Along Figueroa Street in the rapidly changing neighborhood of Highland Park lies El Faro, a lonely food truck that specializes in Sinaloa-style Mexican seafood dishes.
Callo de lobina is one of those dishes, made from thickly cut slices of largemouth bass that have been partially cured in salt for two days until they resemble the texture of scallop. The chilled, sashimi-like pieces of fish rest upon a flaky corn tostada—along with wedges of cucumber, red onion, and avocado—and are showered in a limey, peppery, burgundy-colored salsa negra.
This salsa will simultaneously sear your mouth with its Szechuan peppercorn-like tingle and temporarily turn you into an uncontrollable eating machine—it is that addicting. As the flagship item at El Faro, it accompanies everything on the small menu, from the crispy empanadas de camarón made from deep-fried masa to the seafood coctél that is served in a young coconut.
It makes sense that the ground there would produce such a potent chile, especially since the soil is so successful at making good poppy flowers and good marijuana plants.
If you ask what the secret ingredient is, you will be rewarded with an interesting truth: The chiltepin dried chiles are sourced from Badiraguato, Sinaloa—the home county of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera.
"It is the sole reason why our customers keep coming back," Ana Victoria Ibanez, one of the co-owners of El Faro, tells me in Spanish. Her husband Hector Rayos, also a native of Badiraguato, keeps his back to us as he prepares an order of lobina for Daniel Hernandez—a reporter and host for VICE News who has been doggedly following El Chapo for the last ten years. This time, however, Hernandez is not hot on El Chapo's trail; he is enjoying a meal with me.
Located deep in Sinaloa's mountains, Badiraguato is not known for its seafood. There, the cuisine is a rustic one that's heavy on on pork- and beef-based Mexican dishes like chilorio (a freeform chorizo of sorts) and machaca (made from shredded, dried beef). Nonetheless, chiltepin rules the the state. "It makes sense that the ground there would produce such a potent chile, especially since the soil is so successful at making good poppy flowers and good marijuana plants," Hernandez tells me between bites. He stops the conversation to order some empanadas that are served with a pulpy chiltepin salsa, and bonds with Rayos over the notoriety of his hometown, infamous for birthing the world's top fugitive.
Ibanez hands me a small plastic bag filled with about a quarter-pound of the peppercorn-sized dried red chiles. "Smell it to see how fresh they smell! It is the latest harvest." I take a careful whiff; indeed, the chiles are redolent of fruity chile seeds. She shows me another bag filled with chiltepins that have been ground into a coarse, sawdust-like texture. "This little bag lasts us only a week! Fortunately for us, though, Rayos's grandparents are flying back in from a trip to Badiraguato today, and they brought some more for us."
Ibanez and Rayos have successfully grown the chile on American soil, but it just didn't taste the same. "The ones we get from Badiraguato just have a more potent flavor and taste more earthy, like fresh dirt on a mountain," Ibanez tells me. The same goes when they've tried to use chiltepin chiles purchased from American markets. "The American chiltepin chiles are so old and flavorless by the time they reach the US, why bother?"
When I ask Ibanez if she has ever ran out of chiles, she responds, "That will never happen. We always prepare for the future and buy in bulk to make sure that we always have a reserve of them."
Later that night, she sends me a photo of her latest batch of fresh chiles, adding: "Our new stash has arrived."