Meet the Angeleno Chefs Who Will Change the Way You Think About Mexican Food
Thomas Ortega's Amor y Tacos, in Cerritos, offers both Mexican-American fusion and authentic traditional dishes.
Over the last decade, a new kind of Mexican-inspired California cuisine has emerged. And Los Angeles is its hub. Food writer Bill Esparza once dubbed the Southland's modern Mexican revolution "Alta California cuisine" to distinguish it from a movement happening in Mexico itself, where contemporary chefs are reimagining menus and experimenting with ingredients that extend far beyond what many Americans consider to fall within the borders of "Mexican food."
Here in Los Angeles, the revolution continues, as Angeleno chefs take a unique approach to our state's regional cuisine. And there's a very real potential that this reconsidered Mexican cooking will become the next national obsession. Every movement needs a name, and we're just going to call it Nueva California. It's a hat tip to our state's own northern Mexican roots, where families from Sonora and Sinaloa helped found the pueblo in the late 1700s. Among the arid hills and alluvial plains where Los Angeles sits today, the Spanish first christened our entire region with this very name: Nueva California. Today it seems to be an apt description for our new California — which is demographically more like old California — where Latinos are the largest ethnic group in the state, with Mexicans comprising nearly 80 percent of their population in L.A. County alone, according to a recent Pew Research study.
Dozens of second- and third-generation Mexican-American chefs are embracing this multiplicitous mélange of Angeleno identity. These chefs use food as a way to express the complexities of growing up in this cultural landscape, whether they present it on artfully composed plates or nestle it between handmade tortillas.
A cadre of flag-bearing chefs is leading the way, influenced by lessons learned in la cocina de la abuela, as well as from kitchens steeped in classical French cooking.
There's Ray Garcia, whose year-old, high-end Broken Spanish earned him — and the so-called "modern Mexican" movement in L.A. — national acclaim. Wes Avila, whose Guerrilla Tacos truck lifts the humble street food into works of art, also cooks with a seasonal array of complex ingredients that use masa as a canvas.
There's also an entire subset of new restaurants that is quietly bringing a new kind of Mexican food, made with the natural bounty of California, into the middle- and upper-middle-class Latino enclaves of Southeast L.A. Together, they reveal Los Angeles' signature breakdown of the so-called high and low categories, with dishes such as Santa Barbara uni tacos, mesquite-grilled carne asada and craft cocktails sharing the table.
Like the California-style cuisine preceding it, Nueva California could really only happen here, a place where fresh ingredients are not just accessible but the norm. L.A. also has a sense of history and compels the diverse generations to reflect on its Mexican past and present. After all, the past is the cliff from which we leap forward. And for Nueva California cuisine, traditional Mexican cooking is the point of departure.
South by Southeast: Ricardo Diaz
The range of L.A. restaurants currently operating on the Nueva California wavelength is astonishing. Just to name-drop a few, there's the Cocinas y Calaveras group, featuring Jesse Gomez and Jose Acevedo's downtown casual Yxta Cocina Mexicana; Mercado in Mid-City, Hollywood and Santa Monica: and seafood-centric Maradentro in Studio City and Brentwood. Chef Eddie Ruiz's now-shuttered, damn-we-already-miss-it Corazon y Miel was a revelation in the city of Bell, and now he also has antojitos at Public Beer and Wine in Long Beach. Esdras Ochoa's open-air, Sonoran-style Salazar in Frogtown has just made a splash. And there's Alan Matheus' chef-driven mariscos at newly renovated Puertos del Pacifico in Boyle Heights. They're all rightful destinations on food lovers' bucket lists.
But look even farther south and east in L.A. County — where restaurant consultants and investors rarely explore — into cities such as Whittier, Cerritos and Long Beach, where long-standing Latino populations reside, and you'll find chefs who are making reimagined Mexican food the neighborhood norm.
Ricardo Diaz has long been one of those chefs, opening and closing multiple Nueva California restaurants on L.A.'s Eastside, focusing on top-notch ingredients in dishes like ceviches and tortas, or serving high-quality comida casera (homestyle food) at his restaurants Guisados, Bizarra Capital and Colonia Publica.
The Boyle Heights native's grandfather — who's from Zacatecas — launched the family's first taco stand in the late 1960s, serving carnitas, barbacoa and various guisados, or braises. By the time he was 9 years old, Diaz was dicing onions and chopping through cases of tomatoes at El 7 Mares, his family's second venture into food service, a popular mariscos restaurant on Whittier Boulevard in East L.A.
At one point, El 7 Mares, the little Mexican seafood restaurant that his father and uncle started in the early 1970s, bloomed into a 26-unit enterprise — fish markets, fast-food stands and distribution centers spread throughout the Southland. Diaz became a project manager for the family business, spearheading new restaurant openings and setting up purchasing offices in Sinaloa or Indonesia.
