Puertos del Pacifico in Boyle Heights is not your typical purveyor of sustainable shark tacos, handmade Masienda corn tortillas and farm-to-table, tempura-battered squash tostadas.
Considering that L.A.'s own brand of modern Mexican food is being defined by high-profile chefs in upscale locations, the 10-year-old Mexican restaurant in the parking lot of a strip mall on a nondescript stretch of Soto Street — known to East L.A. locals for its sturdy lineup of places serving classics like enchiladas and chile verde — is an unlikely place to find such thoughtful cuisine.
But look past the tacky window-chalk paintings that proclaim “happy hour,” "ice cold beer” and “weekend karaoke.” Look even further past the regular menu of burritos and fajitas that you'll be handed after you're seated at a fast food restaurant–style booth. You’ll find that Puertos del Pacifico is sourcing many of its vegetables and herbs from its own community garden and coming up with cheap daily chef creations in an attempt to educate the community about the benefits of eating local and without GMOs.
“Why should people around here not get good food?" asks Alan Matheus, Puertos del Pacifico’s head chef. "It’s not that they don’t like it — they just had no idea before. It’s tough being on the outskirts.”
Matheus, who is a California-born Ecuadorian, grew up in the neighborhood and went to culinary school before he was given the opportunity to train under Neal Fraser at bld.
Matheus was helping Fraser in the planning of Redbird last year when he left to work in the executive dining room at Paramount Studios. Then he got a call from an old high school friend who'd just bought an uncomplicated Mexican restaurant in Boyle Heights. Would he like to help build the place into something special?
Matheus jumped at the chance to bring the skills he learned in Fraser’s kitchen back to home turf. With guys like Eddie Ruiz at Corazon y Miel as influences and personal friends, Matheus saw the potential to offer a homegrown version of places like Tacoteca, Petty Cash Taqueria or B.S. Taqueria right in his old neighborhood.
“I love those places, but we’re from here and we’re working-class,” he says. “That’s what it’s about, giving everyone the same quality of food that they have on the Westside [of the L.A. River].”
In the last 14 months, Matheus has made changes at Puertos del Pacifico that many of its regular customers may never realize.
He changed seafood suppliers so that his octopus and shark now come from Santa Barbara through Wild Local Sustainable Seafood; he started buying pricier tortillas from a local tortilleria that uses the same Masienda corn you’ll find at many of the high-end taco joints; he added a dollop of Cook’s Farm lard into the recipe for the restaurant’s house refried beans; and, most significantly, he gained access to a community farm a few blocks away, where he goes every morning to pick fresh herbs and vegetables that dictate what special dishes Puertos will sell that day.
Despite his increased costs, Matheus has not changed any of the restaurant’s prices, meaning that two shark tacos, marinated with Sriracha, Thai chiles from the garden and lime, are only $6.50. And on Tuesdays, all the tacos are $1, including beer-braised pork belly, tempura-battered calabacitas and fresh halibut battered in Negra Modelo and topped with crema and microgreens. A half-dozen scallops are still $9.
“Can you tell we’re not doing this for the money?” he says.
On Instagram, Matheus posts photos of the daily haul from Mott Street Urban Farm — an L.A. Conservation Corps property that butts up against a freeway soundwall. When he gained access to it, there were already boxes filled with lemongrass, jalepeños, tomatillos, corn, sweet potatoes and three squash varietals. On weekends, he joins volunteers, many of them troubled youth, in cleaning, planting and learning more about urban agriculture.
Most of the garden ends up on plates at Puertos del Pacifico, from the salsa made with a Mott Street tomato blend to scallops topped with Thai basil to a Latin gumbo that used okra when it was recently in season.
Puertos del Pacifico’s Instagram is also where Matheus posts images of his garden-inspired creations (like a tuna tartare stack made with fresh strawberries and cucumbers), using the hashtag #secretmenu. For now, the rotating secret menu remains pretty secret, even to those who are already inside the restaurant, mainly because Matheus likes to talk to each customer individually about what they’re ordering and why.
Occasionally, he prints out a piece of paper with descriptions of the daily specials, but on most of our visits, we had to ask what the chef was cooking up that day. Some days, it was a simple vegetable tostada. On others, it was squash blossoms stuffed with tiger shrimp. For dessert, he has churros stuffed with creme fraiche.
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“The traditional Mexican food here is awesome, but I was born in California and I’m from South America,” he says. “I like to play with my food and I like to mess with tradition. ... Our whole idea is to get the word out and educate more people about what fresh produce can do.”
1240 S. Soto St., Boyle Heights; (323) 262-0203, puertosdelpacifico.net.