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Tropical flair and a spicy Maya soul

In its spacious second location, Chichen Itza serves the unique cuisine of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

March 14, 2007|Linda Burum | Special to The Times

IT'S hardly a surprise that the arrival of Chichen Itza's new restaurant generated so much pre-opening buzz. And not just because it's one of the few Yucatan-style eating spots in L.A.. The original location, a modest stall at the Mercado La Paloma complex on Grand Avenue, attracts a loyal following (in spite of its inconvenient 6 p.m. closing time) and rapturous commentary from fans for its regional specialties. No matter what time of day you order them, the tikin-xic (fillet of sole marinated in sour orange juice and seasoned with garlic and annatto), the crisp egg-roll-like codzitos and the poc chuc (smoky grilled pork) from this little counter come out as beautifully plated as if they had emerged from a trendy restaurant kitchen.

Now it's clear that Chichen's owner, Gilberto Cetina, has had a visionary plan all along. The original cafe was a place to rehearse for the cloth-napkin restaurant he recently opened on 6th Street near MacArthur Park.

His new endeavor, ensconced in the ground floor of the recently swankified '20s-era Asbury apartment building, sits across the street from the often-filmed Romanesque-style Park View Hotel. It's a long way from Chichen Itza's up-and-coming neighborhood to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula where the restaurant's namesake ancient Maya temple lies. Likewise the Yucatan's Caribbean-leaning cuisine seems a breathtaking leap from the northern-influenced Mexican cooking that's prevalent in Mexican restaurants here.

Don't expect chips and guacamole. Do expect plantains, black beans and other tropical touches along with plenty of turkey and even venison (the Mayas' favorite wild meat).

As in northern Mexico, corn, tomatoes, chiles and other timeless pre-Columbian staples are at the heart of the cuisine. But, isolated from the rest of the country by jungle, Yucatecan cooks developed their own Maya-influenced spicings akin to those of Cuba and Central America's coastal areas. You can taste them in Chichen Itza's cochinita pibil, roasted pork infused with the Caribbean's chile-garlic-annatto seed trilogy doused with Seville orange juice marinade and roasted in banana leaf.

In Cetina's hands, this palette of flavors can yield fabulous results. His chile mole de camaron, a sauced shrimp dish, is made with recado negro, an inky black spice paste of slightly burnt chiles, tortillas, nuts and seeds that evolved over centuries. Its unctuous smokiness sets off the sweetness of large juicy crustaceans to create a thrill more addictive than spicy French fries.

Appetizers are as far from taco stand fare as imaginable: Small golden chiles stuffed with fresh tuna (chile xcatic relleno de atun) are fried in a tempura-like batter and served on a mild tomato coulis. The jicama-orange salad contrasts sweet mandarins with Valencia oranges. Lightly splashed with lime, chile and a dash of olive oil, the combo complements the perfect shrimp ceviche or strips of squid in a sauce of its own ink (calamar en su tinta). Chaya, a soft leafy green native to the Yucatan, appears in a luscious creamed soup and in the dramatic brazo de reina (literally "arm of the queen"). This tamale, probably unlike any other you've tried, starts with a thin rectangle of creamy chaya-flecked masa. Spread with an egg and pumpkin seed filling, it's rolled and sliced into festive green and butter-yellow spirals, set on a film of translucent orange-yellow tomato sauce and scattered with more roasted seeds.

Cetina's often delicate hand with seasonings and his whimsical presentations allude to the Nueva Cocina Mexicana popular in Mexico City restaurants, yet his dishes follow traditional Yucatecan recipes and use typical ingredients. To balance the delicacy of some items, Chichen Itza makes two habanero-based salsas that clearly illustrate the chile's reputation as a tonsil torcher.

A few specialties need re-thinking. Marinated grilled venison comes stylishly plated, its accompaniments as precisely arranged as a design for jewelry. But the venison has been rather chewy. And pork ribs in mole-like pipian sauce are simply bland.

But the restaurant gets most things down. The simple yet stylish two-room dining area, with its rustic wall colorings and subtle folkloric touches, mirrors the food's urbane bent. Service is gracious, there are lovely fresh fruit aguas frescas, a growing beer and wine list and touchingly homey desserts such as caballeros pobres, a light, raisin-syrup-infused relative of bread pudding reminiscent of baba au rhum.

Even as the kitchen works out a few kinks, Chichen Itza is a treasure that brings us closer to the once mysterious cooking of the Yucatan.

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food@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Chichen Itza

Location: 2501 W. 6th St., (213) 380-0051; www.chichenitzarestaurant.com

Price: Sides, snacks and appetizers, $3 to $8; entrees, $10 to $28; desserts, $4.50.

Best dishes: Chile mole de camaron (shrimp mole), tikin-xic (seasoned, marinated fillet of sole), brazo de reina (egg and pumpkin seed filled tamale spirals), chile xcatic relleno de atun (yellow chiles stuffed with tuna), ensalada de jicama (jicama salad).

Details: Open 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; until 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Validated lot parking. Beer and wine, Visa, Mastercard.

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