Chef Mario Christerna is working hard to create something new in L.A. After apprenticing with acclaimed chef Martin Berasategui at Barcelona’s two-Michelin-star Restaurant Lasarte, the native Angeleno returned to L.A. to open The Briks, a restaurant specializing in North African food infused with all kinds of international influences. Now a year in, The Briks has evolved into a neighborhood staple in its downtown location.
Christerna is passionate about L.A., and in particular East L.A., where he grew up. We asked him to compile a list of his favorite spots in and around East L.A. "Giving up these undiscovered gems is like giving up treasure," he says. "If you’re ever in our neighborhood, and you have a great sense of adventure, you should visit a few of my favorites."
10. Mariscos San Isidro
"One of the blessings of being an Angelino is that we're immersed with mariscos, seafood cooked Mexican-style. There is an appetizer dish that is life-changing for me here, the botana. It’s served cold or hot — I always order it hot. Shrimp, octopus, clams, abalone, scallops, fried fish all on a bed of Mexican rice and a bunch of goodies. Since I was a kid I always drizzle that al mojo de ajo sauce all over it and just melt in my chair when I take the first bite. The buckets of Coronitas are always flowing and the narcocorrido tracks are always playing live." 2327 Rosemead Blvd., South El Monte; (626) 442-6414.
9. El Picante
"Los Angeles has deservedly given much praise to Oaxacan mole, but this is an unsung hero in the streets of Bell Gardens. This place features mole from Michoacán, Mexico. The enchiladas de mole should be illegal in all 50 states, it’s that good. Don’t forget the homemade iced tea." 6301 Florence Place, Bell Gardens; (562) 928-3490.
8. A&Z Nut Wagon
"This little gem has been here as far back as I can remember. It’s the holy grail of nuts, dried fruits and their famous beef jerky. Abuelita used to bring us here as kids. It’s right off 5 freeway. This is a Boyle Heights staple." 816 S. Lorena St., Boyle Heights; (323) 267-1695.
7. La Mascota Bakery
"I’ve literraly been eating here since before birth! When my mother was pregnant with me, she used to always crave these pineapple empanadas, and somehow I do, too. They also sell the best rosca in all of East LA, too. Roscas are Mexican sweet breads with fruit and crystalized sugar that are eaten during Christmastime. A king is hidden in the bread, and whoever gets the king in their slice has to throw a party since they have received good luck." 2715 Whittier Blvd., Boyle Heights; (323) 263-5513.
6. Tokyo Shabu Shabu
"Those in my circle know that I’m a shabu shabu junkie for real. On my days off (which is rare) I make it a point to stop by here around 9 p.m. and partake of the best happy hour in L.A. The spicy pork bone miso broth is off the chain!! $1.50 beers, $2 sake, $12 shabu, $1 cucumber salads and $3 desserts; can’t beat that with a baseball bat. Twenty-five dollars and you go home well fed and satisfied. This is my happy place and a must." 141 N. Atlantic Blvd., Ste. 100B, Monterey Park; (626) 282-6795.
5. Pioneer Chicken
"This place is an icon! Proud to say that Boyle Heights is still blessed by one of these.They have become almost extinct — the only other location now is in Bell Gardens. Pioneer Chicken reminds me so much of the 80’s in L.A. I remember my mother would pick up some fried chicken, corn on the cob and cole slaw and would take us to the beach and we would have a feast on the sand. Everyone from Boyle Heights loves this landmark." 904 S Soto St. Boyle Heights. (323) 262-4562.
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4. Raspados Zacatecas
"Mexican version of shaved ice with your favorite natural toppings. There’s nothing like a cold raspado on a hot day in East L.A. My fave is rompope y cajeta. Rompope is like a Mexican version of egg nog and cajeta is sweetened caramelized goat’s milk. They also serve amazing milkshakes known as licuados. My favorite licuado has to be the licuado de mamey. Mamey is a tropical fruit native to Central America." 422 N. Ford St., East L.A.; (323) 264-7651.
3. Carnitas Michoacán
"We call this place 'Two-Fours.' Spent many nights here back in my day after a night out clubbing, open 24 hours. The nacho special with carne asada is always my go-to. While waiting for the nachos, got to hit up the arcades – they still have that old-school StreetFighter. Eastside nostalgia." 741 S. Soto St., #3, Boyle Heights; (323) 266-7188.
2. La Carreta
"This has been one of my faves for years. Seems like everyone I take here ends up becoming a regular. You HAVE to ask the server for the huevos divorciados that are NOT on the menu. The Mexican lady in the back will make them with love anytime. The best huevos divorciados in all of East L.A. Family owned and operated." 4538½ Cesar Chavez Ave., East Los Angeles; (323) 261-1365.
1. The Churro Lady
"The Churro Lady has been serving this neighborhood for generations. She's always posted up with this device that when you turn the wheel, this amazing pâte à choux (Churro Lady–style) dumps right into this fabricated fryer. I have had many churros in my life, but this lady has nailed the secret sugar and cinnamon mixture that coats these addictive li'l things. She also makes fried bananas with La Lechera condensed milk on them — amazing! My recommendation, get your own bag. Believe me, it will all go down." Corner of Whittier Boulevard and Lorena, in front of the pharmacy.