Mexican Street-Food Flavors Are Taking L.A. by Storm
The words “elotes” and “al pastor” aren’t on the menu at Testa, but chef Sydney Hunter III is winning over guests with the flavors of street corn and street tacos inside the new downtown L.A. restaurant.
Hunter grew up eating Mexican food prepared by his Mexican mother in L.A.’s San Gabriel Valley. He spent summers in Tijuana, where he would enjoy street food with his grandmother.
“I never had a chance to put a little bit of that in my cooking with my classic French training,” says Hunter, who cooked with Ludo Lefebvre for years, including a high-profile stint as chef de cuisine at Petit Trois. “I really wanted to put these flavors on the menu at Testa.”
Hunter’s creative version of street corn is crispy polenta with roasted yellow corn, shallots, garlic, tomatillo, poblano, spiced aioli and cotija cheese.
“I wanted to do something fancier, but all the components you would have on elotes are on the dish,” Hunter says.
Hunter happily takes even more liberties with a vegetable dish inspired by al pastor. Instead of offering spit-roasted pork, Hunter blisters Blue Lake green beans that he serves with hot sauce, avocado, grilled pineapple and achiote dressing.
Hunter’s goal was to incorporate the spiciness, sweetness and scent of al pastor without using meat, and he’s succeeded. He adds intensity to the dish by making a Calabrian chile paste amped up with chopped piquillo peppers. Calabrian chiles aren’t Mexican, of course, but they add a powerful depth of flavor and heat.
The thing is, Testa isn’t a Mexican restaurant. It’s one of those all-over-the-map L.A. neighborhood restaurants. It has crudos, charcuterie, wonderful roast chicken and a showstopping, umami-rich plate of Japanese-Italian spaghettini with uni and katsuobushi dashi. Why not blend cultures when it makes things funkier and more delicious?
“I wanted to put my personality on the menu,” Hunter says. “I never had a chance to make things without having any rules at other restaurants.”
Hunter totally understands why many non-Mexican chefs all over L.A. are playing around with the flavors of Mexican street food.
“I think that a lot of people are starting to embrace a little more of the L.A. culture,” Hunter says. “That’s Los Angeles.”
So at the new 189 by Dominique Ansel inside The Grove, the famed French chef and his Korean executive chef Hyun Lee are serving a sweet-corn milk bread that features the flavors of elotes. It comes in a husk and is topped with cotija cheese and popular Mexican spice blend Tajín. Ansel says the dish is inspired by his experiences eating street corn, of course, but also by the fact that Lee grew up in Argentina and likes to cook with these flavors.
E.P. & L.P. in West Hollywood is where you’ll find Aussie-born chef Louis Tikaram, who has Fijian, Indian and Chinese roots. He cooks modern Asian food, but he also loves weaving in the flavors of L.A. street food. E.P. & L.P.’s new mango and chili dessert includes mango sorbet, house-made chamoy, green mango, Tajín and lime. The dessert was the result of Tikaram and his kitchen crew visiting Mexican fruit carts during an L.A. heat wave and realizing how refreshing these flavors are.
Similarly, Blinkie’s Donuts in Woodland Hills recently started selling mango Tajín donuts along with Thai tea donuts because owner Teresa Ngo wants flavors that reflect the diversity of L.A.
Ngo runs Blinkie’s with her father/baker Hugh. They are among the many Cambodian refugees who have wound up running doughnut shops in Southern California. Ngo previously lived in Paris, but she’s more interested in L.A. flavors than French pastries.
“I just wanted to be a little different,” Ngo says of the new-school donuts she and her father make. “I love my fruits with Tajín. I eat at the Mexican fruit carts.”
Blinkie’s is largely known for its classic donuts like chocolate and blueberry old-fashioned, but Ngo knows it’s important to surprise customers and give them new reasons to come back.
It’s not unlike how Hunter thinks at Testa. Right before he started cooking at Testa, Hunter was known for his pastas at Kettle Black, one of the many noteworthy modern Italian restaurants in L.A. He’s happy to serve you pasta and porchetta at Testa, but he wants to make sure you have lots of other options, too.
“I want it to be described as a restaurant that has a little bit of everything for everyone,” Hunter says.
And if you really want to categorize dishes like a produce-centric riff on Mexican spit-roasted pork that incorporates hyper-specific California vegetables and fiery Italian chiles, that’s easy. If you want to describe a pasta that gets its umami from Japanese seafood instead of Italian cheese, that’s also easy. Just call it L.A. food.