Central Mexico is no country for vegetarians — not on the Sabbath, anyway. Sundays in Fruitvale, appetites for meat reach a kind of frenzy, as expats from Jalisco, Mexico City, and Michoacan hunch over a succulent harvest of slaughter. Barbacoa. Goat-meat birria. Beef-hoof soup. Menudo. It's as if the homesick cling to the great festival meat dishes, among others, as the most glistening, outsize souvenirs of home.
Of course, Michoacan has its own peculiar hankerings. At Canchola's, a restaurant that's coalesced over the past six months as a shrine to the sprawling town of Apatzingan, you can get your fill of animal flesh in a rainbow of species. Meat dishes with a Michoacano flavor that survives even the unspectacular kitchen skills of ordinary home cooks — seemingly, the women moving around the high ceilinged, semi-open kitchen here. Canchola's is a restaurant that seems to exist almost solely to stoke the meat-laden memories of natives from Apatzingan. It's an interesting detour from the Jalisco-dominated food culture suffusing Fruitvale.
Rigoberto Canchola took over the space from a restaurant that specialized in spit-roasted chicken. The gas-fired rotisserie is still there, in a back corner of the kitchen, but pollo rostizado isn't what Canchola's does best. That distinction belongs to the husky, one-pot dishes that give Mexico's west-central state its culinary reputation.
You can't get huskier than morisqueta, Michoacan's vivid, bulky stew. Canchola's version is a pile of plain boiled rice, topped like a Sloppy Joe with a mess of boiled pork riblets doused in searing red chile sauce. It throbs with cumin and cloves — you can dilute it a bit by mixing in forkfuls of the shredded raw cabbage than crowd the plate in a heap. It's rough and tasty, even if the rice is a tad sticky. And those squares of bone offer up only scant meat.
That same chunky vibrancy radiates from birria de chivo, stewed goat, available Saturdays and Sundays only, as caldo, soup, or seco, joints of braised meat. It's delicious in caldo form — and strikingly different from the Jaliscense birrias available up and down International Boulevard on weekends. Jalisco cooks favor goat meat on the bone, in broths turned viscous with smooth purees of toasted and rehydrated chiles.
Michoacan-style birria, the soupy option, favors chivo off the bone, and thin broths spiked less with chile than spices such as clove. Squint, and you can make out the form of some 16th-century Spanish prototype — only without the capsicums.
Beneath its orange slick of surface fat, Canchola's birria has a vinegary tang, only a faint pulse of clove, and the rich, weedy burr of oregano (I fished out two dried sprigs from a single bowl). The goat itself — moist and softly stringy — is mild enough to persuade the leery, perhaps, to give the little creature a try. You get a hash of radish, onion, and cilantro for scattering, and the thickish house-made tortillas (pressed from fresh masa, not reconstituted flour) are decent.
Michoacanos love cecina, the air-dried beef that ranges from thin and crisp to rough and jerky-like. At Canchola's, you'll get a couple of pieces in the latter style, more or less crisped via a quick dunk in the deep fryer. It's rough stuff, rigid sheets as long as your hand, with a topography of glistening muscle fibers. These have a particularly funky taste, a flavor like beef drippings allowed to ripen for a few days, and with more than a vague whiff of tallow that builds in your nose. At least they come with slices of avocado (an entirely cleaner sensation of fatty). And the house salsa, trailing the ghost of deeply charred tomato skins and toasted chiles, makes a lot of things taste better. And as if the cecina weren't meaty enough, you get a stiff pool of refried beans mashed up with fried chorizo — the equivalent of eating a steak along with a pile of bacon-packed mashed potatoes. Wicked.
If you need relief from something comforting and familiar, that rotisserie chicken isn't a bad place to start. Sopes de pollo rostizado is tasty and unchallenging: irregularly textured masa-dough rafts, heaped with a tostada-like load of shredded roast chicken, queso anejo, refried bean shmear, and flurry of raw cabbage.
But it's a dish at the Canchola's fringe. Enchiladas con wilotas, quail enchiladas, smacks of Apatzingan itself. Now, to anyone weaned on a California Cuisine restaurant diet, "quail enchiladas" evokes an image of something rarefied. These, it should be noted, are anything but fancy. The little birds are deep fried, bones intact, and smeared with a scant amount of recado, a seasoning paste. The enchilada element exists apart, tortillas dunked in chile sauce and half filled with a mashup of queso fresco and the slaw-like condiment called curtido, half covered with slices of deep-fried potatoes. My particular duo of quail fell short of ideal, but not totally outside the realm of tasty. Their flesh had the vaguely chicken-liver flavor of quail, but they'd been smeared with recado too long before — the birds' texture had turned wooly. But the bright-tasting cheese mixture lurking in those folded-over tortillas was the dish's center of gravity. Tangy and resinous (thanks to toasted oregano in the curtido), it gave anything they touched instant character.
Of course, Canchola's is a place so packed with character in its own right, it can dull your perceptions of the food on your plate. A de facto gift shop takes up every available surface at the back of the restaurant: Valentine-red teddy bears entombed in plastic cylinders, key chains hanging like fringe from food storage shelves, and near the cash register, a bouquet of "panty roses" — fake blooms stuffed with red, shiny-looking bikini underwear.
Funny thing is, Apatzingan itself — inspiration for all this nostalgia — visible in a framed panorama of side-by-side snaps, appears squat and dull. Maybe everything looks brighter when viewed across a lush plate of meat.
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