Ciudad – Out of the Pan-Latin, Into the Fuego

ciudad, downtown los angeles, ca - empanadas

445 South Figueroa Street (@ 5th Street)
Los Angeles, CA 90071

I am convinced that in both fashion and food, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, new under the sun. Sure, something sashaying down the catwalk may appear new, but if you think back carefully enough, far enough, you’ll figure out that this Spring’s just-below-the-knee cuffed pant is really just a pair of slightly longer, slightly narrower culottes. Remember culottes? Yeah, the Gloria Vanderbilt ones that went with your Le Sportsac purse. Before that, they were called knickers. *shudders* Before that…well, I’d have to do some research.

In food, it is the same. There is nothing that is so innovative, so cutting-edge, so brand new that has never done before. Everything was something before to which there have been additions, deletions, edits, until you come up with something that seems new, but it’s not. Someone, somewhere, at some point back in time, has done it before. It may be trendy, but don’t mistake “trendy” with “new.” Comfort food is “trendy,” but for God’s sake I’m quite sure that someone was making macaroni and cheese in the 1950s.

So then what is a fashion designer or a foodie forward restaurant to do in this world where nothing is no longer new under the sun? Well, there was fusion, and despite my utter contempt for all things “fusion,” I will admit that yes, at one point, fusion food was fairly innovative. Take a little bit of raw fish, sprinkle it on top of spaghetti, and you’ve got…sushitalian. Or slap some refried garbanzo beans onto pita-chos and it’s Mexiterranean. Whatever cuisines they are, you pick the one that’s sexier of the two – Asian always seem to be the exotic erotic choice – then slap “fusion” behind it, and it’s going to sell Asian-fusion wasabi-rubbed flank steak with green tea mashed potatoes for $39.

Fusion had its day as the haute cuisine, but it is no longer. Hoping to join the inner circle of the culinary chic by saying you serve “fusion” cuisine is like trotting along Robertson Boulevard in ‘80s Flashdance leggings and pumps. Oh, wait. Never mind. Damn that Mary-Kate Olsen! Damn her and her little twin sister!

Yes, fusion is done. It is dead. In its place, there is now “pan.” Like pandemic. Like pangaea. Attach the prefix “pan-” to any cuisine and your restaurant menu turns into a global mall food court. Instead of a single dish mixing the flavors of two totally separate cuisines, each dish is one flavor, from one country. Obviously, “pan-” has to be with a one of the larger continental cuisines, like Asian, as Pan-Korean would just be…stupid.

ciudad restaurant, downtown los angeles, ca - sign
ciudad is pan-latin for “city”

Ciudad serves food from Mexico, Cuba, Argentina, and all those other countries in South and Central America. Ciudad is pan-Latin. It’s not Latin fusion, so unfortunately, you can’t get that gourmet delight, Mexican pizza. That’s from Taco Bell. But you can drink a margarita or a mojito, have empanadas as a starter and tacos as an entree.

I went to Ciudad for lunch. It’s been on my list of restaurants to try, not because I belong to the Too Hot Tamales fan club, nor am I hugely fond of the other restaurant, Border Grill in Santa Monica, and now Las Vegas. In fact, I was pretty surprised to actually have made it to Ciudad, since it’s located in downtown LA. If you know anything about downtown Los Angeles, the dining scene after dark is dead. And if you know anything about me, I am loathe to drive anywhere east of the 405 freeway. But, this was lunch, which meant neither Ciudad nor its surroundings would be a scary ghost-town, and I wouldn’t be faced with dinner-rush hour traffic on the 10 freeway.

ciudad restaurant, downtown los angeles, ca - view of bonaventure from patio
almost looks…pretty

The name Ciudad was clearly well-chosen, as everything about the location screams “City!” – it is located in the base of an office building and nestled among the highrises of the rest of downtown LA. From the restaurant’s front patio, the Bonaventure sparkled. I almost forgot about what kind of New Year’s debauchery has gone down year after year in and around “The Bonnie,” and it actually made downtown look like a postcard, not like the 9-to-5-only-alive, otherwise neglected, drug-addict inhabited place that it is.

