La Playita Perfects Classic Mexican Cuisine
I have a friend who, while not anybody’s idea of a “foodie,” is a purist about one particular cuisine. He reads my descriptions of arcane ethnic foods and complex contemporary dishes with mild bewilderment, amazed that people have such passion for things he finds odd. He doesn’t get that some people are picky about burgers or pasta, both of which he thinks of as stuff you make at home.
Get him on the subject of Mexican food, however, and he has strong opinions. He spends a fair amount of time south of the border each year on surf jaunts, so he knows how the local specialties taste when they’re done right, and he wants the same flavors here. He steered me to La Playita in Hermosa, a side street cafe I had somehow missed for years.
That’s easy to do, because the location half a block from the beach at 14th Street isn’t exactly a place of high traffic. There is a view of the Strand from their patio thanks to the adjacent park, but despite the sign facing the beach it’s easy to miss.
That patio has the view that other restaurants can only envy, but on cool evenings it’s more pleasant to huddle in the small dining room. The decor is basic, but you’re not here for glamour – it’s all about the food. The menu is simple, no mysterious regional dishes, just the items we know and love, but done particularly well.
The chips that start every meal are fresh and hot, and the salsa that comes with them has a chili and vinegar kick with a nice tang of cilantro and onion. Beer, wine, and margaritas are available but are not the focus here – there is no bar. The margaritas are surprisingly good and made with fresh lime juice – we tried a Cadillac margarita with a shot of Grand Marnier, and a skinny version made with agave nectar. The Cadillac is my favorite, and sometime I’m going to try their Mexican coffee with cinnamon, tequila, and Kahlua.
Among their appetizers, the standout is the tortilla soup, which has plenty of shredded chicken and chopped avocado in a light, citrusy broth. The flavors are clean and fresh, the portion big enough that you have to decide whether you’re going to eat it all and have little room for what comes next. (We tend to get half of it to go, because it’s still good the next day.) The chicken tamale also should be experienced, especially if you aren’t getting something that involves their mole sauce elsewhere in your meal. That sauce is good on anything, but particularly fine on the moist corn masa and chicken of the tamale. The spinach and mushroom quesadilla is a good appetizer too, but far too big for one person – I’d get it as a starter for two or more people.
In several visits I’ve tried most of the items on the menu and haven’t found a dud yet. While the carnitas is the soft style rather than the crisp type that I prefer, the flavor is spot on and the Enchiladas Hermosa – a crab and fish version – is very good. The fillings aside, what brings me back to La Playita are two of their sauces. The mole sauce is rich and dark, slightly smoky with a touch of sweetness and hints of cinnamon and clove. The tomatillo is citrusy and fresh with a well-calibrated chili burn; my wife who is not usually a fan of spicy food enjoyed it so much she kept eating it even though her lips were tingling. The tomatillo was perfect over otherwise mild spinach and chicken enchiladas, and I scooped up what remained on the plate with my chips.
If you’d like to try their homemade sauces all in one sitting, order the Tres Salsas burrito – a mammoth edifice of grilled chicken with black beans, onions, rice, and chopped tomato, topped with the tomatillo, mole, and ranchera sauces. The ranchera sauce is the only one that I don’t swoon over, because it’s a bit thin and mild compared to its robust counterparts.
I usually visit La Playita for dinner, although I have also stopped in for breakfast, when they offer machaca, breakfast burritos, chilaquiles, and other favorites along with some conventional omelets. They also offer an interesting anomaly called the Caribbean Breakfast, scrambled eggs with curry, tomatoes, mild chilies, jalapenos, and onion. It’s a wake-up call for your tongue, and a hint that this kitchen is capable of more exotic fare than they usually serve.
A meal at La Playita is inexpensive – most of the entrees hover around the ten dollar mark, and nothing is above thirteen. At these prices, you can explore their take on the classics often and work it off afterward with a stroll by the beach.
La Playita is at 37 Fourteenth Street in Hermosa. Open daily at 8:30 am, closed 9 pm except Sunday at 8:30. Street parking or adjacent pay lot, no validation. Full bar, some vegetarian items. Website at laplayitacafe.com, phone 310-376-214