A selection of dishes at Casa Jimenez in Los Angeles.
A selection of dishes at Casa Jimenez in Los Angeles.
By Ed Avis
Editor’s Note: This is the first in el Restaurante’s new 2016 series covering the regional variations of Mexican/Latin cuisine in the United States. Watch for comprehensive coverage of the Chicago, Denver and Portland restaurant scenes in upcoming issues.
When the taxi dropped me off in front of Guelaguetza Restaurant on Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles, I thought a wedding reception was going on—the line was out the door and wrapped halfway around the block. I managed to find a seat at the bar, and soon realized why the place was jammed: amazing, authentic Oaxacan food prepared creatively.
I have since enjoyed many other meals at LA Latin restaurants and discussed the scene with Los Angelenos who know way more about it than I do. While Guelaguetza is certainly among the best, it has a lot of good company. Mexico is only 140 miles away, and LA is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the United States, so it’s no surprise there are thousands of amazing Mexican, other Latin, and fusion restaurants in the metropolitan area.
“Mexican cuisine is prominent here, but there are so many different degrees of it—low scale, upscale, and everything in between,” says Victor Sanchez, owner of La Vista Sales, a boutique foodservice broker in Southern California. “There are also other Latin places—Salvadoran, Argentinian, Brazilian, some Cuban. And then there are some really good places that take those flavors and dress them up. I think that’s very LA.”
Starting With Family
Let’s paint this portrait of LA’s Latin cuisine in layers, starting with the base— solid Mexican food served in family-run restaurants.
The restaurant business has been good to many Mexican and other Latin families in LA over the past century. They brought their recipes and ambition from their homelands, established restaurants that served immigrant families, and introduced “gringos” to south-of-the-border flavors. These comfortable establishments rarely serve haute cuisine, but they provide large, flavorful Mexican meals that satisfy thousands daily.
“In a lot of cases mom or dad moved from Mexico and started up the ladder in the restaurant business,” says Darlene Antoci, director of business development, marketing, and specialty segments for the Pacific market for Sysco Los Angeles. “They started as a busboy, moved up, then opened their own place and now employ their children. I think that family connection makes the restaurant better—it’s very personal to them. These are restaurants where you have the owner’s son or nephew or cousin going around the restaurant making sure every meal is right, giving the personal touch. They treat you like you’re having a meal in their home.”
These family establishments often expand, employing dozens of family members and hundreds of others. An example is el Pescador, founded in 1983 when brothers Manuel, Eli, and Abel Ortiz, who hailed from Jalisco, bought an existing restaurant in Bell Garden, Calif.
“They all came together and designed a Mexican seafood menu,” says Eliazer Ortiz Jr., Eli’s son and current manager of el Pescador location #1, which is across the street from that original restaurant. “They made a brotherly pact and swore they would work to do what was needed, 16 hours a day and eight days a week.”
Eventually other Ortiz brothers joined the company, and today the 11 brothers own 14 el Pescador restaurants. The menu varies slightly by restaurant, but the focus is always on freshly prepared dishes. A favorite dish is Empapelado, a seafood medley of abalone, shrimp, octopus and fish steamed in foil with spices and cream of mushroom, served with rice, salad, and guacamole.
Ortiz says el Pescador was the first restaurant in the area to serve michelada, the spicy beer and tomato juice beverage. “It’s exploded so much, now every Mexican restaurant around here serves it.”
Another long-established family restaurant is Casa Jimenez, founded in 1984 by Jesus Jimenez. The chain now numbers 32 and employs Jimenez’s five brothers and one sister, 20 of their children, and other family members.
“When I came from Mexico to the United States, I began working in restaurants,” Jimenez remembers. “My first job was washing dishes, then I became a waiter, bartender, manager, and finally decided to found my own restaurant.”
Jimenez is from Jalisco, but his menu contains the full range of typical Mexican/American comfort foods, from burritos to chilaquiles to mole platters. A popular dish is Pollo a la Mexicana, a chicken breast marinated in garlic, salt and pepper, fried in butter, and served with a fresh salsa of bell peppers, white onions, cilantro, tomato and garlic. It is served with rice and beans. “The secret is the in the salsa,” Jimenez says. Restaurants like Casa Jimenez fre- quently serve a mixed customer base of Hispanics and Anglos. Jimenez estimates that 60 percent of his customers are Mexicans or of Mexican descent, and the remainder are Anglo.