"El 7 Mares was a powerhouse," Diaz says. The restaurant served immigrants mainly from the interior part of Mexico; they didn't know how to cook seafood, making the restaurant a special treat. "Our customers would work at the factory, get paid on Friday, go spend it all with us."
But Diaz wasn't content to be just an executive. A creative person who says he would have been an architect if not for the long days required at a drafting table, Diaz finally broke out on his own in 1997 and opened Dorados in Monterey Park. The restaurant reinterpreted the fast-food seafood dishes his parents sold at El 7 Mares — the streamlined recipes used olive oil instead of butter, and food was grilled and steamed instead of fried. "It was a fresher, healthier alternative to classic Mexican cooking," he says.
Ricardo Diaz's Colonia Publica is known for its sopa de fideo.
Ten years later, he started Cook's Tortas, also in Monterey Park, a Mexican-style sandwich shop built on an undeniably new tradition. Some of the fillings were familiar — lengua, chorizo, milanesa. The toppings — garlic mayo, cream cheese, fried sage — were not. And instead of using the gummy white bolillo or telera bread, Diaz recruited his then–brother-in-law, a baker who worked for Thomas Keller in Napa, to help craft the ideal bread. The resulting house roll, made with a Bouchon starter, wasn't too crusty and had enough crumb to capture each creation's abundance of sauce.
"I'm more mainstream than I am probably Mexican," Diaz admits. "I was raised in a Spanish-speaking home and my mom was an OK cook, but it was more about me experimenting, working in the [family] restaurants on the weekends, loving to eat and always trying new stuff. I guess as an artist you're always wanting to create new things, whether it's on a canvas or on a plate."
Creativity came swiftly for Diaz in the years following the opening of Cook's Tortas, every year bringing a new project inspired as much by his childhood as a Mexican-American from L.A. as his years spent traveling throughout Mexico. "I wanted to bring some of those recipes back and show people Mexican food is more than just carne asada and beans and rice," he says.
Next came Monterey Park's Dorados Ceviche Bar, with experimental ceviches from around Latin America. Then the first of the braise-filled taco chain Guisados, which Diaz opened with partner Armando de la Torre on a block near his old home in Boyle Heights. There was the too-short-lived Colonia Taco Lounge in the lonchera land of La Puente; Bizarra Capital, Uptown Whittier's still-thriving Mexican gastropub; Colonia Publica, which is home to fancy ramen–style versions of sopa de fideo and craft beer micheladas; and, most recently, Colonia Tacos Guisados, which took over a defunct El 7 Mares off the 605 freeway in Whittier to sling quick-service versions of Colonia Taco Lounge's beloved crafty tacos.
Diaz moved to Whittier in 1992 and takes special pride in feeding his city. The area, in part because of his various restaurants, is emerging as a culinary oasis in an otherwise suburban landscape. Whittier, of course, is home to a thriving, economically diverse Latino population. Diaz's next imminent adventure is Whittier Brewing, a small craft brewery that's being built out in a warehouse near his home. He's already found two brewers and is planning to serve his take on pizzas. Or maybe, he says, tlayudas, a Oaxacan demi-pizza made with a toasted tortilla and covered with a base layer of beans instead of tomato sauce.
"I still think my food's pretty basic. I'm already serving what works, what I grew up with and what my community eats," Diaz says. "I'm just trying to take better Mexican food wherever I go. I'm not plating pretty or trying to create some sort of fusion. I'm taking what I enjoy eating and trying to make it as best as I can."
Love and Tacos: Thomas Ortega
If Diaz's Eastside empire is putting Whittier on L.A.'s restaurant radar, Thomas Ortega's three restaurants rock the southern suburbs harder than that terrible Ben Folds song. Nine years ago, after a career in fine dining that included stints at Spago, the Water Grill and the Four Seasons in Newport Beach, the Cerritos native opened Ortega 120 in Redondo Beach, not knowing if anyone would be interested in enchiladas topped with Oaxacan cheese or burritos that weren't drenched in ranchero sauce.
"At Ortega," he says, "I had a fear of going too unfamiliar. So I kept it there but went a tad above sea level."
Ortega grew up watching his grandmother, who emigrated from Juarez, make handmade tortillas every day, but he never went into the kitchen himself. Still, when he decided to open his own restaurant, he didn't look to what he'd learned in culinary school for inspiration but rather to his own family.
"I'm a pocho. I'm a Chicano. I'm a Mexican," he says. "Why not put my restaurant background into food I watched my grandma make growing up and blend the two together?"
