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This Indigenous Mayan Chef Is Channeling His Ancestral Secrets to Serve L.A.’s Latest Contender for the Best Cochinita Pibil

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]here’s a common practice among immigrant parents of young ‘desmadrosos’ in L.A.'s barrios: Send them back to the rural countryside to live that rancho life. “Con los abuelos pa’ que se enderezcan” (Send them to the family elders so that they can get their life straight). 

It rarely works, and more often than not, you’ll hear the townspeople complain, “Solo mandan a sus hijos a ser su desmadre aquí!” Chef Juan Chan of East Los Angeles was one of these young knuckleheads, but his send-off to Yucatán not only straightened him out but also blessed him with his abuelos raising him in his ancestral Mayan culture. It wasn’t until he was an adult that he understood his roots’ depth and the significance of his heritage through his food.  

In a gated driveway of a Montebello home, Chef Juan Chan and Rocio Rodriguez have set up their pop-up for the first time since March of 2020, when the pandemic started. Look for the white metal gate scarred with a hint of rust, and you’ll find an outdoor set-up that feels more like an elegant dining experience and less like your primito’s birthday party. 

EK'BALAM's setup in Montebello. Photo by Memo Torres for L.A. Taco.
Photo by Memo Torres for L.A. Taco.

A dark canopy blocks the sun, and a black veil around it provides shade to the table of four where you’ll be seated. A cactus stands tall in the corner, while some hanging baskets with fake ferns and a couple of artificial Ficus help give the illusion of green outdoor space. On the floor, you’ll find some tree trunks with decoratively burnt ends carefully adorned with Mayan figures and jars of dried yellow corn cobs. The DIY taquería’s sign reads “EK'BALAM,” which is the Mayan god represented by a black jaguar. A smaller sign on a tree stump reads “Kiimak’oolal'' which translates to “Welcome.” This charming setting is the first hint you’re about to enjoy something beyond just any taco. 

EK'BALAM a business built by his mom, Elsa Chan, who also taught him everything she knew about Mayan cuisine while helping her in his youth.

Rodriguez, a 32-year-old Jaliscience American, and Chan’s significant other greets you from behind a face mask. The first dish she recommends is the Panucho, a memela-meets-sope nixtamal treat made with thin fried masa stuffed with black bean paste. It’s a crunchy bite, smoothed out by an avocado slice, refreshed with some crisp lettuce leaf, and pickled red onions and jalapeños. All there to complement the thrice-cooked chicken, cooked through a grill, pot, and oven. 

The chef and his family in Yucatán. Photo courtesy of EK'BALAM.

If it wasn’t for Rodriguez, EK'BALAM might have never had a second life. EK'BALAM was mainly a catering business that enjoyed serving boxing greats like Fernando Vargas and Robert Garcia. Chef Chan also enjoyed working alongside Chef Sean Shepherd cooking for celebrities like the late Kobe Bryant, Will Smith, and Three 6 Mafia. It was a business built by his mom, Elsa Chan, who also taught him everything she knew about Mayan cuisine while helping her in his youth.

Photo by Memo Torres for L.A. Taco.

He eventually took over the catering business in 2015 and changed the name from “Maya Catering and Mexican Food” to “EK'BALAM.” But a bad deal a few years ago where Chef Chan was scammed out of his twenty thousand dollar savings for a food truck combined with the recent catering business-killing pandemic, Chef Chan almost gave up on EK'BALAM all together.

Photo by Memo Torres for L.A. Taco.

He tells L.A. Taco, “Rocio surprised me this past November with tickets to Yucatán. My family in Yucatán is involved in the government’s efforts with their gastronomy, and she thought it would be a good idea to go back and learn something new. That really changed things for me.” 

Queso Relleno. Photo by Memo Torres for L.A. Taco.

Some of those connections are to Miriam Peraza, whose recent fame for her traditional method of making cochinita was popularized in the second season of the Taco Chronicles, and Pedro Medina of Taqueria Lupita, who was also featured. Chef Chan tells us, “They started motivating me and telling me, well, if you’re Yucateco and you come from a Mayan family, why don’t you show it off? I never thought about it, but when I saw it blow up [on Netflix], I realized, oh shit, this is how I grew up, and I fell in love again.” 

