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    Israel Landin was born in Mexico City, and at age five he would wake up, throw some lard in a pan, crack an egg, watch it sizzle, then fold it in some bread and go off to school. By seven, he’d prepared a Mexican ratatouille — his first dish. “Nobody could believe,” he says in accented English. “I watched my mom — how did she do it? Put the pork in the pan, cook it till it gets crisp, slicing the zucchini and the corn and the cilantro and the onions and put it together.” He ran away from home when he was 10 and moved to Los Angeles via Tijuana by the time he was 12.

    Landin, 48, a beefy guy with graying black hair pulled into a ponytail, visited New Albany when he was a traveling sales rep for a cheese company. “It was like a ghost town, downtown New Albany. You could see the, you know, tumbleweeds — really!” he says. He told his wife that he thought New Albany would be a good place for them because it was so quiet — unlike Mexico City and Los Angeles. He opened a 10-by-10-foot taquería on Charlestown Road in 2005. His customers were used to Taco Bell, he says, and word quickly got out that the rib-eye steak tacos with homemade salsas were worth a trip across the bridge from Louisville. 

     

    He and his wife expanded the place, named La Rosita, moving into a larger place in downtown New Albany, and then expanded again, opening a location in downtown Louisville. “A lot of people thought, ‘This guy is doing it. Why can’t we do it?’” Landin says of New Albany’s restaurant growth, which includes the Exchange Pub + Kitchen, Feast BBQ, Louis Le Francais and others. In 2012, Landin and his wife divorced and closed both locations. “Basically, we lost everything,” he says. Former loyalists still mourn La Rosita — though some were less than impressed with the ambiance and service.

    Following the collapse of La Rosita, Landin revisited Mexico to learn more about the country’s cuisine. “Certain things, they’re good in certain ways,” he says, “but I think they can be better. You can take the same ingredients, but you can make another story with the same stuff.” One such dish at Landin’s new namesake — which opened this past spring in the same space as the original La Rosita — is the Mayan keken chuc ($18). In Mexico, the pork is served with lettuce, tomato, onion and lime, but Landin wanted to make it gourmet. His version has caramelized apples and onions flamed in brandy. Though the area has gained several south-of-the-border joints in the last few years, Landin says, “People ask, ‘Where’s your favorite place?’ I say, ‘My kitchen.’”

              

    The menu is similar to La Rosita’s, but Landin has cut it down by about half. For appetizers, order the Veracruz ($7), Landin’s reinvention of a Veracruz, Mexico, dish of shrimp-and-cheese-stuffed fried plantains swimming in black beans that are almost liquid. “Some people say, ‘How’s the empapelados? Is it still the same?’” Landin says. “I say, I think it’s even better because I add more seafood. Before, it was fish and shrimp; now I added the mussels, clams, scallops, octopus. That makes the dish.” The empapelados ($18) steam in foil with mushrooms, onions and melted cheese. The tacos ($14) are filled with tilapia and juicy shrimp that pop with flavor when you bite into them, topped with mango, pineapple and pico de gallo. The 100% Mexicano ($18) is a 12-ounce rib-eye steak, with chorizo, “cactus” baked potato, guacamole and beans. “I worked as a butcher when I was 10 or 11 years old in Mexico and learned how to make chorizo,” Landin says. “I use cinnamon, clove, allspice, black pepper, anise, chili powders, chili pod, vinegar. You got all my recipe now. Some people say, ‘Can I get your recipe for the guacamole?’ Sure. Tomatillos, avocado, onions, garlic and cilantro. They say they tried to make it like that but it didn’t come out the same. When I cook, I really get into cooking. I’m not just throwing things in there. That’s why you see me working alone, because I’m very picky.”

    The well-lit, colorful restaurant has exposed brick and yellow walls that stretch up to the high ceiling. The chairs depict scenes such as sombrero-wearing men harvesting blue agave plants. The place isn’t as loud as you might expect from your typical margarita-slinging spot — Landin is gathering the funds to apply for a liquor license so that he can serve beer and wine. And while the food alone is destination-worthy — the receipt reads: “The shortest trip to Mexico you will ever take” — don’t expect four-star service from the few laid-back employees. Misty Thurman, who had worked at La Rosita and now works at Israel’s, says that with La Rosita, nobody ever complained about the food, adding that she wasn’t comfortable with the management. “Now it’s just Israel,” she says. 

    “As we say in Spanish: No soy monedita de oro — I’m not a gold coin,” Landin says. “Not everybody’s gonna like me, you know what I’m saying?”

     

    This article is courtesy of the October 2015 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here.

    Photos by Chris Witzke

    Mary Chellis Nelson's picture

    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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