At Ortega 120, it's entirely possible to order the same thing one would at an El Torito or insert-chain-Mexican-restaurant-name-here and have the dish come out as a completely new experience. His enchiladas are made with a thick, red guajillo chili house sauce, stuffed with chili-braised beef short rib and topped with Oaxacan (not yellow) cheese. The chilaquiles are served with homemade corn tortillas under a bed of duck confit, roasted poblano chili sauce and two kinds of Mexican cheese. Ordering a mojado (wet burrito) isn't an option but getting a burrito stuffed with all-day-braised carnitas is.
"I see people eat in Mexico the way they eat in France, the way they eat everywhere else — they take the best ingredients from their area and make the best food with it," he says. "I was so tired of seeing how Mexican food was being served here. That's why I felt I had to evolve it. I owed it to my culture, if you will, to show off how I feel that the food should be eaten."
Many of the same type of traditionally inspired platillos can be found at Amor y Tacos, Ortega's second restaurant in Cerritos, but the success of his first venture inspired Ortega to take this one way above sea level.
From the Mexican Coke–glazed pork belly to the Doritos chilaquiles to a chicharrón-topped "Doyer Dog," Amor y Tacos is at times so blatantly Mexican-American fusion that it could be mistaken for pure novelty if not for the pristine, authentic options on the other end of the menu.
Tacos de Mi Abuela is an order of crisp, mini corn tacos filled with Angus beef carne asada and chorizo; Elote Man Corn has all the fixings of the street snack minus the trip to the sidewalk. And there's the mole: 21 ingredients of deep complexity culled from Ortega's grandma's Oaxacan mole coloradito recipe, available over duck fat–braised chicken thighs or — in an only-in-L.A. take on chili cheese fries — an order of tater tots.
Mole tots at Amor y Tacos
"[Cooking mole] is almost like making the perfect demi-glace," Ortega says. "It shouldn't be too much of one flavor, just one across the board. Like Mexican umami."
Playa Amor, in a corner of Long Beach that straddles the Orange County line, is Ortega's latest. It's a refined take on seafood, from nearby Baja and the coastal states of both Mexico's Pacific and Atlantic sides. It also carries over the cocktails found across all three of Ortega's restaurants, wonders of mixology that taste more like boozy aguas frescas and chamoy-laden micheladas than the usual minimalist mezcal preparations.
While most chefs might want to launch such forward-thinking concepts in L.A. proper, in the restaurant success zone above the 10 freeway, Ortega says he has never considered opening anywhere besides the suburbs. It's not just a commitment to his hometown but also a testament to his belief that it's not just the cool-hunters who want Nueva California Mexican food. And now that it's been introduced, there's no going back.
"I feel people want to eat better, in general. It's not a fad. It's not ice cream in a doughnut. It's better food, better quality, made from scratch, not cut open in a bag and thrown into a pan," Ortega says. "I'm in this for the long haul. I want these to be 25-year restaurants. I want people to appreciate it and people who live nearby to walk there. I want people to enjoy my food every day."
Border Dreams: Jen Feltham & Teodoro Diaz-Rodriguez
It's only been open for a few months, but Sonoratown in downtown L.A. already has regulars. People of all backgrounds make a daily stop at the tiny taco counter to check in with owners Jen Feltham and Teodoro Diaz-Rodriguez, then order $2 chicken, tripa and carne asada tacos, made according to a regional style that's having an "it" moment in L.A. right now.
Sonoratown's tacos are estilo Sonora — Sonora-style. Despite the Mexican state's proximity to SoCal — it borders Arizona — few local restaurants have focused on one of its culinary joys: fresh, mesquite-grilled steak in thin, pressed flour tortillas. Known as Mexico's meat capital, Sonora is home to a large percentage of the country's cows.
"In L.A. you're content if you're paying $1.25 to eat whatever meat they put in a taco," Feltham says, "and most of the time, it's over-salted and it's chewy or it's dry, but you don't care. You put a lot of salsa on it, you put lime on it and you cover the flavor and you're fine."
But Feltham and boyfriend Diaz-Rodriguez know better. Diaz-Rodriguez grew up in San Luis Río Colorado in Sonora, just across the border from Yuma, Arizona, where Javier Campas runs Asadero Campas, a taco stand legendary on both sides of the frontera.
Every visit to Diaz-Rodriguez's mother meant bringing back a cooler full of Asadero Campas' irresistible tacos, filled with flavorful, fatty short rib topped with chopped cabbage, spicy chile de árbol salsa and a cooling avocado sauce made with pureed iceberg lettuce. When a craving hit them at home in L.A., the couple went to Esdras Ochoa's inimitable (although mesquite grill–free) Mexicali Taco in Chinatown or the so-called Tire Shop Taqueria in South L.A., which grills over mesquite but uses corn tortillas, Tijuana-style.