“The recipes have been adapted to suit our California clients,” Jimenez says. “None of the dishes are too spicy. Peppers and spicy salsa are put on the table so customers can add as much as they want.”
Antoci says she has observed a movement toward quality in the traditional family-run Mexican restaurants.
“Before, we were often asked, ‘What’s the cheapest rice or meat?’ Now quality seems to outweigh price for many restaurants,” she says. “They want to be proud of the food they’re serving. They don’t look at it just as a money- making tool—they take pride in it, and see it as a way to share their heritage and culture.”
When Jimmy Shaw arrived in LA in 1989, the Mexico City native knew about LA’s vast Mexican population and expected to find the food he was accustomed to eating back home.
“But it was not my food of Mexico—it was CalMex, which is very different from what I knew,” says Shaw, who runs Loteria Grill, a fine dining Mexican restaurant with six locations around LA. Shaw says the Mexican cuisine he remembered from home included a much greater variety of dishes, more cuts of meat and different preparations, and a cornucopia of produce. “Mexico is an extraordinary culinary country. The food is so rich in its ingredients and culture and influences.”
Shaw, who had trained as a chef in Philadelphia before coming to LA, decided to open a restaurant featuring those authentic ingredients and flavors. The first Loteria Grill opened in 2002. The concept was simple: Loteria Grill is a restaurant where you can proudly take a date and eat tacos, he says.
Shaw created a menu based on what he calls Mexican celebratory food. It is loaded with tacos and burritos—yes, burritos! A cook added the totally American item when Shaw was on vacation and he kept them on because customers loved them. They’re stuffed with ingredients muy autenticas like achiote-and citrus-marinated pork, roasted in a banana leaf; mushrooms with epazote; and braised beef tongue.
And Shaw puts the taquero (the person preparing the food) in full view. “It’s not different from a great place in Mexico, where the taquero is the show. My kitchens are open so people can see what we’re making, and they can order from the taquero himself in most places.”
Shaw was not the first LA chef to dive deeply into the Mexican culinary tradition, but he is regarded as one of the pioneers. Fourteen years after Loteria Grill’s debut, a lover of authentic Latin food could find a different, amazing restaurant to dine in every night of the month.
“The competition has gotten tough, but I love it,” Shaw says. “We’re better off having a strong, vibrant Mexican restaurant community. We are all friends. Any one of us only has to feed a couple of hundred customers a day, and we live in a metro area of 12 million.”
A more recent entry to the authentic Mexican fine dining competition is Pez Cantina in LA’s Bunker Hill neighborhood. Chef Bret Thompson opened the restaurant in late 2014 with the idea of replicating the fresh seafood flavors he found while visiting his uncle’s home in Loreto, Mexico, on the Baja Peninsula.
“I had been doing French food all my life, so I knew the next step in my career was to do something that I loved and totally have fun with it,” Thompson says.
Thompson created a menu focused on authentic mariscos. “The first step is sourcing the best quality seafood. For ex- ample, for our fish tacos we use whatever is being caught, from yellowtail to wahoo, so it’s super fresh. And there are little things—for our ceviche, we make our own tostadas instead of buying them. That makes a huge difference.”
One popular dish at Pez Cantina is Shrimp and Chicharron Diablo, a mix of sautéed shrimp and chicharron boiled in a salsa of tomatillos, chiles, cilantro, garlic and scallions (click here to see the recipe in the digital edition).
Thompson taps Southern California’s vast agriculture to source the best produce. “I throw in some celery roots, some parsnip, some locally grown root vegetables,” he says. “I guarantee there are some grandmas in Mexico using these ingredients.”
While Shaw and Thompson aim for authenticity, other Latin restaurant chefs are mixing ingredients, either intentionally to create new flavors or simply because they’re using what’s available. Bill Esparza, a food writer and blogger who has been following the LA scene since 1995, calls the blend of Latin and California flavors “Alta California” cuisine.
