Archive for April 3rd, 2008

El Cuerpo Muerto

by Sylvia Weiser and Isadore Wendel

EAST HO – The calendar on the wall reads “Noviembre,” and the first day is circled in red: no matter what month it is, it’s always the Day of the Dead at El Cuerpo Muerto, a muy folklorico East Hollywood cantina. Artists, writers, showbiz hipsters, and the occasional serial killer have gone blissfully toes-up on the generous drinks for decades, and the buzz on its dining room is universally, “to die for,” so we were both excited to death to give the place a read and write-up.
Reservations? Lo siento, senores. El C.M. doesn’t offer them, and so we found ourselves at the back of a line that snaked into the adjacent oncology clinic. The night was warm, the crowd was friendly, and we actually forgot that we were waiting as we laughed at the antics of a young man dressed as the devil, and his pet monkey Jesus, performing for our amusement (and spare change). When we finally squeezed through the arched wooden doors, the same young man (or his [d]evil twin?) greeted us like old friends, seized our collars, and escorted us with much bwahaha laughter to our cold stone benches over an open pit. With a flourish, Juan de Messer – our prankster host’s name – pressed a button and a coffin rose, opening up with a shudder into a spacious table. Awesome. Then the food came. Doble awesome.

Enchilada La Llorena, stuffed with “crying cheese” – “si, it make noise like baby crying when you cut in with the fork, senor” – commemorates the legend of a distraught young mother – the victim, they say, of a man’s treachery – who drowned her two young children in a river and then, regretting her deed, goes about the world howling her loss and attempting to steal living kids. The cheese does emit a kind of curdling shriek when cut; depending on your taste (and on, could be, the amount of Tequila in your system), you might find the sound funny. We did. Huesos Viejos – “old bones” – takes the popular beef dish ropa vieja one step farther: strands of slow-cooked beef are shaped into skeletal limbs (leg or arm depending on your preference) and rolled around seasoned beef marrow. This dish will bring out your inner canibal – as will its neighbor on the menu, the pieza del resistancia entitled cabeza del jovencito or “young monkey’s head.” Our initial response was “no f’ing way” when we learned the name of the dish, but we all know that alcohol overrules taste and decency, so we dug in and never looked back and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The cabeza turned out to be so delicious – an entrancing mix of textures from crunchy to squishy, eyes as succulent and smooth as quail eggs, brains like pink noodles, and the contents of the nose redolent of more vegetables than a can of V8 – that we concluded monkeys were born to serve man, and that to serve man monkey was, in fact, an act of kindness.

It is in its charnel house of desserts, though, that El Cuerpo Muerto shows inspiration that seems not of this world. Forget your usual candy skeletons and cowboy-hatted ghouls; the bakers at this place keep vampire hours, and it shows. Religious depictions: a sugar-cookie St. Sebastian, shot full of chocolate arrows, dripping strawberry icing from jelly-filled wounds. Great moments in Mexican history: the Alamo in dulce del leche, scattered pecans coated with coconut or cinnamon representing Davy Crockett’s and Santana’s men respectively. And we ate three of the prominent-politicians-skewered series: Vicente Fox upon a sugary pitchfork, raspberry blood and a licorice mustache; Cardenas as a severed head with churro eyeglasses; and George Bush as a vanilla sheep, with curling candy hair and bright caramel eyes. By the time we signaled Juan de Messer to lower our table into the pit and bring us our check, we’d tasted death a dozen ways – and loved them all. If Los Angeles is hell, El Cuerpo Muerto is a kind of heaven. Gracias a Dios.


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