When they'd saved enough to put a down payment on a house, the two former Bäco Mercat servers decided to re-create their favorite Sonoran tacos here. Campas gave them his blessing and consulted on the project, sharing his proprietary salsa recipes and helping them find the perfect flour tortilla press, which had to be imported from Mexico.
"Bäco taught us that you could get fine dining–quality food without all that bullshit," Feltham says. "All that white-tablecloth stuff that comes with fine dining, that's not L.A. We're all about the food — the more important thing. We care more about what's actually put in front of you."
Sonoratown isn't the only spot on a quest to bring the best damn flour tortillas and wood-smoke–perfumed meats of Northern Mexican cooking to L.A. The recently opened Loqui in Culver City riffs on the extra-loaded carne asada tacos found at Rosarito's famous open-air taqueria, Tacos el Yaqui, upgrading the original streetside experience by offering indoor dining, wine from Valle de Guadalupe and bottles of Baja craft beer.
Then there's Ochoa's new outdoor endeavor, Salazar in Frogtown, where the talented, Mexicali-bred taquero is firing up the mesquite grill of his dreams. He's also branching out into experimental takes on everything from flan topped with popcorn to pescado zarandeado, made with a whole Idaho trout.
"For so long, 'Mexican food' has been writ large to mean food from all of Mexico, but now people are starting to take things seriously and are learning that there's so much that Mexico has to offer," Feltham says, adding that similar attempts to explore regional cuisine are taking place in L.A.'s Chinese-food community. "It makes up for us not doing due diligence to the fact that Mexico is culturally rich and diverse. Moving from one state to the next will mean totally different staple foods and totally different culinary experiences."
Multikulti Master: Mario Christerna
Mexico's gastronomical range is vast, but it has nothing on L.A. Here, entire swaths of the grid serve the foods brought by immigrants from Asia, Africa, Latin America and beyond, and adventurous chefs are more than happy to let us taste the inevitable fusion-future that happens when you combine elements from disparate places.
But no one delivers the petri dish of global flavors found in L.A. as expertly as Mario Christerna, the passionate, eloquent Chicano behind eclectic, 2-year-old downtown restaurant the Briks. Although it's just a few blocks from Ray Garcia's nationally recognized modern Mexican marvel Broken Spanish, the Briks is so distinct from its Nueva California peer that it might as well be serving sushi.
While Garcia and other Mexican-American chefs are weaving between France, California and Mexico, Christerna is using the world as his color wheel, crafting dishes like North African puff pastries (briks) filled with chorizo and salsa ranchera, and a Mary's free-range roasted chicken served with Israeli couscous prepared Spanish-style with simmered tomatoes.
"I always felt like I was a global person, even though I grew up in Boyle Heights and I'm Chicano to the fullest," the abundantly tattooed chef says. "That is why my food is like that — global — because I have always loved travel, I have always loved to meet new people, and I love to speak a bunch of different languages and try new foods. I have always felt that I belonged to the world."
Christerna's worldly influence is in his blood; his mother's family came from Northern Mexico, his father was half Spanish, half Indian. His stepfather was Cuban. He started cooking by necessity at a young age and says he always knew he wanted to be a chef.
Plans changed after high school, though, when the lure of money drew him into stints in club promoting and car-stereo installation, eventually landing him a nearly decadelong career in the music industry, most of it spent as a globe-trotting tour manager for up-and-coming Spanish EDM DJs.
Christerna realized that food, not music, was his true passion, so he dropped the jet-set life to finally pursue his dream. He attended Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena, studying under his mentor, North African chef Farid Zadi.
North African roasted chicken at the Briks mingles flavors from around the world.
"This is not just a torta place or a taco place," Christerna says of the Briks. "I wanted my first restaurant to be a reflection of my struggle. I wanted to transmit my journey through my food, through my art. Coming into here is like coming into my heart, coming into my brain, coming into my palate, coming into my life."
With such a tangle of influences, a meal at the Briks can seem either gloriously hodgepodge or culturally chaotic. The tables are covered in a collage of punk-rock magazine photos, Garbage Pail Kids cards and images of old Hollywood films. Kung fu movies play on TVs in the dining room while 1990s R&B blasts in your ears.
The aroma of Christerna's secret ras el hanout spice blend wafts through the restaurant. On your plate might be a whole branzino marinated in Moroccan chermoula or a Spanish-style flatbread topped with Merguez sausage.
The experience feels like an album of remixes, created from all the songs Christerna has collected in his lifetime. It's an entirely danceable debut that sounds very much like the crossroads of the world that is L.A.
"As chefs, we are like musicians, and it's our job to create new music for people to hear," he says. "It's like, why keep playing the same songs? You evolve, and that's what food does, too."
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