Though it was mid-week and lunchtime, I went ahead and ordered a mojito, because unlike all the other power-lunchers out there who would have to get back to the office by 1:30 and be their magnificent middle manager selves on a 2:00 video simul-conference with Seattle and Singapore, I could booze into the afternoon, go home, take a nap, and blog. If I felt like blogging. Unfortunately, the mojito tasted like a powdered dried mint mixed with lime-flavored Tang, which never existed since Tang was an orange drink. What I meant is lime-flavored Kool-Aid. The mojito didn’t taste very good. But I still drank two. No conference call, and rum is rum :)

ciudad restaurant, downtown los angeles, ca - mojito
two mojito lunch
ciudad restaurant, downtown los angeles, ca - flatbread and spread
who knew matzo could be Latin

Instead of tortilla chips and salsa, which just isn’t pan-Latin enough, Ciudad serves a variety of flatbreads in the same type of cut-out metal tableware. I am not sure which Latin American countries serve matzo with sesame seeds.That is what it tasted like. The accompanying dips were a type of hummus and an olivade. Both were delicious, salty, so
I ate them with a fork instead of the flatbread.

Ciudad’s menu changes ever so slightly from day to day, or at least that is what they say to give some semblance of “fresh!” I suspect it changes with the seasons, which isn’t much here in LA. Like the menu for Border Grill, the Ciudad’s foods are divided into Platos Pequenos and Ensaladas (Small Plates and Salads), Empanadas, Platos Principales (Main Dishes), and Sandwiches (which might only be at lunch). We wanted to try a little bit of everything, because Ciudad is pan-Latin! This is my chance to visit all of Latin America in one meal!

ciudad restaurant, downtown los angeles, ca - fried oysters special
a reminder to always eat raw

There were a few Especialidades, but that’s not what they were really called. They were called “Specials.” I just said “Especialidades” because that sounds better. We ordered the fried oysters, which weren’t the worst oysters I’ve ever tasted, but soggy breading, a mealy texture, and too-fishy taste were reminders that I always prefer my oysters raw. When oysters are raw, they have to be fresh. If they’re even slightly under-fresh, it will be painfully obvious if served raw, but less so if cooked, especially hidden under a layer of breading or thick sauces.

ciudad restaurant, downtown los angeles, ca - empanadas
Spanish for “Hot Pocket”
ciudad restaurant, downtown los angeles, ca - empanadas
the chef didn’t trust the squash

Of course, with a whole section dedicated to empanadas seeming to indicate that these might be a specilaty, we felt obligated to try one. I always thought that all empanadas were Argentinean to begin with, but there was one specifically called an Argentinean Empanadas, made with wild mushrooms and swiss chard. They sounded vaguely familiar, which they were since I had tried empanadas at Border Grill before. We ordered the Butternut Squash and Roasted Poblano empanadas. Two tiny Hot Pockets were on an enormous plate of greens, citrus, and avocado dressed in a light vinaigrette. The empanada pastry was flaky, but a little thick for my taste, and the filling of butternut squash tasted as if the chefs didn’t trust the natural sweetness of the squash and had added sugar. The cotija and ranchera cheeses weren’t strong enough to balance out how sweet the filling was.

ciudad restaurant, downtown los angeles, ca - tacos
tres tacos, but no beans and rice
ciudad restaurant, downtown los angeles, ca - braised beef in tacos
fat held together with protein strands

For some reason, most of the Platos Prinicpales didn’t appeal to me, and I just wanted to try the Braised Beef Tacos. While the oysters had been disappointing and the empanadas somewhat ho-hum, the braised beef tacos were super-fantastic. The tacos were tiny double-layer corn tortillas about the diameter of the now defunct mini-disc. Each tortilla pair-round was topped with a juicy, fatty, stringy mound of braised beef that was weeping oily-shimmery, reddish brown beef juices onto the plate. The tortillas were merely utensils. The beef was salty, spicy in flavor, but not in heat, and fell apart upon contact with any warmth as the gobs of beef fat that were held tenuously together with a just a few strands of protein melted.

Ciudad’s pan-Latin lunch wasn’t bad, but tasted slightly over-priced. I became more interested in the menu of “Cuchifritos,” bar snacks for the Happy Hour set, which seems to be the real draw to Ciudad. Unfortunately, unless I am already downtown around 5:00 in the afternoon for some strange, random reason, pan-Latin at Ciudad doesn’t seem worth the driving effort. I’d rather pick up empanadas, Tito’s Tacos, and mix mojitos at home.

But at least it wasn’t fusion.

** a year ago today, chardonnay tasted like termite-bait **

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