We were first introduced to the Yucatan-inspired Chichen Itza restaurant when our son, Steven, started studying at USC, and he happened to mention that he and his friends go there on regular basis.
So, last Sunday when we went to visit him, we figured we would try it and see how it measured up to the dishes our family had previously sampled during our many visits to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.
The restaurant is located in a warehouse-like building hidden in an area that looks semi-industrial near the 101 freeway in South LA. The building is part of a very quaint re-done mini mall called Mercado La Paloma, filled with eateries and Central American souvenir stores, owned by a nonprofit organization that strives to help establish sustainability in the L.A. neighborhood by providing jobs and housing for residents.
For a small restaurant in a non-descript area of South LA, the restaurant has been featured several times on the local news and national stations. It has an A rating for cleanliness and has plenty of parking in front of it. There is also ample seating that it shares with the other food venues in the indoor mall.
A favorite of all the USC students and others working in the area; the restaurant can get somewhat crowded during lunch and dinner hours. But that doesn’t seem to deter the restaurant’s staff which still manages to cook and serve the orders at a relatively fast pace considering it has such a small kitchen; which by the way is open so patrons can see the dishes as they are being prepared.
As mentioned before, there are plenty of seats available in the well lit indoor Plaza where one can sit at the table and wait for one’s food order to arrive after prepaying at the cash register.
For guests with antsy kids that can’t wait patiently at their table; wandering about and checking out the trinkets sold in the nearby stores is a good option.
The day that we went, there was almost no line for ordering, but we could see the line moved relatively fast.
The restaurant menu is rather extensive which makes for difficult choices when it comes to ordering.If you are a first time visitor and are there with friends, I recommend ordering several items to share so you can get a taste of the diversity of the dishes.
We liked that their menu, displayed over the cash register area, included a short description of dishes alongside pictures for those who had never tasted this type of cuisine before or had trouble understanding the written explanations.
The venue offers several authentic drinks that you should try – the Horchata, Jamaica, Guanabana and Aqua de Chaya.
Their appetizers include crispy fried tortilla Panuchos, fluffy corn tortilla Salbutes, Longaniza Asada, which is a smoky chorizo dish, and Kibbeh, which is a Lebanese-influenced dish of three beef cuts and bulgar wheat meatball-style patties.
The restaurant also features four types of Tamales, several different tacos filled with fish, pork, beef and chicken, and some sandwiches and sides that are perfect for lunch – all priced at under ten dollars each.
Their main dishes are a little more pricey ( 12$-18$) and include the delicious pork dish Poc Chuc; the suitable-for-vegetarian-tortilla Papadzules and their signature Pibil dish which is offered either with pork or chicken.
We had their Cochinita Pibil, which is delicious pulled pork, slow-roasted in banana leaves and marinated in achiote. The meat was tender and incredibly juicy topped with pickled red onions, and not surprisingly w tasted as good as its Mexican counterpart.
The winning combination of jicama and orange in the restaurant’s orange jicama salad paired exceptionally well with our Cochinita Pibil; so make sure you get an order to share for the table as the portion is large.
Since we were a party of five and the restaurant portions looked on the generous side, we shared an order of their Tacos de Chicharron and their Tacos de Cochinita Pibil along with their Torta de Polo Asada. The Torta that filled with mesquite grilled chicken, black beans and roasted onions with a side of potato salad chips and the homemade bread turned out to be a good choice.
The server who brought our order to the table was very friendly and quite knowledgeable in the nuances of Yucatán cooking. He took pride in explaining the achiote spice used in several of the dishes as well as the different types of pickled onions the chef uses.
According to our server, the way the onions are diced (vertically versus horizontally) affects the taste and determines whether the pickled onions will be milder or stronger.
We were pretty full by the time we ate everything but couldn’t pass over the opportunity to sample the restaurant’s version of bread pudding in almond syrup, so we took an order to go. According to our son who is an avid bread pudding connoisseur (he left no trace of it within the hour) the texture was doughier than the English version and a bit sweeter.
Overall, we had a lovely experience and were surprised not only by the excellent quality of food but by the friendliness of the staff who patiently answered my son’s questions and gave us all an impromptu, brief lesson in Mexican cooking.
Chichen Itza offers excellent value for money and diners can enjoy a satisfying meal for anywhere between $15 and $40.
You can find the Chichen Itza restaurant at 3655 S Grand Ave #C6, Los Angeles, CA.
Limited parking is available in the lot right by the Mercado, and if you find a spot there, you get your parking ticket validated by the restaurant. Grand Avenue has more availability for parking.