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Best of a region, with a flourish

RESTAURANTS | COUNTERINTELLIGENCE: MEXICO

Elegant dishes and grand desserts mark La Huasteca's ambitious foray into haute cuisine. The four-course lunch is a great place to start.

December 22, 2004|Barbara Hansen | Times Staff Writer

The shrimp appetizer is amazing: two perfect shrimp in a light sauce flavored with tequila and guajillo chiles, set on a spoonful of sweet potato puree. The sweetness of the potatoes, the delicate flavor of the shrimp and the subtle heat from the chiles play off each other in a complex, exciting way. And the dishes that follow, as well as dishes I try on other visits -- roasted corn and poblano chile soup, beef medallion with huitlacoche sauce, cheesecake filled with the soft Mexican caramel sauce called cajeta -- are just as nuanced and delicious.

La Huasteca, which opened in March in Lynwood's Plaza Mexico, a shopping center inspired by traditional Mexican architecture, is an ambitious outpost of Mexican haute cuisine, not another of those places limited to predictable Cal-Mex dishes. The only tacos and burritos served here are on the children's menu.

Chef-owner Alfonso Ramirez, originally from Puebla, Mexico, had intended to be a lawyer but set his degrees aside to enter the restaurant world, starting as a dishwasher and working his way up to executive chef and now owner. A good-looking, personable guy with silver hair, Ramirez walks through the La Huasteca dining room, stopping to chat with customers. On Sundays, he broadcasts a two-hour show from the restaurant called "Cocinando con Alfonso" (KPLS-AM 830 at 2 p.m.). He takes call-in questions, gives recipes and expounds on Mexican cuisine.

The restaurant is named for a region in northeastern Mexico that takes in portions of the states of Tamaulipas, Veracruz, San Luis Potosi and Hidalgo and very small parts of other states, including Ramirez's native Puebla. Most of the food on the menu is from the Huasteca region.

There is mole poblano -- chicken or pork smothered with a spicy, not overly sweet sauce made from scratch at the restaurant. If you don't order this, you'll taste the sauce anyway. It's drizzled over tortilla chips to nibble on while you study the menu. There's also a very good version of chiles en nogada -- fresh poblano chiles stuffed with beef, fruit and almonds and bathed in a cream sauce sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.

Ramirez's prix fixe menus offer a wonderful introduction to the restaurant. In Mexico, many restaurants offer a set lunch that enables them to serve customers quickly and at a reasonable price. Usually these comidas are confined to the afternoon, but Ramirez extends his to closing time. On weekdays, his four-course lunch is just $14.95 and a similar five-course dinner is $18.95. Both are great bargains, considering the caliber of the food.

At lunch, after a first course such as the shrimp with chiles and tequila, one chooses soup or salad. The salad has always been Caesar, and a good one, but one day I opted for roasted corn and poblano chile soup. It was served with a flourish by the waiter, who carefully poured the soup at my table into a dish containing a small stack of roasted corn kernels and a scattering of parsley leaves, which then floated in the delicate chile-scented puree.

That day's entrees included grilled chicken breasts with a creamy, light red pipian sauce composed of peanuts, chiles de arbol, tomatoes and onions. Green pipian, which incorporates squash seeds, tomatillos, jalapenos and cilantro, is also excellent. An intriguing salmon dish was slightly crusty but moist and tender, stacked on top of roasted red and green peppers on a bed of rice, moistened with an unusual jalapeno-basil sauce. The jalapenos were restrained, so all the flavors could shine.

The prix fixe menu one night began with shrimp in a tequila-spiked sauce, Caesar salad and a chicken enchilada with mole sauce. The entree choice was grilled salmon with pineapple sauce or a beef medallion set on poblano mashed potatoes and topped with melted Jack cheese and a creamy, luxurious sauce of white wine and huitlacoche, the mushroom-like delicacy seldom found in American restaurants.

In Mexico, dessert is a minor part of the comida, often just flan, rice pudding or gelatin, but at La Huasteca, desserts are exquisite -- there's no better word. One day I had strawberries, lightly coated with a sauce of thick Mexican crema, sugar, cinnamon and vanilla, served in a crisp fluted cup made of almonds, like a molded lace almond cookie. Strands of caramel drifted across the plate. Another day a thin slice of cheesecake, made at the restaurant, appeared, drizzled with glossy caramel. Once, I simply had to order the postre de chocolate Mexicano, described on the menu as "Mexican chocolate soup with walnut brownie." But instead of a bowl of sweet "soup," the dish turned out to be elegantly thin brownie triangles, moist with Mexican chocolate and tequila, served with vanilla ice cream. I relished every delicious crumb.

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