Mis Ángeles: A Legendary Restaurant in Southeast LA Survives, For Now
La Casita Mexicana's cochinita pibil haunts me.
There was a year of my life when I had it almost weekly. And each time, the fluid way the shimmering pork pulled apart into my pink or green or yellow tortilla made me view food the way chefs Jaime and Ramiro do.
They call it "comida de apapacho" because it's the kind of meal you want to cuddle and hug and be best friends with.
In the middle of March, chefs and owners Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu shut the critically acclaimed Bell restaurant all the way down because of the pandemic, and I've been missing one of my best friends ever since.
La Casita Mexicana has served the Southeast L.A. community for nearly 25 years, but its thick wooden doors have been sealed to the public for the past five months. I was starting to get worried. So I put my mask on and went over there a few weeks ago to chat with the chefs about how they are surviving when so many restaurants are closing their doors forever.
THE INFAMOUS CITY OF BELL
As soon as I exited the 710 Freeway, I started thinking about tiny Bell, a city made infamous by Pulitzer Prize winning coverage about rampant corruption by city officials.
In high school, I used to visit Bell often to see a girl who was studying at a cosmetology academy school there. She once tried to convince me to dine-and-dash at El Pescador. I let her go first. Then I paid the bill and lied to her about it.
As an adult, I often come to Bell to eat. There are a lot of quality restaurants here and some of that is thanks to the success of places like Casita Mexicana.
In the late '90s, when Jaime and Ramiro opened Casita on a large plot of land along a busy stretch of Gage Boulevard, it was gang territory controlled by crews with names like Lomitas and Crazy Wicked. "Somehow," chef Jaime once told me, "we won the cholos over."
The working class families that lived in the area also needed to be convinced to give Casita Mexicana a chance. They were used to eating inexpensive meals consisting of $5 burritos or a few $1 tacos. Instead, Casita Mexicana sold some of Mexico's finest dishes, like the pibil, or their lauded chile en nogada, each in the $20 range.
"I have nothing against tacos and burritos, I love to eat tacos, but I remember telling Ramiro, 'I'd rather go bankrupt than sell burritos,'" Jaime recalled.
The dishes Jaime and Ramiro sold came straight from their grandmothers' and moms' kitchens. Recipes like their mole poblano, which takes several dozen quality ingredients transformed by fires and blades before they are stirred together for hours. It didn't take too long for the community to see the value of Mexican food made by expert hands.
It wasn't just Latino immigrants and Latinx millennials that recognized the quality. The late food critic Jonathan Gold frequently lavished Jaime and Ramiro with praise. The duo was also a finalist for a James Beard Award and an early fixture on cooking shows.
It got to where you'd see Teslas and BMWs parked outside Casita Mexicana, while men in business suits, who made the trip across town, ate Veracruz-style fish fillets wrapped in corn husks. But that feels like a lifetime ago.
LA CASITA MEXICANA IN FLUX
I pulled up to Casita Mexicana a few Mondays ago and was surprised to find parking so easily.
Through the large glass windows, I could see the tables were all moved around and had chairs on top of them. The big refrigerators were rolled out of the kitchen, blocking the main hallway. There wasn't a single person visible to me.
I knocked and the door opened a little. Naturally, I walked in and heard someone singing along to a radio in the kitchen. I walked over and poked my head in through a dining room-facing window. There was no one. I realized the sounds were coming from high above me. I twisted my head around to see someone painting near the high ceiling.
Suddenly I heard a voice behind me and saw George Bejarano, Casita's executive manager. As is the custom during this pandemic, we awkwardly waved from a distance. It was quiet and a little sad in a way I've never seen the place.
Then Jaime and Ramiro came bursting through the door carrying bags of rotisserie chicken and a whole lot of color and energy.
"Hola, Erick. Cómo estás?," they yelled almost in unison. I could tell they wanted to hug me. And I wanted to hug them, but instead we did the next best thing: we ate.
