word here in Mexico whose English translations, demonym and gentilic, are so obscure they stump even dictionary.com. El Tapatío is a Jalisco-style restaurant that serves beans, tortillas, and meat. The menu has 4 main courses: ribs, marinated flank steak, pozole, and goat meat soup. That’s it.
My first time in El Tapatío was with Maura during one of her lunch breaks. We met on the street and walked down Antonio Caso, past our favorite tacos and about 10 minutes further to a quiet part of the neighborhood. Like most restaurants in Mexico this one has no doors, save for a big rolling sheet of corrugated metal. When these sheets are lowered at night they can black out an entire street, rendering it featureless as though it were a long line of machine shops. In the day with the door rolled up out of sight Tapatío’s entrance spans the width of the restaurant. Sitting at your table and looking out to the sunny street produces a nice, open sensation. The walls are tiled teal, bathroom tile like in Progreso. When I went in with Maura they reminded me very strongly of something, which later came to me as my mom’s old bathroom and the tiles above the tub and in the shower. We sat in the back corner, away from the big bright steel table that seats about half the people in the restaurant, and Maura ordered: a plate of arrachera, 2 bowls of beans, nopal and an extra quesadilla.
The arrachera is my favorite, followed by the birria and pozole, and then the ribs. When Maura asked for just one plate I imagined we’d soon be ordering again, but I was wrong. Arrachera is trimmed, tenderized and marinated flank steak which I’ve eaten several times in DF, but nowhere as delicious as it is here. It’s reasonably thick and truly big, meat across the whole plate. It’s salty but not excessively so. Despite being cooked the whole way through it’s juicy with marinade, and does well to conserve a bit of beef’s raw flavor. The birria, a goat meat consomé, is more flavorful than the arrachera, and would be my favorite were it not so much less filling. The meat is cooked overnight in a huge pot with diced onion, chiles and a bunch of spices. The resultant soup looks like chili, dark with golden iridescent fat on the surface. The broth, only mildly spicy, is soaked through with the flavor of the meat. I don’t remember ever having eaten goat in the states, but I recognized the flavor and immediately mistook it for mutton. It’s a semi-raw and humid flavor that fills the throat and nasal passages, goat fumes. The meat retains texture and bit of chewiness even after stewing overnight. It’s nice to dip tortillas in the broth, but the precious meat is best savored by itself. The costilla is the driest of the meats, a thin expansive landscape of fried beef shaped like Mexico (or more Africa, or less Texas). It looks a bit anemic compared with the dark hefty arrachera, but compensates with rich fat deposits along the bone. This is by far the best part, getting a bite of crunchy fried fat mixed with muscle, salty, beefy and rich. Away from the bone the meat is unfortunately a little tough and dry.
The other half of a meal at Tapatío consists of tortillas and beans. The tortillas are corn, big, smooth and thick, and very fresh. Before the meat arrives I roll them up with salsa de chipotle and dip them in the beans, frijoles de olla served in broth. The salsa, made with smoked jalapeños, is dark red and lumpy with seeds and the guts of chiles. Its flavor is great, cool and a bit salty and then slow smoky heat. The beans improve as the meal progresses and salsa left behind by tortillas spices the broth. The lard in the broth leaves a momentary coat on my mouth that dissolves in a spicy prickle. Hmm… I wonder why I don’t dump in salsa right in the beginning. The arrachera comes with a quesadilla, and the costilla with a hot oily nopal. Beer is served in bottles, and on weekends there is soccer on TV.
Aside from some hired hands who make tortillas, and do prep work and cleaning, the restaurant is run by a husband and wife and their two sons. It’s busiest during lunch, between 2 and 5, but it never gets crazy, and the limited menu must make things easier. Last weekend I went in for dinner and afterwards had an opportunity to sit and talk with the señor. He’s a thin and elegant man who moves slowly and walks with a slight stoop. That night the air was pretty warm and he wore a striped button shirt with short sleeves and a white bowler hat, woven like a sombrero, from under which appear his neat gray sideburns. His eyes are blue and his complexion and features are European. He was friendly and frank, and the things he said really got me thinking.
The restaurant has been there on Serapio Rendón since 1970, when it was opened by Eriberto’s grandparents. In the 16th year there was drama when they caught some of the workers stealing money, and they fired everyone and brought in relatives to help run things for awhile. The restaurant later passed to Eriberto’s parents, and now to him and his wife, Andrea. When I asked him what part she plays in everything, he was unequivocal: “Ella es el causante, el culpable de todo. Le da todo el sazón.” He then proceeded to tell me some of his thoughts on cooking and running a business.
The menu at Tapatío has been the same for 40 years, as has the butcher’s shop where they buy their beef. Eriberto’s exposure to cooking came from watching his mom. He was attracted to the kitchen from a young age and he says curiosity is the main reason he knows how to cook today. For him inheriting the restaurant was natural, but he’s not so sure it’ll be the same with his sons, Fernando and Gabriel. Fernando is thin and handsome like Eriberto. I had met him in the restaurant a week before, and had arranged to come back and do an interview with him. In the end I think I lucked out doing it with his father. He mused briefly, “I don’t know if they’ll take over. They’re younger, and young people now get new ideas.” I smiled and thought, “Don’t I know it…”
I asked if the recession was hurting business, and he conceded it was harder to get new customers. “Still,” he said, “if you have a good product people come no matter what times are like. Bad owners, their restaurants fold. When business is bad or customers leave they just fold their arms. They don’t know their business, or they take too much money out of it. Some of them don’t even eat their own food. There have been lots of restaurants around here, and I try all of them. Most of them don’t last. Now with me, I eat my own food,” he says, “although I don’t eat it every day. That much meat is unhealthy.”
While I listened I thought what he said was generic and simple, and I couldn’t help feeling some disappointment. But I realized that generic doesn’t have to be negative; his story was generic insofar as it was genuinely traditional, and that actually makes it rare. There are no secrets… He runs his business responsibly and is content to be an expert in his field without seeking to expand it. Innovation is not his goal. The food he cooks is his birthright.
With regard to the fickleness of today’s youth, it’s nothing new in urban America. It’s been true for a couple of generations at least, and it’s definitely true for me. In America we have experts of all stripes, but we aren’t born into our expertise, we don’t inherit it. We study on our own, we go to college or cooking school as the case may be, we earn it. What follows probably applies to any skill passed from parent to child, but I’ll limit it to cooking. Imagine a young American who goes to cooking school, works in restaurants for 10 years, and finally opens his own. He’s an expert, and his food is unquestionably good. It’s gourmet. Then imagine Eriberto and Andrea and their decades of experience, and their restaurant which has been successful for 40 years, pleasing palates in a country with an old and vibrant food culture. After living a bit in Mexico to even think of the word gourmet to describe their food is absurd, especially with regard to the price. But to be honest, exotic ingredients aside, gourmet’s not such a bad word after all.
El Tapatío, Serapio Rendón 88, Colonia San Rafael
Open every day 12-10pm