When Guisados set up shop on Cesar Chavez Avenue, it wasn't simply another taqueria in a city -- and neighborhood -- dense with them. It was the culinary and cultural merger of two established Boyle Heights families.
Chef Ricardo Diaz's grandfather founded the El Siete Mares chain in 1976, while co-owner Armando De La Torre comes from a family well known for its East L.A. real estate holdings. Diaz grew up in Montebello and De La Torre in Monterey Park, but both spent countless hours working at their families' businesses in Boyle Heights.
Guisados, which opened in December 2010, quickly was lauded as one of the best taquerias in Los Angeles. While carnitas and carne asada are omnipresent in Los Angeles, few eateries serve guisados, the stewed tacos that are ubiquitous on the streets of Mexico City.
"It was tough at the beginning," De La Torre says. "People, that's all they're looking for: carne asada, carne asada, carne asada."
The simple, white-walled shop is adorned with the work of local artists, as well as a hand-painted list of allergy-inducing ingredients that are used in the food. Guisados' tacos are filled with complex stews and braises: chicken tinga perfumed with smoked red jalapeños, chicharrón stewed in a combo of chile rojo and verde sauces, mushrooms in a cilantro sauce. They all sit on thick, hand-flattened tortillas made from nixtamal, which is ground fresh every hour.
They've been surprised by their customers' affinity for spice. "I remember in the 1970s, when I used to go out with my parents to Sizzler, my dad would pull out his jalapeño and take bites of it as he ate his food," Diaz says.
These days, even gringos scarf down the chiles toreados, a taco composed of five sautéed heat bombs: serrano, jalapeño, habanero, Thai and "something my sister-in-law grows in her backyard," De La Torre says.
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Diaz, 41, has been in the business all his life, cooking at nearly every one of the 16 Siete Mares outposts. "I was washing dishes at 9 years old, so I'd always sneak into the kitchen and make little inventions." Still, "it wasn't until I turned 35 that I decided: I'm going to dedicate myself to cooking." He opened the sandwich shop Cook's Tortas in Monterey Park in 2008.
For De La Torre, 52, it was a longer path. "My mom's a great cook, but I wasn't allowed to be in the kitchen with her. If my dad arrived home, she'd be, like, 'You better get outside and do some chores.' " Even while working as a real estate agent, though, he would leave his office at 6 p.m. to work in a Pasadena restaurant until 11 p.m.
While Diaz develops most of Guisados' recipes, De La Torre oversees the front of the house, manning the counter and greeting customers. "I love what I do," De La Torre says, echoing a sentiment shared by Diaz. "I love it. It's what I was meant to be doing, but it took a lot to get to this point."