“Alta California cuisine comes from chefs who came up in California cuisine kitchens and were surrounded by the produce and other products there, but whose formative experiences were Mexican,” Esparza says. “They also have incorporated American influences and international influences. LA is one of the most diverse cities in the U.S., so they are drawing on all these factors to create Latino cooking that is really reflective of the region here.”
Esparza counts Wes Avila, chef of Guerilla Tacos, among Alta California’s leading chefs. Avila’s restaurant features a changing menu of tacos, burritos and tortas made with local ingredients found at farmers’ markets, fish mongers and meat distributors. The January 24 menu included sweet potato tacos with almond chile, feta cheese, fried corn and scallions; Kurobota sausage and fried egg tacos with chile morita and sumac onions; purple, cheddar and green cauliflower tacos with Castel Vetrano olives, honey dates, chile de arbol, parsley, and pine nuts; and mortadella and fried egg tortas with panela cheese and market greens.
“When I have friends who are chefs in Mexico come visit, the last thing they want is Mexican food, but I have no problem taking them to Guerilla Tacos because it blows their mind,” Esparza says. “It’s unique and original. They can relate to it and respect what [Avila] is doing, but it’s something that’s not found in their country.”
Esparza also praises the wide variety of Latin-cuisine food trucks in and around LA as key purveyors of Alta California cuisine. He recently found a truck run by Edgar Mendez, who creates lamb tacos based on cooking techniques he learned while working in a Russian restaurant, and tacos filled with huitlacoche sautéed with epazote, onions and corn. You wouldn’t see tacos like that in Mexico, Esparza says, but in California they’re a welcome part of the Latin scene.
Another Mexican/California establishment Esparza enjoys is Las Molenderas Restaurant in the Boyle Heights neighborhood, run by Marisol Feregrino and her mother Estela Morales. “They make completely traditional mole, but because they live in Boyle Heights they put it on nachos or French fries,” Esparza says. “They offer it in different ways that are more popular in that neighborhood than back home in Oaxaca.”
Some of the Alta California restaurants emerged from the family-style Mexican restaurant tradition. For example, Jesse Gomez, owner of the highly innovative Mexican restaurants Mercado and Yxta Cocina Mexicana, grew up working in El Arco Iris, a traditional Mexican restaurant his grandparents founded in 1964.
“We’re starting to see restaurateurs coming from traditional families who have the confidence to do the food they want to do,” Esparza says. “They’re creating something uniquely Los Angeles.”
The blending of cultures also extends beyond Alta California to true “fusion” cuisine. While the Hispanic population is the largest ethnic group in LA, Asians are second—so it’s no surprise some restaurants are starting to combine elements from both those cuisines, Antoci notes.
“They may not call it ‘fusion,’ but that’s what they’re doing,” Antoci says. “For example, look at Sushi Loco—they’re doing sushi, but finishing it off with Latin flavors like sriracha sauce. When I first heard about the concept I said Mexican sushi doesn’t exist! But it’s good.”
A portrait of LA’s Latin restaurant community would be incomplete without including non-Mexican Latin establishments, since many of them are creating fare that adds texture to the city’s restaurant scene.
Popular offerings include churrasco (grilled meat found in Argentinian, Bolivian, Brazilian and other restaurants), and humintas (masa filled with meats, cheeses, fruits or vegetables from Peru, Ecuador, Chile and other South American countries), according to Richie Matthews, proprietor of Latin Food Fest (see sidebar on p. 22).
Victor Sanchez also notes the wide variety of Latin restaurants. “There are many different Latino places in SoCal, but some are hard to find because they’re small, family-owned places that cater to a regional clientele,” Sanchez says. “Some Latino styles like Cuban are represented better and have been around for a long time.”
Among the Cuban spots Sanchez recommends are Versailles, a traditional restaurant with locations on Venice Boulevard and in South Bay, and Portos Bakery & Cafe, a family-style eatery with locations in Glendale, Burbank and Downey.
The Los Angeles Latin restaurant scene is a rich, constantly evolving portrait. And while creating delicious food is the day-to-day goal of those who toil in these kitchens, the bigger picture is that this industry lets recent immigrants employ their family members and lets today’s taco stand cook dream of becoming tomorrow’s fine dining chef.
Ed Avis is the publisher of el Restaurante.