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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

The Pibil's Choice

February 01, 1996|JONATHAN GOLD

Merida may not be anyone's version of a perfect Mexican restaurant.

The salsa's no good, for one thing. It's a watery mash of canned tomatoes flavored with not enough chile. The expensive guacamole appetizer is a stingy portion. A sign boasts that Merida is the only restaurant in California to serve all-soy chorizo at breakfast, and one taste of the stuff will persuade you that there is a reason for this. Sometimes the usual burritos and taco plates and chiles rellenos are great, and sometimes they taste like something off a lunch wagon. If you want to go there for dinner, you'll probably pay the City of Pasadena $4 to park.

But Merida is a pleasant place--a brick patio in the heart of Pasadena, full of umbrellas, beer signs, patio furniture, that whole thing--and an alternative to all the mediocre Italian restaurants that clog Old Town like arterial plaque. Although I probably wouldn't list Merida among my dozen favorite Mexican restaurants, I somehow end up here more often than I do at any of the others, for a quick shrimp cocktail and a Negra Modelo after a movie, for an early Saturday lunch with the in-laws, for a carnitas plate before a walk through the Norton Simon.

Also, Merida, with its low-priced children's menu and its off-hour tolerance for fussing toddlers, is one of the most kid-friendly restaurants in town. And you can sometimes see a doleful David Lee Roth tucked into a corner, making an al fresco breakfast of enchiladas and beer.

Merida serves the garlic shrimp and giant bowls of chicken soup you'd expect at a reasonably authentic Mexican restaurant. Every month is Goat Month here, if you are to believe the signs posted around the restaurant, though the Jalisco-style birria (goat stew) is just OK: strong-tasting, a little stringy, without the subtle chile nuances you'd expect at one of the better Eastside birria places.

But Merida really specializes in the tropical cooking of the Yucatan--Merida is the capital of Yucatan state--with all the citrus marinades, black beans, exotic grilling and steaming techniques and ultra-searing habanero chiles that have made Yucatecan cuisine the hottest Mexican influence on Global Village cookbooks and chefs.

There is a Maya pyramid on the menu. On each table, next to a small bowl of the indifferent house salsa, are bottles of El Yucateco habanero sauce, either brick red or green of a brilliance not seen since certain brands of '70s wallpaper went out of style. And most of the Yucatecan food is first-rate.

Maybe the archetypal Yucatecan dish is cochinito pibil: slabs of fat pork rubbed with a paste of chiles, garlic and the yellow-red spice achiote, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. When Merida's cochinito is on (occasionally it's kind of dry), it's the best dish in the house. The rich, red blobs of meat are so permeated with spice that it is difficult to tell where the seasoning ends and the pork begins, so soft that a fork sinks into the meat under its own weight. However, the unspectacular chicken pibil, cooked in pretty much the same way, tastes as if it has been reheated.

A couple of bucks will get you an order of panuchos: thin fried tortillas stuffed with beans, garnished with a small table salad and a few slivers of peppery turkey meat. Poc chuc is thin slices of grilled citrus-marinated pork rimmed with caramelized bits of black and garnished with brilliant red pickled onions, all served with a fiery fresh-chile salsa that you wish they served with their chips.

There is a nice turkey en escabeche, stewed in a peppery vinegar sauce, and good frijol con puerco, chunks of pork boiled with black beans until they look like small lumps of coal, served with a heap of the beans and a big, delicious bowl of the salty, ebony-colored bean broth.

But if you learned to love the spare huevos motulenos at Don Luis in Silver Lake--or presumably in the Yucatan itself--you may not recognize Merida's version, which is less like Don Luis' spicy egg tostada than a misguided attempt at a party dip: stacked tortillas layered with fried eggs and pureed black beans, doused with a watery tomato sauce, garnished with what seems like half a can of peas. I'm willing to give peas a chance, but too much of a good thing is just too much. These are peas without honor.

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WHERE TO GO

Merida Restaurant, 20 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (818) 792-7371. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Beer and wine. All major credit cards accepted. Takeout. Dinner for two, food only, $12-$19.

WHAT TO GET

Panuchos, poc chuc, cochinito pibil.

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