Today's object of desire: chiles torreados, which is to say chiles, sauteed over a high heat until they blister and char, served in a steaming, fragrant mass that both tinges and overwhelms everything it touches with sustained chile heat.
Chiles torreados aren't particularly rare — good taquerias tend to have bins of them free for the taking — and, unlike almost everything worth eating, they don't come from a specific region of Mexico. It's one of those things, like sliced radishes or chopped cilantro, that goes almost without notice in a Mexican restaurant. A taco truck I like happens to have excellent chiles torreados, collapsing heaps of jalapeños dusted with the barest amount of salt. But when I'm trying to choose between it and an equally good truck up the block, the presence of the chiles is usually less important than a longing for one truck's lengua in green sauce or for its competitor's superior cabeza.
But at Guisados, a taqueria in the heart of the old Boyle Heights neighborhood, chiles torreados is less a side dish than a natural phenomenon, superspicy serranos mostly, glistening and pungent, cooked with strands of onion and slyly boosted with a few slivers of what seem to be roasted habanero peppers. You can pay a buck or so and get a little packet of chiles torreados as a side, or you can jump in feet first, getting them not just on a taco but as a taco, wrapped in a thick, freshly made corn tortilla, perhaps moistened with a few drops of Guisados' liquid habanero chile salsa. It is a taco that could go 15 rounds with Oscar De La Hoya.It is a taco that could play badass trumpet in a mariachi band and sing sweet love songs to your girlfriend. It is a taco that will sneak out of the house in the middle of the night to do things that no taco should ever do, but you will always take it back, because you have tasted the complexity that lies three layers down.
In the year or so it's been open, Guisados has established itself as the essential restaurant in the neighborhood, a hangout for the doctors from the local hospitals by day and for local families by night, a place where teenagers come in to get just one perfect taco of griddled shrimp with tamarind or diced pork chops in a mellow green sauce. It is also the Eastside restaurant most likely to be visited by folks from the west, partly because the tacos with smoky chicken tinga are pretty hard to resist; partly because a television screen in the corner is hooked up to a surveillance camera in the parking lot.
In the grand tradition of the Eastside, Guisados is a family operation, the building owned by one generation of the De La Torre family, overseen by another and staffed by a third. A brother runs the tortilleria next door. Armando De La Torre and partner Ricardo Diaz also own Cook's Tortas, the popular sandwich shop in Monterey Park, and the newish Dorados, which specializes in ceviches. Armando is the perpetual presence at Guisados, a jovial former real estate man who always looks as if he's just stepped off the golf course, and who loves nothing more than giving kids a million samples to taste, as if he were running a gelato shop instead of a taco joint.
You'll probably try big glasses of the aguas frescas, horchata or jamaica or the great drink made with fresh cantaloupe, and the dense, moist tamales are among the best in town. But the basic units of consumption here are tacos de guisados, thick, warm tortillas folded around a big spoonful or two of the stews resting in the steam table behind the counter.
You don't get carne asada here; you get floppy scraps of fried pigskin simmered in a chile sauce, or griddled steak in chile-enriched tomato sauce, or a spicy Poblano-style chicken mole given texture with nuts and grains and seeds.
This is one of the few taquerias in Los Angeles where a vegetarian could happily eat — there are tacos of stewed squash with chiles and kernels of sweetcorn; mushrooms sauteed with onion and cilantro; and quesadillas that are less what ordinarily goes by that name than they are slabs of panela cheese sizzled on the flattop and tucked into a tortilla.
The cochinito pibil may not have the insinuating porkiness that you may have tasted at places like Chichen Itza or Flor de Yucatan, but it makes up for it with savage lashings of habanero sauce — Armando will cheerfully turn it up to what he calls 10+, a heat level that came close to defeating Aaron Sanchez when he visited Guisados for his Food Network show.
The day's taco menu is scrawled on a chalkboard behind the counter, and as diligently as you visit the restaurant, there are always going to be a few that you're going to miss. I never managed to catch the tacos made with green mole, although I suspect they were pretty good, or the duck, or the border-style birria made with beef.
"Do you make your own tortillas?'' I asked one day as I was paying the check.
"Do we make our own tortillas?'' Armando asked, with the incredulous look of somebody who had just been asked if he buttoned his own shirt. "Let me show you something.''
He nodded to one of the countermen that he was going to be gone for a couple of minutes, and he led me out of the restaurant and into the bakery next door. He walked toward the back of the shop, then veered into a small, dim industrial kitchen in an offset nook.
"See those big things filled with corn?'' he asked, gesturing toward a pair of stainless-steel basins. "That's nixtamal. My brother makes it fresh every day. He grinds it all day long in that big stone grinder over there. And in the restaurant, our masa is rarely more than a half-hour old. That's why our tortillas are so good."
GUISADOS | 2100 E. Cesar Chavez Ave., Boyle Heights | (323) 264-7201 | guisados.co | Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. | MC, V | No alcohol | Lot parking off St. Louis Ave., just south of restaurant | Takeout | Tacos $2.50; tamales $1.50; taco sampler $6.50 | Recommended tacos: chuleta en salsa verde; chiles torreado; camarones; quesadilla