99 Essential Restaurants 2014

Chichén Itzá

photo by Anne Fishbein

No wonder the line is always long at Chichén Itzá. Tucked into the back of Mercado La Paloma downtown, it’s as authentic an outpost of Yucatecan cuisine as you can find in L.A. The menu posted behind the counter where you order reflects a fascinating blend of cultures — Mayan, Spanish and Lebanese. Don’t miss Lebanese kibi, made with cracked wheat and beef patties fried so crisp they crackle in your mouth. Spanish paella is a regular special. You also can get achiote-marinated pork or chicken, which in Yucatán would be cooked underground, an indigenous technique adapted to what the health code here allows. There’s no skimping on hard-to-find ingredients. Chef-owner Gilberto Cetina grows his own sour oranges, which are required for authentic flavor. He also has a constant supply of the Mayan super green called chaya.  It’s blended into a long, cool drink, agua de chaya. It’s also part of the egg-and-squash-seed tamal called brazo de reina. The good news is, you can grow chaya yourself — Cetina sells the plants. You also can buy house-made habanero salsa, which is so hot that the tall bottles served with meals must last forever. If you’re immune to that sort of pain, you can sign up for Chichén Itzá’s annual habanero-eating contest. And if you really love the food, you can cook it yourself. Everything you need to know is in the cookbook Sabores Yucatecos, written by Cetina, his son, Gilberto Jr., and Katharine A. Díaz; it’s on sale at the restaurant.

-- Barbara Hansen