I remember the Yucatan. White powdery beaches, azure blue sea, air so clear, so perfumed. Ah paradise.
I remember what I ate in Yucatan too. Not all of it paradise, remembering the parchment-like, chewy tortillas, although some things, like the grilled fresh fish cooked on the beach, came very close to heavenliness.
They were pibil dishes mostly, meaning pit barbecued. I especially remember cochinita pibil, pork wrapped in banana leaves we ate at a charming roadside restaurant near the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza. And there was escabeche, spicy turkey and black beans. Wild turkeys, I remember reading, were part of the Yucatan's landscape since Mayan times. The black beans, are, of course, a staple product of most lands around the Caribbean. The peninsula's connection to the Caribbean seems to set the cuisine of the Yucatan apart from the rest of Mexico.
That's why I jumped when I heard of the Merida, a relatively new restaurant in old Pasadena. The turn-of-the-century building in Old Town housing the restaurant, among other businesses, is almost like one of the Spanish Colonial structures you find in Merida, an old Baroque city of narrow streets, ornate balconies and tiled courtyards.
In a Courtyard
The Merida, too, is in a courtyard, the patio area filled with colorful umbrellas. It's not as pretty as those you'd find in Merida, but comfortable enough. Indoors, the high windows are covered with Old World lace curtains; brick walls are plastered with all manner of knickknacks and plants.
The friendly atmosphere, courteous waiters and waitresses will bring you back to the Yucatan in spirit. Actually, I enjoyed the Merida because it is a modest, unassuming restaurant. And I enjoyed the food, although not refined in any way. The dishes were tasty and slightly different from the run-of-the-mill Mexican restaurant in town. So if you're in the neighborhood, or curious about Yucatecan food, the Merida may be a good place to start. If, by chance, you are also in search of Salvadoran pupusas, those delicious pancakes of corn and meat, a somewhat lesser version to ones I've had in Los Angeles' Salvadoran neighborhoods, but not bad, they too are served at the Merida for reasons not really understood. "Some people like them, so we have them," said the waiter, shrugging. Anyway, they are there. Our guess is that someone in the kitchen is also Salvadoran. According to our waiter, the chefs were recruited from Merida during the owners' visit to the city, thus switching emphasis from Northern Mexican to Yucatecan offerings when the restaurant moved from its old location on Union Street back in May.
Tortilla With Black Beans
I tried several Yucatecan dishes. Panuchos are tortillas spread with black beans and topped with pieces of chicken, tomatoes and guacamole. Two on a plate with vinegared red onions, yellow rice (so-so) and very good beans.
I had Conchinita pibil, in which banana leaves (or tortillas in a taco version) are filled with pork in a spicy sauce. Machaca, which is the shredded beef also called ropa viejo (old clothes) because of the ripped effect of the meat, was served nestled in a double tortilla held together with a wood pick.
Seafood lovers should definitely turn to the last page on the menu and try some of the shrimp, snapper, abalone, octopus and oysters dishes offered. Air-flown shrimp and fish from Yucatecan waters adds to the authenticity of the seafood dishes.
The whole fried red snapper called huachinango frito is typically Yucatecan and the price is right--$8.50, which, beside the lobster for two at $25, is the most expensive item on the menu. Other dishes are moderate, around $5.
The salsa served with chips was light, fresh and soupy--so soupy that a man's excessive slurping at the next table caused me to seek refuge on the patio.
Restaurant Merida, 20 E. Colorado, Suite 102, Los Angeles, (213) 792-7371. Open seven days 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. (lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.). Reservations accepted. American Express and Cart Blanche honored. Wine and beer available.