Editor’s note: With the opening of the Expo Line’s extension to Santa Monica, locals have a new way to explore neighboring areas. The Daily Press will publish a weekly travelogue about what to eat, see and do near each of the stations along the Expo Line, continuing this week at the Jefferson/USC stop.
Don’t worry if you have trouble pronouncing Cnidoscolus aconitifolius. Just call it tree spinach. Better yet, make your way over to Chichen Itza near the University of Southern California, order an agua de chaya and commence wondering where it’s been all your life.
The refreshing bright-green beverage, infused with orange and lime and bearing the color of the shrub after which it is named, offers a glimpse into how this casual but extraordinary Mexican restaurant brings the flavors of the Yucatan Peninsula to life.
Chichen Itza isn’t visible from the Expo Line station at Jefferson/USC, which is close to several notable Los Angeles landmarks. There’s the USC campus itself, home to thousands of students from around the world. There’s the Galen Center, a towering indoor arena where the Trojans have hosted college basketball and volleyball games for the last decade. There’s the nearby Shrine Auditorium, a treasured facility built in the 1920s that has hosted the Academy Awards and numerous other high-profile events. And there’s the Felix Chevrolet dealership, whose iconic sign hovers over the intersection of Figueroa Street and Jefferson Boulevard.
Hiding about a half-mile from the light-rail transit stop is Mercado La Paloma (3655 S. Grand Ave.), which stands off Grand Avenue just east of the Interstate 110 freeway. The former garment factory offers clues as to how the South Figueroa Corridor has changed over the last two decades.
“The area has historically suffered from lack of investment — including a lack of quality jobs and business opportunities, quality gathering spaces, healthy food choices, art and cultural opportunities,” reads an introductory sign in the market.
Starting in the mid-1990s, the Esperanza Community Housing Corporation transformed the former factory into Mercado La Paloma, a multipurpose food court and event venue that neighborhood members cherish.
“It provides opportunities for our local residents,” the sign reads, “and showcases local creativity to the broader Los Angeles community.”
That creativity is perhaps no more evident than at Chichen Itza, where the taste and quality of the food belie the counter-service system through which it is delivered. And in a city where Mexican food is commonplace, even predictable, this eatery stands out with its focus on Yucatecan specialties and its crafty flavor combinations.
The jicama and orange salad makes for an excellent first course, its cilantro and crushed cayenne pepper providing the perfect balance to the sweetness of the fruit.
The delicately constructed panuchos aren’t your average tacos. The corn tortillas are fried, split and filled with black bean paste before being topped with shredded turkey, pickled onions and avocado. They’re crunchy, filling and quickly disappearing.
Chichen Itza is perhaps best known for its cochinita pibil, a beautifully built pile of pork that’s been marinating inside banana leaves with achiote, orange juice and spices. You hardly need the accompanying sides and tortillas — the meat is sensational on its own.
Also worth trying is the pollo asado, which is cooked over mesquite charcoal and juicy beyond belief. The resulting dish has barbecue sensibilities without being smoky, and its flavors pair stupendously with rice, black beans and fried plantains.
All of the food at Chichen Itza can be accentuated by the restaurant’s homemade habanero hot sauce, which is sold to customers by the bottle. A container of the good stuff will be brought to your colorfully tiled table without its cap, an invitation to use it liberally.
After bites you’ve supplemented with a little too much heat, turn to the agua de chaya. Its muted impression of melon and earthy sweetness make it a suitable antidote, almost like a gastronomical aloe. Indeed, it’s certainly more soothing than your pronunciation of Cnidoscolus aconitifolius will ever be.
The Expo Line now has 19 stations covering 15.2 miles between Downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica. A regular one-way fare is $1.75 and includes two hours of free transfers for riders using a TAP card. A daily pass good for unlimited rides on Metro is $7 and monthly passes are $100. Visit taptogo.net for more information.