Driving south on Inglewood Avenue from Century Boulevard, it’s hard to believe that one of L.A.’s best — or at least, most unique — Mexican restaurants is hidden away there.
Indeed, it’s so well hidden, that I was a few blocks past before I realized I had missed the turn into the small Hobbit village that’s home to Don Rogelio’s Tex-Mex, a culinary land presided over by a human force of nature named Viola Gutierrez-Herrera, the Mexican equivalent of a Jewish mother (or perhaps an Italian mother, or any other deeply involved mother from a working class culture).
To enter Don Rogelio’s is to leave the time and care worn hubbub of the street behind and wander into an outdoor patio with kitschy sculptures, numerous religious icons, a dining hall and a cookhouse, with a handful of tables for those who want to watch (and listen) as Viola and her assistant describe dishes, encourage diners to try something she’s just made, or describe enchiladas to a pair of Japanese tourists who have meandered in, intrigued by the restaurant’s high online ratings. (Viola speaks no Japanese. The tourists spoke no Spanish, and only a smattering of English. So Viola made an enchilada to show them what it looks like.)
There’s nothing on the menu at Don Rogelio’s you haven’t seen before.
For those of us who were virtually weaned on the cooking of Northern Mexico, and the sometimes hard-to-pinpoint style of Tex-Mex cuisine, there’s a familiarity to the menu here that’s virtually imprinted in our DNA.
Tacos, taquitos, tostadas — we don’t have to look those up on our smartphones. We know what to expect. And that’s where Viola works her magic, for though the dishes are recognizable, they’re also her dishes, with her twists, her improvements, her style. And the result is familiar food that seems wholly new all over again.
Consider the guacamole. We all know guacamole. Many of us have made guacamole at one time or another. You scoop out an avocado, mash it with lemon, along with some chopped tomatoes and onions, perhaps some chiles, and some salt. That’s all there is to it.
And so, when the guac arrives at Don Rogelio’s, it comes as both a shock and a revelation. The avocado isn’t mashed. It’s chopped into discrete, clearly identifiable bitlets, served over a lettuce leaf, with lovely, tasty chips on the side, sprinkled with dry Mexican cheese.
The avocado pit sits at the top of the plate. The guac is fantastic, textural, perfect. I may never mash my guac again. It was probably the best guacamole I’ve ever had.
And bless her, Viola didn’t feel the need to mash in a bit of crab or bacon. This was guacamole in a state of utter holy bliss, the quintessence of how guacamole should be. I was dazzled.
But then, I was also dazzled by the excellence of both the salsa (clearly homemade), and the bean dip, such a good bean dip, a bean dip to cherish, a bean dip to consume, wishing, I guess that Don Rogelio’s served beer. It doesn’t. But the freshly made watermelon water is fine. And so, for that matter, are the freshly made tortillas, smaller in size than most, with so much flavor, so much goodness. It was, as I said, as if I’d never had these dishes before. It was a cuisine, born again.
Viola described, in glowing terms, the pork carnitas she had just made. And I’m sure it was a wonder. But I had my heart set on the chicken chile verde. The chicken had been cooked long and slow, until it was falling off the bone, in a sauce good enough to eat as a soup. The rice and beans that came with it were perfect.
The aforementioned enchiladas were as good as enchiladas can get. Show up for breakfast and there are eggs with chorizo, chilaquiles, eggs with machaca and huevos rancheros. There are Nachos Machos topped with beef guisada and three cheeses.
There’s beef brisket — sliced and chopped — served under the heading of “Texas Bar-Ba-Coa.” There’s menudo and posole made with pig’s feet.
This year, Viola is putting out a book called “Life Is a Crispy Taco.” Life is also a meal at Don Rogelio’s, a reminder that in Los Angeles, nothing is what you expect or where you expect to find it.
As I left, the Japanese tourists were scouring a map. They were seated next to a statue of the Virgin Mary.
In Tokyo, I went to a coffee house where you can play with hedgehogs while you sip your latte. I’ll bet they thought Don Rogelio’s was every bit as strange.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Send him email at email@example.com.
Don Rogelio’s Tex-Mex
Rating: 3 stars
Address: 10618 S. Inglewood Ave., Lennox
Information: 310-677-1510, www.donrogelios.com
When: Breakfast, lunch and early dinner, Wednesday through Monday,
Details: Soft drinks, reservations appreciated
Atmosphere: A neighborhood Tex-Mex eatery that approaches the surreal, sitting inside a small village of sorts on an industrial strip of Inglewood Avenue, with a sculpture-filled outdoor patio, a kitchen and a dining hall, presided over by the remarkable Viola Gutierrez-Herrera, the Mexican equivalent of a Jewish mother, who (along with her assistant) cooks every dish to order and serves every dish with love.
Prices: About $12 per person
Suggested dishes: Nachos Machos ($4.95-$6.95), guacamole ($4.95), quesadilla ($3.95-$5.95), beef guisada plate ($7.95), pork or chicken chile verde ($8.95), three chicken taquitos plate ($6.95), three crispy tacos plate ($9.95), tostada ($3.95-$5.95), beef brisket plate ($9.95), barbecue chicken ($6.95-$9.95), wet or dry burrito ($5.95-$7.95), menudo ($4.95/$6.95), posole ($7.95), combinations ($4.95-$8.95), four breakfasts ($6.95-$7.95)
Cards: MC, V