Photo by Memo Torres for L.A. Taco.

Through Giovana Campos, a historian researching the small town of Cansahcab, Yucatán, where his Mayan-only-speaking grandparents live, he also learned that his own lineage may very well still be about 80 percent Mayan. His last name Chan is traced back to the first known Mayans in Mexico. After learning more about his ancestry, himself, and the traditional cooking techniques from Peraza, he returned to Montebello to reboot EK'BALAM with his new appreciation leaving behind only his new connections to import fresh ingredients for his menu. 

Back outside the Montebello home, Chef Chan brings out the second dish. This cochinita pibil is not uncommon these days in L.A.’s diverse menu of worldly cuisines. But in authenticity, EK'BALAM stands alone with few others. 

The cochinita pibil plate at EK'BALAM. Photo by Memo Torres for L.A. Taco.

The cochinita pibil shimmers in a bowl dressed with a bouquet of banana leaves, cradling the shredded pork marinated in that vibrant red recado made of achiote seeds. It’s served with small jicaras of diced pickled onions, habanero salsa, and fresh handmade tortillas. It’s a robust and dominating flavor-punch of tender pork with roasted ends. Scoop some on to a tortilla, garnish it, drizzle some habanero salsa on it, and be careful with the oils from the cochinita dripping down from the back end of the tortilla as you bend forward for your first bite of Yucatán out of a driveway in this East L.A. suburb community. 

If nothing else, if the rest of the menu didn’t exist, this whole feature would have been about this [poc chuc] taco alone. It’s a fantastic taco destined to end up in the annual “Best Taco” lists this year.  

For today’s special, Chef Chan is making Queso Relleno, a Dutch-influenced dish using Edam cheese, or as it’s known in Yucatán, Queso de Bola. There’s no clear agreement on how the Dutch cheese made its way to Yucatán, but one thing that’s for sure now is that they love it, and they’ve made it their own. As Chef Chan says, “Los Yucatecos no pueden vivir sin su quesito de bola con pan Frances. Lo mejor.”   

The queso relleno is served as a soup with either recado negro or blanco. It’s the gastronomic ying-yang of soups both in looks, ingredients, and flavor. The recado negro is an ancient Mayan technique of using charred chiles with warm Caribbean spices like allspice (pimienta gorda). You might think of the black al pastor that Mercurio in Monterrey, Mexico makes and was featured in the Taco Chronicles’ first episode. It’s also the black trompo that inspired our local metalhead taquero duo, Evil Cooks, to make it in El Sereno. The black recado in this soup is an earthy and tamed flavor compared to its creamy recado blanco counterpart. That recado blanco is made of a flour-based sauce called k’ool, served with red tomato sauce spots once served. 

Chef Juan Chan and Rocio Rodriguez. Photo by Memo Torres for L.A. Taco.

The Dutch Edam cheese in the middle of the recado is hollowed out and stuffed with a blend of minced beef and pork meatball along with a few other ingredients. With the recado blanco, you’ll find more colorful flavors and textures due to the nuts and raisins used in that base. With the recado negro, you’ll find a more straightforward flavor along with a boiled egg in the center of the meatball. They’re both unique and almost indescribable by any comparison—a treat for those who love to explore distinctive new foods. 

In a taco-loving city, EK'BALAM brings it with a taco de poc-chuc. The Yucatán version of carne asada made from thinly-sliced pork marinated with a garlic sauce and grilled over a wood fire. It’s served with charred chiltomate salsa, and grilled onion over a handmade yellow corn tortilla rubbed with a sliver of black beans. If nothing else, if the rest of the menu didn’t exist, this whole feature would have been about this taco alone. It’s a fantastic taco destined to end up in the annual “Best Taco” lists this year.  

EK'BALAM is open on weekends and serves out of a home in Montebello. DM for address via their Instagram account

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