WHAT started as a breakfast favorite in Mexico's tropical Yucatan is taking L.A. by storm -- in tacos and tortas and burritos and even as a sophisticated plated dish.
Cochinita pibil is succulent slow-roasted pork that's so tender you can almost spoon into it. It has a depth of flavor from aromatic, earthy, rich achiote seeds that also impart a brilliant russet-red color to the dish, and at the same time, it's bright with the flavor of Seville oranges.
"It's the most important dish of the Yucatan," says Gilberto Cetina, owner of Yucatecan restaurants Chichen Itza. (He opened the second Chichen Itza on 6th Street near MacArthur Park in January.)
In the small kitchen of his original restaurant in the Mercado La Paloma near USC, Cetina has gotten down to the business of making his -- and the Yucatan's -- signature dish, \o7cochinita pibil\f7, pork marinated in the juice of Seville oranges, ground \o7achiote\f7 (annatto) seeds, garlic and spices such as clove, allspice, black pepper and oregano, all wrapped up in banana leaves and slow-roasted for several hours.
The result is succulent, aromatic, tender, irresistible pork. At Mexican restaurants and taco stands across L.A., \o7cochinita pibil\f7 is upstaging more familiar northern Mexican pork preparations such as \o7carnitas\f7 and \o7al pastor\f7.
It used to be that \o7cochinita pibil\f7 was rather elusive, tucked into the tacos and burritos at tiny Yuca's in Los Feliz or served only on weekends at La Flor de Yucatan Bakery in South Los Angeles, but it has become increasingly in demand.
And although Los Angeles' Yucatecan community is small, restaurants focusing on regional Mexican cuisine such as Babita in the San Gabriel Valley and La Huasteca at Plaza Mexico in Lynwood have helped put the Yucatecan specialty in the spotlight.
Breakfast of champions
TRADITIONALLY, it's served in tacos or \o7tortas\f7 -- for breakfast.
"In Yucatan, 5 a.m., it's everywhere, any place you go," says Socorro Herrera, who emigrated from Merida, Mexico, and opened the award-winning taco stand Yuca's with her late husband in 1976. "Especially on Sundays, it's tradition."
And by 8 or 9 a.m., "there's no more \o7cochinita\f7 available," says Cetina, who's from the town Colonia Yucatan. "You have to eat \o7cochinita\f7 in the morning. And 99.9% of the population eats \o7cochinita\f7 on Sunday morning.... If you party on Saturday night, you go have your \o7cochinita\f7 tacos and then go to sleep."
At Chichen Itza, Cetina serves it not only in tacos and \o7tortas\f7 but also as a main course, nestled in a shallow white bowl and topped with tangy, crunchy pickled red onions and a fresh bright-orange, searingly hot \o7habanero\f7, the pepper of the Yucatan.
\o7Pibil\f7 refers to the way the pork is cooked -- traditionally in a coal-filled pit. The Mayans used not pork (domesticated pigs were introduced by the Spanish) but wild game such as rabbit, boar, venison or armadillo.
"You can make it with all different kinds of meat," says Jimmy Shaw, owner of Loteria Grill in the Original Farmers Market, which serves \o7cochinita pibil\f7 tacos and burritos. "It's great with fish, chicken. The Yucatecos use a heck of a lot of turkey." Despite his not being from Yucatan (he's from Mexico City), Shaw makes a mean \o7cochinita pibil\f7 taco -- which he says he'll also serve at his second Loteria location, set to open in the fall on Hollywood Boulevard.
\o7Cochinita pibil\f7 "was an important one for me because one of the things I wanted to do with my menu is steer people toward trying new things," Shaw says. "The menus at a lot of Mexican restaurants are so similar from one place to the next."
(There's also an off-the-menu taco Shaw nicknamed the \o7cochinita gringa\f7 -- \o7cochinita pibil\f7 with potatoes, "based on the notion that Americans like meat and potatoes.")
Secret's in the spices
THE basis for the \o7cochinita \f7marinade is the dark red annatto seed from tropical \o7achiote\f7 trees with their glossy leaves and starburst flowers; the seed pods are picked when they start to split and are then dried in the sun. The seeds look like tiny stones, have a deep, earthy, dusky flavor and are used in Caribbean cuisines for both their flavor and coloring.
Chichen Itza's Cetina starts with the whole seeds, then grinds them into a paste mixed with garlic, spices, salt and vinegar. The difference from one \o7cochinita\f7 to another is in the mixture of spices added to the ground \o7achiote\f7 seeds (or to commercially available \o7achiote\f7 paste, which can vary in quality). The paste can be prepared ahead of time and kept for several months. Cetina makes buckets-full at a time and goes through it fast. At the original Chichen Itza alone, he makes 60 pounds of \o7cochinita pibil\f7 a day.