Santa Cecilia Restaurant is the kind of place you probably wouldn’t know about if you weren’t tipped off to it. Don’t let its quiet exterior and barred window fool you, though. It’s something of a Boyle Heights sensation.
Step inside and you’re met with bubbling pots of barbacoa, tripas sputtering on the stove and carne asada on the grill. There’s scant standing room and, on the weekends, probably a line. Start off with a taco grande al pastor. It’s a newbie order, but it’s where Santa Cecilia shines. The succulent cubes of pork are more substantial than the crumbles often dispensed at taco trucks. Here they’re stewed in California chili, garlic and vinegar, and boast a perfect spice-to-meat ratio. The tortillas here deserve special mention, too: They’re extra large, thick, chewy and hand-pressed to order.
The briefest squeeze of lime is all that’s required before you dig in. As tempting as the salsas are — the arbol-based red is more dynamic (and spicier) than the tomatillo green — try to keep yourself from overshadowing the meat’s flavor too much.
It gets better, though: Like any true neighborhood establishment, there’s a secret menu. Chilaquiles — not listed on the menu — can be made to order any time of day. The eggs are delicately cooked over-easy, and chef-owner Armando Salazar is a stickler about getting them right. It’s not a surprising dish by any means; just simple, satisfying and guaranteed to soak up a hangover. Don't neglect the pipian rojo, either. If you’re lucky, a fresh jar of it will be in the fridge, and Salazar will drown some shredded chicken in it and serve it up with rice. The pumpkin seed–based sauce is salty, smoky, nutty and spicy, and was undoubtedly the dark horse of our visit.
There are simmering costillas, morsels of pork rib stewed in chunks of roasted jalapeños, tomatoes and garlic, that you order wrapped into a taco or plated with rice and beans. There are also nourishing bowls of caldo de res and caldo de pollo — beef and chicken soup, respectively — both popular weekend orders, even on the hottest of days.
None of these options is as attention-grabbing as the barbacoa, however (which, along with the pipian and al pastor, is a must try). Salazar tenderizes his chuck roll in a silky puree of California chile, garlic, oregano and bay leaf, splashed with vinegar and some strain of opiate. OK, the last part isn’t actually true, but we’re not sure how else to explain the seduction of this smoky, sweet sauce. Get it in a taco or with rice and beans.
Salazar has had this spot for 20 years, leaving a successful career as an Italian chef to strike out on his own. “When I first started, I didn’t know how to cook [Mexican] food,” he laughs. Drawing on his culinary training and childhood eats in Zacatecas, Mexico, he experimented and learned. These days, he has a fiercely loyal base returning for his homey fare.
Since 1995, when Salazar opened Santa Cecilia, the chef has watched Boyle Heights change around him. “When I first started here, it was completely different,” he admits. “There were a lot of gang members around, but I never had problems with them. If they wanted to buy something, and they didn’t have cash on them, I’d say, ‘Yeah.’ And they would always pay me later.”
Today, Mariachi Plaza is a place around which the deep-rooted community still pivots. On weekends, mariachi musicians come to talk shop and practice between gigs. Others will sit for hours at the restaurant’s outdoor tables, nursing a soda. Bars of music float through the air late into the afternoon, wafting in between cigarette smoke, as the sun sets over downtown.
Santa Cecilia, 1707 Mariachi Plaza., Boyle Heights; (323) 980-0716, mariachi-plaza.com/santa-cecilia-rest.htm.