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At a mariachi hangout, dishes that really sing

RESTAURANTS | COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: MEXICO

Musicians drop by this modest restaurant in Boyle Heights for down-home cooking.

August 25, 2004|Barbara Hansen | Times Staff Writer

Mariachis often sing about food -- there is the line about goat stew birria in the famous song "Guadalajara" -- but I had never seen mariachis eating that (or anything else) until I went to Restaurant Santa Cecilia in Boyle Heights, a tiny place with homey Mexican food. It happens to be a mariachi hangout.

Located on Pleasant Avenue, the restaurant faces the square at 1st and Boyle streets that's called Mariachi Plaza. Here, mariachis solicit work or meet for engagements, and, during festivals, perform at the landmark kiosk in the center of the plaza.

Santa Cecilia is named for the patron saint of musicians, whose image is on top of the kiosk and on a sign outside the restaurant. The first time I went, I rolled down my car window and asked a handsome mariachi in a light tan suit where it was, not seeing it at first because it's hidden behind a bushy tree. He pointed it out to me, then said, "Que le vaya bien," ("May all go well with you") as I drove off to park in the residential neighborhood.

Courtly manners still flourish here. Mariachis, chatting on the sidewalk, part gallantly as I approach. "Pasale, senora," one says. And a hanger-on in work clothes takes my arm and walks me to the cafe door.

Inside, Santa Cecilia is a bare little box. There's a counter in front of a rudimentary cooking area. A refrigerator holds drinks such as Senorial Sangria and Jarritos Tamarindo soda. The only place to sit is under a window that faces the alley (although there's a roofed area with tables out back).

And yet the ambience is colorful, thanks to the customers, so many of whom are musicians, and the exuberant murals on the front and sides of the building. One depicts a row of mariachis with a mariachi angel floating overhead. In the alley, violins, guitars and trumpets painted on the wall lead to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, who presides over a mariachi shrine banked with flowers.

As I sit eating costillas -- pork ribs in tomato-jalapeno salsa -- a young musician in a stunning white suit walks up the alley, a guitar case slung over his back. An occasional guitar chord floats into the restaurant from the plaza. The mariachis lounging in the sun there are out of uniform, looking like ordinary guys in sport shirts and baseball caps.

The food at Santa Cecilia is "buena," one of them tells me on another visit. The costillas, for example, are cooked to eliminate grease before being simmered in the salsa, which is ground in a molcajete (mortar and pestle). The meat is tender and there's plenty of sauce for dipping the tortillas, which are handmade and steaming hot, straight off the grill.

Chef-owner Armando Salazar does not have a printed menu. You have to ask what is on hand. There are always caldos (soups), simple, nourishing combinations of chicken or beef with vegetables in clear broth. Other dishes change slightly from day to day. A sign on the wall lists tortas, tacos and burritos, but the down-home cooked dishes, similar to what you might find in a neighborhood restaurant in Mexico, are too interesting to pass up.

Made to order

Salazar cooks everything fresh each day. The costillas, he says, are most in demand, but the beef barbacoa is also wonderful, with a rich sauce that tastes of red chiles, cumin, cloves, garlic and has a distinct tang of vinegar. Chile verde, also made with beef, has a tomatillo sauce spicy with jalapenos and strips of fresh-roasted California chile. A mariachi asks for this as filling for a taco, along with nopales, and Salazar obliges.

Another main dish, carne con nopales, combines big chunks of beef with strips of cactus and onion in a sauce slightly reddened by dried California chiles. There's a fine guisado de pollo, chicken and red potatoes with tomatoes and onion in a light, mild broth.

One time I ordered a torta to go. Salazar assembled a great sandwich, filled with carne asada, onion, tomato, cilantro, lettuce and a slice of avocado, and packed for takeout with radishes, a lime wedge and a container of hot sauce.

Plates include plain boiled beans and orange rice, each fresh, light and very good. The house salsa is a spicy blend of arbol chiles and tomatillos. A mariachi from Los Madrugadores del Valle, seated near me, spreads it on a tortilla and advises me to do the same.

Because as any mariachi must know, you can't make beautiful music on an empty stomach.

*

Restaurant

Santa Cecilia

Location: 1707 Pleasant Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 980-0716

Price: Plates with beans and rice, $4.60; small tacos, $1; burritos, $3.25; tortas, $3

Best dishes: Costillas, (pork ribs); barbacoa, (beef in barbecue sauce); carne con nopales, (beef with cactus); chile verde, beef and chicken caldos (soups)

Details: Open 9 a.m. to midnight daily. No alcohol. Cash only. Street parking.

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