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Rancho Cooking With a Twist: Carnal Opens In Highland Park From Two Titans of Mexican Seafood

The new restaurant is a collaboration from two prized local purveyors of Mexican seafood and fish tacos: Simón LA and Baja Cali Fish + Tacos, though the resulting menus are not at all what you'd expect.

A taco made from Carnal’s Salsa de Chicharron dish. Photo by Memo Torres

Two prized local purveyors of Mexican seafood and fish tacos have teamed up to bring you something new in Highland Park: Carnal, a self-described “cocina artesanal” (artisanal kitchen) focused on just about anything but seafood.

The concept was formed when the owners of Baja Cali Fish & Tacos invited chef Francisco Aguilar, the owner-chef of Simón, to take over their Figueroa Boulevard location. Carnal, the resulting concept, reflects a rancho-style of cooking merging with the consciousness of a chef professionally trained in Chiapas and Oaxaca. 

The restaurant is currently soft-open and will hold its grand-opening on July 11 featuring a heavy, siesta-inducing brunch menu while Carnal's dinner concept is finalized in preparation of a debut in the next couple of weeks.

“I wanted to serve rancho food like I grew up with–heavy and rich," Aguilar tells L.A. Taco. "That’s how we eat back home.”

Some items are easily recognizable to those raised on such cooking, while the chef takes liberties with others.

Interior seating and decor at Carnal. Photo by Memo Torres.

Step into a space as unique as its menu. The walls are painted black, with a mesmerizing sight, a couple hundred dried corn cobss hanging from the ceiling like mini chandeliers, greets you in the middle.

The seating arrangement is designed to foster a sense of community, with individual seating on one side and a long communal table on the other. The owners' vision is clear; they want to encourage communal eating among strangers. A small bar-top with seating separates the kitchen from the dining room, though there’s no alcohol yet. 

Aguilar's menu is a reflection of his personal and professional journey, which has seen him cooking at the esteemed Pitiona—a fine-dining staple found in every guide to Oaxaca's restaurants--to the kitchens of Chiapas to the bustling streets of Los Angeles behind the wheel of his own taco truck, and now, this brick-and-mortar collaboration in Highland Park. Meanwhile each dish carries the deep, soulful, matriarchal flavors of his upbringing in rural villages in Mexico.

Seasoned pineapple slices and juice as a starter. Photo by Memo Torres.

Your meals here will begin on a complimentary amuse-bouche featuring a couple of slices of pineapple cured in their own juices and seasonings, served with a sprinkle of sal de gusano (salt made from agave worms), and a shot of juice. As you look over the menu, should you not know wonder what a "chochoyote" or "tetela" is, its backside is standing by with a helpful glossary of such terms.

Enfrijoladas by Carnal made with tetelas and a quesadilla of hoja santa. Photo by Memo Torres.

At first glance, the menu appears familiar. There are enfrijoladas, chilaquiles, mole con arroz, a torta de milanesa, and a tamal de rajas. But these dishes end up being anything but basic. The enfrijoladas use two different beans, a black bean salsa on the plate, with handmade tetelas housing frijoles charros inside, and served with a quesadilla made out of an hoja santa and quesillo.

Maizhongo bowl from Carnal. Photo by Memo Torres.

Of the more unique offerings is the maizhongo, a fungus-focused medley of different mushrooms and huitlacoche, which the menu glossary describes as "a corn mushroom... a fungus which randomly grows on organic corn." This is served with small dimpled masa balls called chochoyotes, a Zapotec term for "belly button."

Salsa de chicharron with fresh tortillas. Photo by Memo Torres.

Of the more traditional meals, the salsa de chicharron instantly took me back to my grandma's kitchen in Mexico, with pork belly in salsa morita topped with crunchy chicharrones and served with picked cactus and rice, along with tortillas made from masa sourced from La Gloria in Boyle Heights.

There's a surprise in every dish, like the tomatillo jam hidden in the "Doña Croque" (a Mexican riff on croque madame) or the short rib barbacoa served with green salsa and chunks of avocado that is so reminiscent of Mexico City. You can wash it all down with agua frescas, tepache, atole, and of course, cafe de olla.

Though you can get in now for brunch, doors officially open to the public on Thursday, July 11th. As to what surprises the dinner menu will have when it comes along, you'll have to follow them on Instagram for that announcement.

Doña Croque, served on a bolillo with quesillo, bacon, grilled pineapple, and tomatillo jam. Photo by Memo Torres.
Carnal's barbacoa taco. Photo by Memo Torres.
Tamal de Rajas with tamal tonot, salsa molcajete, quesillo, fondue, and gratin. Photo by Memo Torres.
Mole Toast features toast made from a bolillo with poached eggs, Oaxacan mole, onion, and queso fresco. Photo by Memo Torres.
An agua fresca at Carnal.

Carnal ~ 5831 N. Figueroa Blvd, Los Angeles, CA

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