Just like home

Just like home

CaCao Mexicatessen in Eagle Rock ranks high among the region’s best

By Erica Wayne 01/17/2013

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There is a certain sameness to most Mexican restaurants in Southern California that deadens the soul. They all seem to have almost identical lists of tacos, enchiladas, tamales, seafood with garlic, pork with green or red sauce, refried beans and rice. The recipes may differ a bit — the salsas hotter, the chile relleno lighter and the shrimp a bit more tender. By and large, however, the menus and the preparations are interchangeable.
 
But among the indistinguishable and pleasant sheep, a few of less-common stock frolic, leaping higher than their brethren and showing off their capabilities to those taking time to check them out. 
 
In our local flock, three come to mind. Two, Babita in San Gabriel and La Cabanita in Montrose, have been in business for many years. A third, CaCao Mexicatessen in Eagle Rock, only opened in 2009. At the risk of offending all three, CaCao reminds me of both of the others, although its ambiance is quite distinct.
 
Those who have frequented Babita or La Cabanita know how different they are. Babita is formal and serene, with fine wines and elegant service. La Cabanita is casual and jolly, with a full bar and coincidental high noise level. And connoisseurs of Mexican cuisine recognize both restaurants as places to flock to for authentic and innovative recipes based on many regions other than the Tex-Mex border. 
 
CaCao follows the same model. Its menu states that the restaurant is “dedicated to bringing you flavors from various regions of Mexico, including Oaxaca, Puebla, Mexico City, Baja and the Yucatan.” They offer traditional and modern interpretations of Mexican cuisine, and “All of our moles, salsas, sauces and corn tortillas are prepared in house. We take pride in listing indigenous ingredients, such as corn, huitlacoche, nopales, chiles and squash. … Thank you and enjoy.”
 
And that’s exactly what we did. We tried tacos made from squash blossoms and poblano strips sautéed in crema, topped with cilantro and manchego ($3.25), and tiger shrimp in chipotle citrus garlic sauce topped with cilantro-lime cremolata and chives ($3.99). We also had corn truffles with huitlacoche, hominy and roasted corn topped with cotija cheese, salsa and radish ($4.49). Smallish (some complaints from my companions) but primo, they made us salivate for more. 
 
Among the untried: fried duck skin, venison, fried avocado, hibiscus flower and salmon, each with its own distinct compendium of toppings.
 
There are some fascinating platters: poblano chiles rellenos, one filled with roasted corn and cheese, the other with wild mushrooms. They’re topped with mole verde with pumpkin seeds and cotija cheese and paired with a batter-fried squash blossom filled with gruyere and goat cheeses ($15.95). 
 
Then there was tres puerquitos (three little pigs), a sampling of cochinita pibil, house made chorizo and carnitas with guacamole, pico de gallo, cebollitas, diced onion and cilantro with black beans, cilantro-lime rice and tortillas ($14.95).
 
“But wait,” I hear you say, “what about the name of the restaurant? Where’s the chocolate?” It’s available on Abuelita’s enchiladas ($11.95), a stack of handmade corn tortillas filled with three cheeses and topped with crema and a mole poblano that’s made with Mexican chocolate and 15 other ingredients. 
 
Chocolate mole can also be ordered with chicken ($14.95) and on French fries, sprinkled with sesame seeds ($4.95). On the breakfast menu, chilaquiles come tossed in mole, jack cheese, onion, cilantro and crema, along with two eggs any style, beans and Yukon gold potatoes ($9.95). 
 
The morning choices also include blue cornmeal and pumpkin pancakes with powdered sugar, pears and Mexican cinnamon syrup ($8.50). On Sundays, have French toast dipped in a pumpkin-egg batter topped with almonds and powdered sugar ($8.50), or eggs Benedict with chipotle hollandaise sauce on top of sautéed spinach and mini-quesadillas filled with Mexican cheeses ($9.95). No chocolate on these, but they’re mighty good.
 
If the mole poblano doesn’t sate your chocolate cravings, the staff at CaCao can whip up a hot chocolate using Oaxacan cacao with cane sugar, cinnamon and almonds ($3.95) and, for an extra half-buck, spike it with espresso. Another nickel will get you an Azteca mocha, with a dash of chile de arbol. And, for dessert, there’s Oaxacan chocolate ice cream solo ($2.95), which can be made into a Mexican banana split, with fried plantain bananas, fudge, caramel sauce, whipped cream, almonds and maraschino cherries ($8.25).
 
CaCao has a relatively extensive list of Mexican wines from Baja or Mexican-owned wineries in California. The selection has received an informal stamp of approval from one of the greatest experts on Baja wines, Ralph Amey (an Eagle Rock resident), who has written what I believe to be the only book on the subject, “Wines of Baja California: Touring and Tasting Mexico’s Undiscovered Treasures.”
 
Now, before you run off to Amazon.com to order the book or take off to CaCao to sample the cuisine, let me warn you about a couple of negatives. The restaurant is extremely small, although it looks as if they’re in progress of adding an additional dining area. If you go at peak times, you’re probably going to feel a bit like a sardine, crammed into a cute but limited space on, frankly, uncomfortable wooden chairs. 
 
To order, you have to stand in line at the counter and pay in advance (bad if you decide you must have an additional beverage in the middle of your meal). CaCao bills itself as a “Mexicatessen,” and the layout (with deli displays and refrigerated compartments taking up a good percentage of the space) fits the description. No matter how full, you probably won’t leave without an armful of homemade moles, salsas, guacamole, avocado oil, stuffed chiles and the like. 
 
CaCao 
Mexicatessen
1576 Colorado Blvd., 
Eagle Rock
Beer and wine/Major cards
(323) 478-2791
cacaodeli.com

 

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