“Guisados? They have the best tacos in town.”
I heard this from a number of Los Angelenos when I was in town recently. As the people of Los Angeles have roughly the same rabid affection for their tacos as North Carolina natives do for BBQ pork, or New Orleanians do for crawfish, I decided to take this advice seriously. So my fellow-Simon’s-Rock veteran Curran and I made the trek out to Guisados tacos on Cesar Chavez Avenue to sample Guisado’s wares. The verdict? Very much worth it.
Guisados, according to a recent LA Weekly article, was started to address what co-owners Armando De La Torre and Chef Ricardo Diaz found to be an exceptionally serious gap in the normally robust Los Angeles taco ecosystem: tacos made with stews or slow-braised meats, or guisados. Sure, you could easily get delectable grilled carne asada, or chicken, or fried fish, or al pastor -but where was the mole poblano, the cochinita pibil, the bistek-en-sals-rojo, the chicharron in sauce?
The answer to this burning existential question would be here, in this not particularly promising looking hole-in-the-wall of a taco shop, with a hand-written menu and a curiously lengthy list of possible allergens scribbled on one off-white wall. For a joint that has been very healthily embraced by LA’s equally healthy hipster set, it is both pleasingly unpretentious and cheap, with a walk up ordering system, friendly service with a smile, and the front-of-house presence of De La Torre, who seems to derive genuine personal pleasure from explaining what exactly he’s serving up to new-looking customers.
Chef Diaz is the man-behind-the-scenes, creating recipes and adjusting flavors. What the two men have created is a traditional taqueria that uses good, old-fashioned tradition to introduce authenticity-craving Californians to some old-fashioned recipes.
You should really order the taco sampler, which comes with 6 mini-tacos in different flavors, for the princely sum of $6.
De La Torre ambled over to our table on our visit and, looking very serious about the whole affair, pointed out each taco on our sampler, describing what was in each carefully-made stew with obvious personal pride. (The home-made and chewy nixtamal (corn) tortillas aren’t too shabby, either). He brought us little orange tubs of violently spicy habenero-spiced hot sauce; he kept an eye on us from the cash register as we chomped our way through his restuarant’s delightfully messy, spicy tacos.
Places like Guisados put the plasticized douchebag stereotype that plagues Los Angeles to rest. The waitress who called out my order said my name with a Spanish pronunciation: this too, made me happy.
So what exactly do these justly-famous taco samplers contain?
Pork skins at Guisados are, according to the LA Weekly, cooked in a mixture of chile rojo and verde sauces, spooned over a bed of unobtrusively earthy black beans, and are topped with what appeared to be a pleasingly smooth avocado sauce. Pork skins are unctuous, chewy, and unilaterally bad for you no matter what the Atkins zombies of the world might tell you: however, if you as a good Californian are able to reconcile yourself with the idea of chewing on a lump of pure fat, these are delicious, naughty revelations. Texture problems? Well, er, don’t think about it.
What kind of monster doesn’t like chicken stewed in red chile sauce, sofrito, and cabbage? This is a homey dish, the sort of thing your non-existent Latina grandmother might cook for you on a Sunday when she had the time to keep the pot on simmer (apologies if you have actually got a kindly Latina grandmother). A little bit of spice by my admittedly dubious standards, countered, as is the usual way of things, with a slice of avocado. This might very well be the primeval fresh-from-the-swamp ancestor of the “spicy chicken tacos” you get in little paper bags from mass-market drive through windows.
Beef slow cooked with just about anything is a good idea, and so it goes with red chili sauce. This was perhaps my favorite: I enjoyed the smoky flavor of the chili sauce, tempered with a slight sweetness and with the creamy, unctuous flavor of the avocado. Worth mentioning again that the tortillas – chewy, robust, un-fancy – really bring everything together at Guisados.
I always think of Mole Poblano as Mexico’s answer to curry, albeit with a lot more chocolate than you might encounter at your local Star O’ India emporium. (Why the clever concept of using dark chocolate as a cooking ingredient never really spread outside of Latin America continues to utterly baffle me). Guisado’s manages a luxe version in a small package, topping chicken slow-cooked in a chocolate and chile sauce with cojita cheese, pumpkin seeds, pickled onion and a small hit of sour cream. The combination of flavors and textures is really remarkable – Guisados deserves quite a bit of credit for really thinking through what they put on top of these tacos, and how it might pair up with the restaurant’s complex braises.
Stewed pork cubes are matched with potatoes and the aforementioned green sauce, which is probably-avocado-though-I-could-be-really-wrong. Another dish that you might throw on the burner on a lazy Sunday, which seems to be the maxim Guisados lives by – another interesting look at a flavor that most of us American Mexican food dilettantes are not often exposed to. I suppose the pork was a little chewier then I might have liked.
Pulled spicy pork in a chile sauce -one of life’s great pleasures, and reminds me of the Traditional Foodstuff of My Ancient North Carolina Ancestors, which is always a nice feeling of cultural continuity. You don’t really need to jazz up a good pulled pork much, if you know what you’re doing – thus the pickled onion, which provides a vinegary counterpart to the spicy and smoky meat.
The other benefit of a visit to Guisados must surely be Cesar Chavez Avenue itself, which on a typically sedate Saturday afternoon turns into something approximating a laconic and friendly Latino street fair, as people shop for everything from lingerie to underpriced electronic goods on the street, drink aguas frescas and fruit smoothies from street vendors, and walk more slowly than they might ordinarily do.
Mariachi bands mugged for my camera. Curran and I wandered into a shop devoted to the sale of statues of Catholic saints, Native American totem animals, black-velvet paintings of irate-looking wolves, and weirdly scented candles. A small dusting of what appeared to be ash hung over all the statues. A taco truck, colorfully painted, appeared to be parked on every other corner.
A few blocks up from Cesar Chavez, people were selling clothes out in front of their houses, the kids crouched out front or playing, the adults sitting somewhere shaded and watching their wares flap slowly in the wind. This was California too, and as legitimate a California as the more sedate, more tightly controlled Northern California of my high school years. It’s shame it has taken me so long to see that.
I don’t like Los Angeles. At least, I thought I did. Many people from Northern California get this idea sometime in their lives that Southern California is the enemy, and that we in our slightly-cooler environs are less plasticized, more intelligent, better at computers, more real than our Southern cousins. (Realness is a big deal in California). This is,of course, a very stupid and lazy thing to conclude about one of the planet’s biggest and most diverse urban areas, nasty reputation for gang riots and plastic surgery and facile popular culture notwithstanding. It is more than that. It is bigger than that
Los Angeles is spread out, a suburban jungle, where you need a car to survive – a planet-molesting paradigm that disturbs many bike-commuting Northerners to their very core. But if you do venture into your car, you come to realize that Los Angeles – if we are going to delve into biology terms, which we are – is more of a superorganism (Deadly Portugese man-o-war, colorful tropical corals, the flailing tendrils of the European Union) than a single, unified creature.
It is different and diverse and often very spread out separate neighborhoods and communities, that are mushed together into Los Angeles mostly for the sake of city planners. The city does have a few things in common, I suppose, but as someone who barely knows this place, it is those distinctive, curious neighborhood differences that make Los Angeles much more delightful than you might ever expect. You can come down here and eat a taco, and walk around for a while and get some sense of the soul of a part of Los Angeles, one of its many component parts. You will maybe understand it better. At the very least, you will have had a good lunch.