Los Jarritos: Little Jugs, Big Dreams

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(Sacramento, CA)
Friday, April 10, 2009
The cashier at Los Jarritos is taking orders from a line that’s out the door.
“Next in line?”
“Two taco combination,” from a customer.
“Chicken or beef?”
“Anything else? For here?”
Another customer: “Chimichanga with carne asada.”
At Los Jarritos, Mexican food is quick and cheap to order and eat, but the restaurant’s owner is most proud that the cooking is long and slow.
“There seems to be, like, a Mexican restaurant on just about every other corner,” says owner Jorge Placencia. “What makes us apart is that we make everything fresh here. We want to keep the taste as authentic as possible.”
            Los Jarritos is family-owned. Placencia does not compromise, not even with beans. “We do make it traditionally with the lard. That’s what gives it the taste of true Mexican refried beans.”
Clues to the family’s origins are all over the menu. Like, a pork dish braised for hours in a copper vat -- carnitas.
            “Carnitas are real popular in Jalisco. My dad is from San Julián, Jalisco. My mom was born in the area of Tepatitlán [de Morelos], Jalisco. It’s a beautiful town near Guadalajara.”
            When Jalisco-style food is transported to Broadway, it takes a lot of cooks, many hands. I am taken backstage, into the Los Jarritos kitchen. I can’t help myself, saying: “Oh wow, this is a big kitchen!”
“Right here we’re in a part of the kitchen where we have one of the cooks getting ready to prepare some of the chiles rellenos,” Placencia says. We’re standing in front of a cook whipping eggs whites into a froth with a hand mixer.  “She’s whipping the eggs so she can be able to dip the chile rellenos in there. And she’ll continue whipping it until it’s nice and foamy.”
The chiles are triangular shaped and go by two names. “We use the fresh pasillas. Some people call them poblanos. It depends on what part of Mexico you’re from.”
There’s a way to tell these chiles are fresh. Their stems are still attached. They’re poking out of the batter on the end.
“A lot of the restaurants use the cans. But I think this is the best way to go…. The stem is right there.”
When Los Jarritos opened on Broadway 18 years ago, the Placencia family was already in the baking business. In 1969, Placencia's father Salvador opened La Esperanza Bakery, today still a crowded stop down Franklin Boulevard for traditional Mexican pastry.
“My dad was an entrepreneur. He wanted to bring the culture of Mexico to Sacramento," Placencia says. "He died working, when he was in his 90's. He used to go to work every day, that was his hobby. I hope to live as long as he did and keep the spirit going that he endeared in us."
The family didn't stop with the bakery. A few doors away, the family opened La Esperanza II. It’s a Mexicatessen, with carnitas to go and dozens of red chiles and Mexican spices for sale. But behind the store is the beating heart of the Los Jarritos concept. Jorge Placencia is a do-it-yourself kind of guy.
             I’m taken backstage again. Placencia tells me to watch out. “Be careful because it’s wet back here.”
I’m in the masa factory. Masa is dough, and there’s two kinds here. Dough with fine cornmeal becomes millions of tortillas spilling fresh off a conveyor in back. The other masa is specific to tamales. It starts with individual kernels of corn.
            “This is called nixtamal,” Placencia says, showing me brownish kernels of corn that look puffy. “When you cook the corn, you add the lime. The steam itself will make it a little puffy with the lime.”
Not citrus lime, but powdered mineral lime. It softens the dough and frees the corn’s niacin -- basic Aztec chemistry. So, we have here corn that’s swollen and yellow. I take a bite.
“It’s really hard,” I say to Placencia.
“It is hard,” Placencia confirms. “Here, he’s gonna’ get the corn to show you how we grind it. It will get a little noisy, just to get you an idea.”
The corn grinder revs up with a loud rumble. Puffy corn kernels drop through and get ground up into a coarse paste.
“Oh, he’s adding a little water to get it through the hopper,” I say, watching a worker pour water from a ladle into the machine. “Yes, just to blend it in while it’s going through. You can feel this, the masa. Go ahead and touch it.”
It’s warm. The masa is minutes old and a cook is already using it to make tamales.
“And this is prepared on the corn husk. The hojas (leaves),” Placencia says. “And you put your meat inside and wrap them. And we have a tamal ready to be cooked – all hand made.”
The tamale maker had a neat stack of tamales wrapped and ready. “Acquí ya es mas cien,” she says. Jorge translates: “Here you can see in this section that we have more than 100 tamales.”
Back at Los Jarritos, the cashier is still taking orders.
“Next in line!”
An order is ready and another worker calls out Number 184 for pickup.
Los Jarritos is casual -- plastic forks, formica tables and self-service. A huge map of Mexico on the wall is all the atmosphere Placencia needs.
             “It reminds a lot of people where they came from. You can decorate with a nice beautiful picture, that doesn’t make the food any better.”
            Hungry customers in line are tempted by a bakery display case of pink pastries from La Esperanza bakery. And you can watch another dessert being made through a viewing window at the back of the dining room. Paletas – fruit bars on a stick. Guava, pineapple, coconut, strawberry.  Another do-it-yourself tradition by Jorge Placencia.
--Elaine Corn, Capital Public Radio News.