Why would the owners of Balo's Place choose to open their small restaurant just steps from a large, well-established neighborhood favorite--and on a street with four other Mexican restaurants within a few short blocks on either side? And why has Balo's won over skeptical locals who keep coming back in steadily increasing numbers?
The answer to the first, according to Balo's owner Chris Jimenez, is self-evident: "We live in this neighborhood." And the answer to the second is easy: they come back for the Yucatan-style food.
Balo's Place doesn't have the look of most small family-run East Side restaurants: the blue-topped tables and chairs are simple, the walls feature posters of flowers, and the neon in the window and the jukebox all lend a faint air of trendiness. It does share one thing in common with other good small establishments: all of the entrees, side dishes and salsas are made from scratch.
Pollo pibil --the most traditional item on the menu--is a good starting place to compare Balo's with other Yucatan-style eateries. At Balo's the marinated chicken dish comes steaming hot, wrapped in a banana leaf and fragrant with spices. Side dishes include rice, thin black beans that can be eaten like soup or poured over the rice, and plantains that are crisp on the outside, tender in the middle with just the right touch of sweetness. All for only $5.50.
Spooned Over Tortillas
Cochinita pibil has the same side dishes as its chicken twin; the pork is crisply cooked and occasionally dry, and tastes best spooned over tortillas with black beans, mild red salsa and chopped red onions that come with each dinner.
Puchero , a Yucatan-style stew served only on the weekend, is cubes of pork floating in a rich, black-bean soup. The dish is tasty and filling, but too much for one person. Share this with a friend and add some panuchos or salbutes for variety. The panuchos --deep fried tortillas stuffed with black beans and covered with shredded meat or chicken and lettuce--or salbutes (similar, but on an open-face steamed tortilla) are addictive at only $1 each. The Yucatan combination dinner includes two salbutes , two panuchos and two tamalitos for $6; it is a good sampler for two diners when ordered with the puchero .
An unusual dish is papadzules , made from a pumpkin-seed paste flown in from Yucatan. The paste is made into a gravy, then tortillas stuffed with hard-cooked eggs are dipped into it and covered with tomato sauce and served like an enchilada. Cinnamon and other spices mix with pumpkin and give a sweetness to this dish.
One oddity on the menu is kibis , a staple of Middle Eastern restaurants. Jimenez says he got the recipe from Lebanese living in Yucatan; his version includes ground wheat, onions, green peppers and garlic in deep-fried meat patties.
Balo's also offers a full line of mainstream Mexican food: Mojarra frita, a whole fish fried in garlic, was tasty albeit a little overcooked; the carne asada (grilled steak) was tough on one visit, tender the next; and the carnitas were properly crisp and spicy. These dinners come with salad, rice and refried beans instead of black beans.
A la carte specialties include soft steam tacos, enchiladas, burritos and four types of tortas, Mexican-style sandwiches. All are priced from $1 to $2.50; many come with Yucatan touches that differentiate them Southern California-style specialties.
Beer prices range from $1.25 for domestic brands to $1.50 for such Mexican beers as Corona and Bohemia. House wine is Carlo Rossi, $1.25 by the glass. Non-alcoholic drinks range from a strong cafe Cubano to horchata and fruit drinks like guanabana and tamarindo.
Jimenez and his wife, Nina, are slowly changing the menu to include more Yucatan-style dishes. "I want to be a Yucatan restaurant serving Yucatan food," says Chris, to which his enthusiastic customers can only add "Welcome to the neighborhood."
Balo's Place, 5672 York Blvd., Eagle Rock. (213) 255-2878. Open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Lunch specials from $2.50 to $3.50; dinners from $5.50 to $6.50. Street parking.