It was a rainy day after the recent, crazy hot spell, and especially gloomy, as if we'd been shoved back into the dreariest part of winter after a dose of pure summer. My friend Cindy thought that a bowl of soup might cheer us up. Since she's a real Mexican soup fan, we drove to Glendale, to a little Mexican restaurant I'd heard good things about from another food-eating professional.
Frankly, walking into La Cita did not lift our spirits. It's a well-worn, bare-bones hole in the wall with red booths and a formation of dusty wrought-iron chandeliers overhead. On the walls, which could use a good scrub or a fresh coat of paint, hang a faded portrait of a Mexican dignitary, discoloring beer ads and paintings on black velvet.
We see a flagstone patio through the window that would make a swell outside dining area, except there are no tables--only a mature cactus and a mop slung over a tree limb to dry.
We sat behind a Mexican family with a gregarious, 20-month-old baby who hung over the booth and offered us French fries. Two well-dressed women were having lunch together; a man in a beret sat alone reading the New York Review of Books; but mostly the clientele consisted of Spanish-speaking men who came in singly or in groups for big bowls of soup or large plates of food. A Spanish version of "Those Were the Days" followed "La Bamba" on the jukebox.
New scientific evidence shows that the taste of chili is pain; and La Cita's homemade, fresh salsa is very, very, well, \o7 tasty\f7 . In fact, it's so hot and so \o7 tasty \f7 that the contradiction stupefied us: We couldn't help ourselves and, against all better judgment, just kept scooping up and devouring bite after bite. We wept and went through an entire basket of chips and drank everything in sight until our food came. (Footnote: Water and Diet Coke do not extinguish the chili fire, although the liquid coolness fleetingly soothes it.)
I had the \o7 Camarones a la Mexicana\f7 , shrimp in a nicely spicy red sauce, with beans and rice and some iceberg lettuce drizzled with French dressing.
Although this meal was not up there with the best Mexican food I'd ever had, it was really representational of a kind of basic, standard Mexican fare I'd loved as a child, and I enjoyed the memories it evoked. I grew up next door to the Garcia family, and Mrs. Garcia made rice that tasted just like this, and her trick was to saute the rice with the lard until it became, in her words, "rosy." La Cita's rice tasted pretty rosy, and the beans were creamy and rich and had that wonderful but nearly forbidden flavor that only lard can impart, as well. Oh well, a little bit never hurt anybody.
Cindy ordered her soup--seafood soup, a.k.a. \o7 Los Siete Mares\f7 , a briny broth with crab legs, fish chunks, shrimps and a clam in it. She was given lemon wedges, cilantro and scallions as condiments, and a nutcracker and pick to dislodge the crab from its housing.
While the soup was rather more work than I like in a bowl of food, it was delicious and heartening on a cold, rainy day. The cook apparently thought so too--he served himself a bowl, sat down in a booth and ate it.
I liked Cindy's soup so much that when I came back for another meal, I ordered the \o7 cocido. \f7 It turned out to be very similar to the beef soup Mrs. Garcia brought to me when I stayed home sick from school--a meaty, salt-rich broth with huge chunks of long-boiled, falling-apart beef, big discs of carrot and two-inch sections of corn on the cob.
A bowlful, I'm convinced, has curative properties. I also liked the \o7 relleno\f7 , a fresh chili stuffed with tasty \o7 machaca \f7 (shredded beef) and cheese, then breaded, fried and lightly sauced. The \o7 enchilada ranchera \f7 turned out to be a barely moistened tortilla filled with unmelted cheese; even though it was topped with excellent guacamole, it was too hastily made and disappointing.
Other specialties of the house were similarly uninspiring. The \o7 gallina en mole \f7 (chicken mole) was a mountain of boiled chicken in a too-sweet, light-brown mole sauce. The \o7 milanesa\f7 , a spicy, Mexican version of chicken-fried steak, consisted of a great, crunchy, deep-fried breading on a pretty unimpressive piece of beef.
There is nothing glamorous or romantic about La Cita, and it would be a disservice to proclaim its food excellent or, as my food-eating colleague suggested, the best in the area. Rather, La Cita might be the most definitively basic Mexican restaurant I've even visited, quite good for such standbys as hard-shell tacos, \o7 rellenos\f7 , burritos.
This very basic food is rather like what you might find in a home--unsurprising, substantial, authentic and nourishing, not to mention quite reasonable in price.
Recommended dishes: \o7 Los Siete Mares\f7 , $7.50; chili \o7 rellenos \f7 dinner, $5.50; \o7 cocido\f7 , $4.25; \o7 Camarones a la Mexicana\f7 , $7.25.
\o7 La Cita, 4608 San Fernando Road, Glendale. (818) 242-5423. Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Beer only. Cash only.\f7