In Los Angeles Mexican eateries follow a unique hierarchy. At the bottom level you have taco trucks. The life blood of Los Angeles that in recent months were attacked by city official and almost wiped out. Thanks to local outcry and a lengthy legal battle there here to stay. Move up the ladder and you have the hole-in-the-wall restaurants, the mom and pop joints that specialize in homeland cuisines or basics that any gringo would feel comfortable ordering like carne asada tacos or fajitas. Finally at the top, you have the white tablecloths, the wine lists, and the menu items that go a step above the usual and venturing into gourmet territory. When you've fallen off the ladder you're at El Torito, but that's for another article.
Recently I finally made it to what would be considered a top-rung restaurant called Amaranta Cocina Mexicana in the Canoga Park Topanga Mall. A place that boasts perhaps too much tequila options at over 400, and prefers to think of their menu as one that "does not seek to invent or modernize Mexican cuisine, but rather to celebrate, respect and preserve its originality." I walked in expecting fancier fajitas or tacos filled with things I'd never tasted before, but what I found was quite different.
On a Wednesday at 6:30 PM I arrived braving the hectic mall parking to find Amaranta on the ground floor next to the mall concierge station. The restaurant is designed to be wide open to the mall surroundings to allow the passersby carrying a mall pretzel the chance to look in and stop for lunch. It's too bad it's not located outdoors to allow natural sunlight in the place, because the patio and it's interior would certainly be at home. They could even decrease the strange amount of neon lighting to make it a more welcoming atmosphere. It was clear that when I arrived to the empty restaurant that more foot traffic was needed. Even the waiter looked bored as he leaned against the bar with wall-to-wall booze waiting around for someone to wait on.
Seated quickly I cracked open the menu and instantly ordered the tableside prepared guacamole. As I continued to menu scan we munched on the three house made salsas dipped into with pieces of hand made corn tortillas.
This was a nice change from the usual chips I'm accustomed to seeing, but you can request chips if you're tortilla phobic when it comes to salsa. The waiter indicated that the green was mild, the darkest color was medium, and the red was hot. Heat was true to name, but the salsa was a bit thin for my taste. I've always thought that salsa was for scooping, not for dipping. Probably why it's called salsa and not dip.
A cart soon rolled over with all the guacamole making ingredients and the guacamole man did his thing. The result tasted remarkably like guacamole! Yes you can screw up guacamole, sadly it's happened to me more then once. It was very fresh and I could certainly taste all the different bits and pieces that went in to making it, especially the lime. A truly solid guacamole. This came with chips that were made in-house same as the tortillas, and tasted equally warm, fresh, and greaseless.
For my entree I had a tough time deciding between the chicken fajitas and the conchinita pibil. I went with the latter, described exotically in the menu as "marinated chunks of pork wrapped in banana leaves and steamed to perfection." For sides I picked the spanish rice and refried black beans.
I had hoped it would arrive actually wrapped in a banana leaf tied shut like a present waiting to be opened on Christmas day. I was sad to see someone beat me to it, but no matter, it's what's inside that counts right? What I found was unevenly cooked with the outer edges being a bit on the dry side, and the center being the more tender and moist. Texture wise it was on-point, but it lacked in spice to bring it all together. This was the theme for the remainder of the plate which mentioned ingredients like onion and garlic that I couldn't detect.
I did manage to snag a taste of what the others had ordered. The enchiladas amaranta did not suffer from the same under spicing that my choice did. The pork had the qualities that I'd hoped for in mine, and overall the entire enchilada felt more true to the restaurants earlier mission statement.
The third dish on the table I didn't manage to try. But the diner said his camarones al ajillo was very "meh." Out of the three it was the most interestingly presented dish, arriving in a clay pot brimming with shrimp.
The dessert menu had a few interesting options but we opted for the churros con crema y cajeta. I love a good churro, and these were a nice surprise. Filled with bavarian cream and served with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream drizzled in caramel sauce, this was the star of the evening. I had a hard time not kicking everyone out of the booth and having it all to myself. It was sweet without being overpowering, and the heat from the churro was well partnered with the ice cream chill.
If I was doing my holiday shopping at the Topanga Mall this winter I would go back to Amaranta despite the dish discrepancies. The guacamole is worth another order, there are a few enchiladas I'd like to try, and the dessert was a delightful grand finale.
Note: I apologize for the photos. Silly me didn't put new batteries in my camera ahead of time and I had to use my phone. Check-out their website for a much better idea of the food.
6600 Topanga Canyon Blvd #1029
Canoga Park, CA 91303