In Boyle Heights, tacos are not a rare find. On any given day, smoke clouds can be seen around restaurants, trucks or stands where lines of customers wait as cooks throw slabs of carne asada and servings of cabeza or chorizo on the grill.
Whether the taquería is one of the newest on the block, one that sticks to tradition or one that attracts customers from all over the Los Angeles area, the question is: what makes it unique? Boyle Heights Beat talked with the owners of a few local spots who don’t serve an average taco.
Many customers at Guisados come in to experience a “gourmet taco.” But for some, the tacos served here are a simple, traditional meal.
That’s because the food made behind the counters of Guisados, a restaurant at César E. Chávez Avenue and St. Louis Street, consists of braises and stews ”“ the meaning of guisado– that can trigger memories of the meals consumed while growing up in a Mexican or Latin American home.
The menu consists of various types of tacos de guisados, such as mole poblano, a shredded chicken drowned in a sauce made of chocolate, chile peppers, peanuts and other ingredients; calabacitas, a tender squash medley seasoned with tomato and onion; and chicharron, a fried pork skin cooked in a spicy chile sauce until soft.
Several tacos are layered with bean spreads or topped with avocado and queso fresco crumbles, all ingredients found in the refrigerators of typical Mexican households.
Owner Armando De La Torre says his vision was to create a restaurant with food that reminded people of home.
Growing up, he says, “our Mexican food was a stew like guisados.”
Although De La Torre ran the risk of rejection by not sticking to the traditional taco that everyone in the area has become accustomed to, he takes pride in his dishes and says his food is considered real. “You don’t have to be the same as everyone else,” says De La Torre.
When the small restaurant first opened in 2010, De La Torre said locals didn’t come in because they were intimidated by the more affluent clientele the restaurant attracted. But things have changed, and the business now draws customers from Boyle Heights and all over the Los Angeles area.
Since Montebello resident Yoli Osorio, 35, discovered Guisados, she has come into the restaurant every two weeks for the tacos de chicharrón. “The taste is identical to my mom’s food,” says Osorio. “I guess for other people who didn’t grow up with this type of food, it is pretty amazing.”
With his original location in Boyle Heights, a restaurant in Echo Park and a new branch that will soon opened in downtown LA, De La Torre continues to please both the curious customers who enter for the first time and the loyal ones who continue to return.
Boyle Heights: 2100 E. César Chávez Ave., (323) 264-7201.
Echo Park: 1261 W. Sunset Blvd., (213) 250-7600.
Downtown LA: 541 South Spring St. Opening soon.
For the past 12 years, Mariscos Jalisco has offered a simple menu from a truck parked on the same spot near 3040 Olympic Boulevard in Boyle Heights. The item that started it all for the business is the famous fried shrimp taco.
Bits of chewy shrimp are tucked into a corn tortilla, deep fried and then topped with a flavorful tomato salsa and slices of fresh avocado. While the dish takes a different direction than that of a basic shrimp taco, it has gained a strong fan base.
A hometown friend of owner Raúl Ortega, 50, first presented the idea of a fried shrimp taco. “I loved the taco as soon as I tried it. And I knew that people would love it, too,” says Ortega, who grew up in San Juan De Los Lagos, Jalisco, Mexico.
Although the truck also serves ceviche tostadas and seafood cocktails, Vince Velasco, a loyal customer who makes the trip from the San Fernando Valley to Boyle Heights, says nothing compares to its shrimp tacos. “This is my lunch spot every two weeks,” Velasco says. “I just try to plan my day around lunch.”.
According to Ortega, a long-time resident of the Wyvernwood Garden Apartments, other nearby restaurants have attempted to duplicate his famous shrimp taco.
“If you try them, you’ll be very disappointed,” says Ortega. “There is nothing out there like the tacos we are selling.”
Positive reviews on social media networks and food reviews echo Ortega’s claims.
In the last five years, Mariscos Jalisco has gained popularity and recognition, Ortega says, due to the power of social media. The popular business has also received recognition from the LA Times, LA Weekly and RR Magazine.
3040 E, Olympic Blvd. (323) 528-6701
Los Angeles, CA 90023
Los Originales Tacos Arabes de Puebla
Many tacos have their roots planted throughout Mexico, but the origins of a taco sold from a food truck parked at 3549 Olympic Boulevard, at Esperanza Street, are 7,000 miles away in the Arab world.
Los Originales Tacos Arabes de Puebla is a business run by the Villegas family. With help from their four children, Alfredo and Merced Villegas set up their food truck on weekend nights to serve their famous taco árabe and other specialties from their hometown of Puebla, Mexico.
It all starts with a secret family recipe: a white marinade that flavors the pork meat. The meat is then roasted on a vertical spit, much like Mexican al pastor or Mediterranean meats. It is served on a soft, thick handmade flour tortilla that resembles a pita, and is covered by chipotle sauce, Oaxaca cheese, cucumber, radishes and sliced avocado. It can also be topped with jocoque, a strained yoghurt that resembles both sour cream and buttermilk. The final product is very similar to the Greek gyro, a sandwich stuffed with roasted meat, lettuce and tomato and topped with a yogurt sauce.
Customers from all over the Los Angeles, Ventura County, Las Vegas and San Francisco visit the taquería, which has been operated by the Villegas family for two years.
Arelly Villegas, the family’s oldest daughter, says the history of Arab influences in Puebla, Mexico can be traced back to when Lebanese and Iraqi people migrated to the country more than 100 years ago.
“In every corner, there’s someone selling tacos árabes,” Villegas says. “Everyone has their own version and their own family recipe, but I guess they all vary.”
With a large population of Mexicans from Puebla living in Los Angeles, many specialities from the region are now part of the street food scene, including cemitas (a sandwich), al pastor, meat cooked on vertical spits and pan árabe, a pita-like bread.
The family lives in South L.A., but they hope to open up their own restaurant on the Eastside, the neighborhood of their most loyal customers.
3549 Olympic Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90023