It was too good to be true, and too good to last. As 1984 came to an end, so did the business person's lunch at El Meson, a Mexican restaurant across from the May Co. in downtown Los Angeles.
For a few months, lucky customers were able to get a complete, very good meal for $2.75. First came crisp, freshly made tortilla chips topped with a tomato, onion and cilantro salsa. Then came the main course, accompanied by rice, beans, tortillas, an orange wedge or other fruit and a small bowl of vegetable soup ladled out of the cocido pot. The soup was wonderful, with that rich flavor that Mexican cooks extract from the simplest ingredients.
Changing Dishes The main dish changed from day to day. One time it was tortas de carne, which were light-textured patties of ground beef in a tomato sauce flavored with green pepper and onion. Another day it was picadillo-- ground beef with green pepper, potato, zucchini, carrot and onion. Still another day, it was a chicken leg accompanied by creamy mashed potatoes instead of beans. And other times the main course was albondigas soup.
If $2.75 seems cheap for such a meal, it was actually an inflated price, up from the original $2.50. The lunch did not fail for economic reasons as one might expect but for lack of interest, said Isaac Himelfarb, El Meson's proprietor. Customers preferred the usual tacos, enchiladas and so forth.
But if the business person's lunch is gone, good food still prevails at El Meson. The plate of chips and salsa starts every meal. There are interesting specials. The cocido is still available. And fresh fruit drinks made from pineapple, papaya, watermelon or cantaloupe accompany the food for a modest 75 cents.
At least once a week, El Meson serves panuchos, a Yucatecan dish of small tortillas stuffed with mashed black beans and topped with chicken or other meat, a mild tomato salsa, jalapeno chiles and pickled onion slices. Cinnamon-sprinkled horchata, a drink made from ground rice, is the same accompaniment one would have in Yucatan.
Off-Menu Specials Torta Manzanillo and Colima style shrimp brochette are specialties that are not listed on the menu. The torta is an omelet stuffed with ham, mock crab meat, shrimp, tomato and onion and topped with melted Jack cheese. The omelet was good but would have been better if the shrimp had been adequately cooked. Those raw shrimp are the only cooking failure I have experienced at El Meson.
The shrimp on the brochette are wrapped in bacon and come with a roasted pepper, grilled onion wedge, a tangy dip, rice and salad. At $6.25, this is one of El Meson's more costly dishes. The torta, served with rice, beans and tortillas, is $4.50, and the panuchos, which come with beans on the side, are $3.25.
Other specials written on a wall board are tongue, chicharrones, shrimp soup and fried bananas. One day, a lunch combination included a whole fish with salad, rice, soup and a soft drink for $4.75.
Signs plastering the front window give El Meson a trashy look. Inside, the tone is quite different. Himelfarb, born in Mexico City of Jewish parents who emigrated from Poland, is a soft-spoken and cordial host whose aim is to provide affordable, authentic Mexican cooking.
El Meson, 809 S. Hill St., Los Angeles. 623-3400. Open from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. No credit cards.