I sat with the chefs for two hours eating grocery store chicken, rice, beans, and salsa. They told me how they have been posting iPhone videos of themselves cooking at home on Facebook, where they've gotten millions of views. They said they had deep-cleaned the restaurant and remodeled the kitchen themselves with the help of family and a few employees.
It was the first time in my life that I'd had a conversation with these two lifelong best friends and not had one of their delicious creations to nourish us.
No pibil. No famous chile en nogada. No perfect chilaquiles con café de olla. It didn't matter. After a generation of pouring everything they had into Casita Mexicana, all we needed was a conversation to have our comida de apapacho.
KEEPING THE LEGACY ALIVE
When I spoke with Ramiro over the phone about swinging by his restaurant, he told me they might reopen by building a patio on the backlot of La Casita. L.A. County had just begun to reopen and the current infection spikes we are seeing now had not fully begun.
L.A. County restaurants are only permitted to remain open as take-out, delivery, or if they have outdoor dining.
A week later, when I finally showed up, the picture was a lot different. Jaime believed the reopening would be cost-prohibitive. He leaned back in a chair and said, "We wouldn't be able to hire anyone. It would just be us cooking and serving and still losing money. Even just on getting this place up to the new code. I mean, you should see the regulations. It's like a novel."
Before they closed down, Jaime and Ramiro had converted the gift shop at the front of the restaurant into a bar, and they were preparing to sell Casita Mexicana label wine from Baja California's famed Valle de Guadalupe.
"We were busier than ever," manager George assured me. "I'd have to check the books, but we were selling thousands of dollars of food each night."
George said that Casita Mexicana has contributed millions in sales tax to Bell and millions more to the state and federal government.
"But our expenses are really high," chef Jaime explained. "We did the math, and staying open for delivery or take-out would actually cost us more money than we'd take in."
Ramiro said they were forced to act quickly to save the restaurant, and that meant cutting their 16-person team of full-time staff down to just two people on an on-call basis.
"First we let the staff know, and it really broke our hearts, but we didn't have any way to pay them," Ramiro told me.
They had a ton of prepared food and ingredients to think about too. "We gave most of it away to the staff and their families," Jaime said.
They made a payment arrangement with their landlord, who was very understanding, they said. They also applied for a PPP loan -- which they told me was still pending. And then Jaime and Ramiro became unemployed for the first time since coming to the U.S. in the early '80s.
I asked the chefs if the thought of closing Casita Mexicana and retiring ever crossed their minds. Jaime gave me an emphatic, "Never." Ramiro told me the idea of retiring had entered his mind, "pero primero tenemos que asegurarnos que la Casita sigue para siempre."
First, he said, they need to make sure Casita Mexicana can live on forever.
"And we are going to do it," Jaime said. "We will make it through this like we made it through all the tough times before."
I looked around the room and saw the resolve in their faces even as these two lovers of food lose their life savings fighting to keep their love child alive. I took a tiny piece of room-temperature chicken with a cold factory-made tortilla and tried to imagine it was their melty cochinita pibil.
If they believe, I believe, I thought to myself, because I want to live in a world where places like Casita Mexicana can live on forever.
'GRACIAS A DIOS'
A few weeks later on a Friday afternoon, as I was preparing to write about the looming demise of one of Southeast L.A.'s culinary giants, I got a phone call from Ramiro.
"Gracias a Dios, aquí estamos," he said. Thank God, here we are. He was thankful because they finally got approved for a small business loan. He told me they were using it to prepare to meet all the regulations and open with an outdoor dining patio and a small staff.
"We are finally able to execute our plans," Ramiro said. "Thank God that loan came in, because it was the only reason we are still here right now."
"We should be opening in a couple weeks, and we want to invite you to the reopening."
They don't have an official date yet, but whenever it is that they open, I'm going to be at La Casita Mexicana eating slow roasted pork and drinking red wine from El Valle de Guadalupe.
If they believe, I believe.
About the Mis Ángeles column: Erick Galindo is chronicling life in Los Angeles for LAist. He took on this role after serving as our immigrant communities reporter. Erick came to us last year from LA Taco, where he was the managing editor of a James Beard award-winning staff.
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