There are some parts of Los Angeles’ sprawling neighborhoods that do not receive as much credit as they should for housing reputable restaurants. Yxta lies in a corner of L.A. that falls into the aforementioned category. Located in a quiet strip mall at the intersection of East Sixth Street and Central Avenue, Yxta has for the last couple of years, provided Los Angelenos with a unique taste of traditional and revised Mexican dishes close to the heart and travels of owner Jesse Gomez. He also owns El Arco Iris in Highland Park, which has boasted its presence since the mid 1960’s. Most recently, Jesse has also embarked on a third restaurant venture–Mercado– with Chef Jose Acevedo, but this time he is tackling the Westside. Santa Monica can expect the restaurant to open in October with a menu similar yet characteristically set apart from the other two under his the Gomez umbrella. We were able to sample fare at both Yxta and Mercado and wanted to share the experience with you.
We both met at Yxta on a Friday evening very much looking forward to what would be in store. Just a few weeks prior, I had been to the restaurant for a preview tasting for Mercado. I remembered Yxta’s dark blue gray industrial vibe, its exposed pipe and rafter ceiling, the ethereal artwork, and the slowly dimming natural light that trickled away as the sun set. I had a feeling Amir would enjoy these things too, and after the Mercado menu teaser, I had a feeling we would both enjoy the food. We were lucky to have Jesse personally attending to our meal. He started us with the mandatory chips and salsa appetizer, along with their traditional Yxta Margarita and the sublime Jamaica Margarita effervescent with the scent of hibiscus flowers. Our first round of appetizers included fried squash blossoms bursting with oaxacan cheese and Jesse’s own revision of a dish he ate while visiting Mexico. On the menu, it is the Tostadas de Atún–tortillas topped with fresh ahi tuna, avocado, jalapenos, fried onions and bright cilantro cream. Around this time, the Mexican Russian arrived. It was a creamy blend of vodka, Kahlua, horchata and cinnamon, which may have been slightly too creamy for us, but neither one of us is very taken by the mix of dairy and alcohol. The final starter were tacos al pastor. Marinated pork with sweet bites of pineapple, tangy red onions and cilantro on top of a warm tortilla were gobbled up in seconds.
We then moved on to two separate plates of enchiladas. The first was full of plump, sweet shrimp rolled in tortillas and covered with a yellow mole sauce. The second was slow cooked short ribs in a red mole sauce inspired by the red mole recipe from Jesse’s grandmother. Amir fell in love with the short rib enchiladas due to the tender pull of the beef and his adoration for a red enchilada sauce. On the other hand, I finished off all of the shrimp enchiladas. The sweetness of the squash in the sauce, along with several other ingredients, paired well with seafood. The main entree made its way to the table. Grilled mahi mahi on a bed of fresh Santa Monica Farmers Market vegetables, cilantro rice, crispy roasted kale and cilantro pesto cream with black beans and rajas on the side. I specifically requested the rajas after a friend whipped up this simple and very well known dish of soft peppers and onions. It is one of those poor man’s dishes made with less than a handful of ingredients, yet it is so good. To drink, we shared the Martini de Albaca. it was my favorite cocktail of the evening with Hendrick’s gin, cucumber and basil. From those ingredients alone, you know to expect a smooth, yet piquant drink with a summery sweet aroma. It was a great match against the mahi mahi. We could taste the freshness of the fish, and it melted in our mouths with each fork of baby potato or carrot. The crunchy kale added a surprising level of texture as well. For dessert, we spooned up Capirotada or Mexican Bread Pudding with horchata ice cream. It was quite a meal.
As you may recall, I had the chance to try Mercado’s fare prior to Yxta’s menu, but of course, there are similarities between the underlying flavor notes and pairings between both restaurants. The dishes are colorful, full of layered flavors and seem to harken to a California style of traditional Mexican fare. Mercado’s tasting preview featured a flight of Partida Blanco tequila and cocktails individually matched to each course. Creama de Calabaza Soup started off the meal. It was sprinkled with pepita seeds and topped off with a beautiful orange squash blossom flower that slowly wilted in the hot soup. The soup was followed by an Ensalada de Tuna. This salad was also perfectly summery studded with sweet fruits and a very light, citrus vinaigrette. The main course was a choice of Carnitas, Pollo al Chipotle, Camarones al Mojo de Ajo or their vegetarian assortment of rajas, grilled sweet corn, roasted cauliflower and cilantro rice. I often find that vegetarian offerings can be an afterthought for some restaurants, so I decided to try Mercado’s and see if it would measure up. Plus, rajas were one of the dishes, and I do love rajas. The rajas did not disappoint, nor did the smokey corn kernels and the signature cilantro rice. Out of all the cocktails and shots of tequila, the Partida Blanco Hibiscus-Basil Margarita stole my heart. The combination of savory, light basil and sweet hibiscus swirled together perfectly with the smooth tequila. To finish off the meal, we had dessert–a traditional flan topped with freshly whipped cream.
There is no doubt that Jesse Gomez has thought intently about his menu for both Yxta and the soon-to-open Mercado. He is very involved with the dishes and how his memories and experiences with food will translate to the meals that appear before his customers. We could do nothing but appreciate his passion for food and his dedication to the customer’s experience as well. We have no hesitations about visiting Yxta again and checking out Mercado once it opens this fall. All of Los Angeles’ Eastsiders have been able to nibble on his fare for years, and now everyone on the Westside will have their opportunity to give it a try. Hopefully you will check it out as well. Check out the rest of the pictures from our Yxta and Mercado tastings on our Facebook page.
601 South Central Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90021
1416 4th Street
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Yxta and Mercado offered these complimentary menu tastings. The opinions expressed here are our own.
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