Unfettered delight

Lalo’s Restaurant

5063 24th St.
Sacramento, CA 95822

(916) 736-2389

Lalo’s is epic for several reasons. Starting with the karmic:

Xochitl Arellano and I must have loved in another life. It’s too kismet, too comfy, too cool. Prior to Lalo’s, my knowledge of Xochitl is mainly bio greatest hits: former Capitol reporter for Univision, now press secretary for Sen. Gilbert Cedillo and the Legislature’s Latino caucus.

Then a poster near Lalo’s kitchen counter advertising mamey licuados triggers a Niagara of delight. Mamey is a fruit from Xochitl’s youth in Mexico City. Licuados are milkshakes. And the prospect of drinking one thrills her.

The restaurant’s engaging matriarch, Cecilia Tinoco, breaks it to Xochitl, en español, that there’s no mamey today. The fruit, only grown in the tropics, is cooling its jets at LAX. We discuss our future fortune as California’s first mamey magnates.

Fresa, platano, nuez, papaya and avena licuados—strawberry, banana, walnut, papaya, oats—can be had for $4, four bits less than Xochitl’s cherished mamey. She’s not having any of it.

My mamey or the highway. Must taste phenomenal. “Celestial. Seriously: eternal spring. A tropical rain. A fruit of the gods. Texture like papaya. Tastes like a tropical sweet potato. No sé. But I adore it.” Man o’ Manischewitz, major mamey mamacita.

The menu over the counter conjures more memories. There’s atole, Xochitl says with excitement: a warm cornstarch-based, sweetened-with-cinnamon-and-vanilla winter-morning drink bought from street vendors. Served usually with tamales. And mixto: a mélange of fresh-squeezed orange, carrot and beet juice. Iffy on paper, yes. Through a straw, sweet success. My face hurts from grinning at Xochitl’s unfettered delight.

Xochitl establishes that Cecilia hails from a barrio near hers. That’s the key to Lalo’s uniqueness: What’s being served is what residents of the Distrito Federal eat. There aren’t molcajetes or tortas or buche tacos or deep-fried flor de calabaza or huitlacoche quesadillas at Chevys, El Torito, Vallejo’s, Zocalo or Ernesto’s.

Nor will any of those pretenders-to-the-throne offer state of Hidalgo-style riquisima barbacoa—delicious barbecue—Saturdays and Sundays, accompanied by consommé made from the meat leavings and bones. A pound of barbeque—libra barbacoa—is $9, plus another $2 for the consommé.

An ancient cooking method, barbacoa is meat—cow head, lamb, pork or goat—wrapped in maguey cactus leaves and, traditionally, cooked in a pit. A maguey is the centerpiece of Lalo’s logo. There’s a large leaf-wrapped slab of something on the griddle, the weekend’s barbacoa-in-training. Goat, Cecilia tells Xochitl.

We sample a bit of everything except the buche tacos. Not because buche is pig’s esophagus, but because Xochitl hankers for squash flower and corn-fungus quesadillas, $3.50 apiece. Xochitl wants more squash flowers in the flor de calabaza. The pitch-black corn fungus is a Mexican delicacy, she says. A staple of Aztec cooking, huitlacoche combines two words in Nahuatl: huitlatl meaning poop, and coche, which means raven.

Despite the poor marketing, the corn fungus is a hit, although its somewhat bland taste is sharply improved with generous helpings of the house hot sauce and escabeche.

Cecilia is alone in the kitchen when we enter. After we order, women—young and old—converge in the tight space. They’re make the Borg collective seem lazy.

Cecilia mans the juicer, creating my carrot juice and Xochitl’s mixto. The bottom of the $2 glass of tamarindo is crowded with tamarind purée that isn’t store-bought.

The $6.50 Milanese torta, despite starring a slab of breaded beef, is light and flavorful, primarily because of the telera bread. Neither of us would complain were there more avocado.

My $10 molcajetes pours steam after it’s placed on the table by a somewhat sullen young woman from the kitchen. Molcajetes are traditional Mexican basalt-grinding mortars, and that’s exactly what’s filled with slices of chorizo, pollo, bistec, nopales, a glob of queso Oaxaca and two industrial-sized scallions awash in a soupy, touch-too-salty, cilantro-based sauce. Never tasted a molcajetes like it before, since this ends my molcajetes virginity.

Asked what the best thing about being 105 years old was, an elderly woman once replied: “No peer pressure.” Similarly, Lalo’s is incomparable. ¡Buen provecho!