When film crews shot such epics as Stagecoach in the dusty hills of the San Fernando Valley, Sierra’s was about the only place nearby to get a civilized meal. In those days, the restaurant was located inside the home of Edward G. Sierra and his wife, Arsenia, who opened for business in 1935. Sierra’s No.1 is still in the same spot today in the city of San Fernando. The Sierra’s family history goes way back into the annals of L.A., before William Mulholland brought water to the San Fernando Valley, before the Valley had tract houses, before permanent studios were built in Studio City and Burbank and even before there were orange groves, which needed water for irrigation. Wheat was the staple crop of the area then. And Sierra, who once worked as a mule skinner hauling supplies to the farmers, lived through it all.
Sierra’s reputation as a restaurant where you might spot a famous actor or two grew larger than life, attracting gawking gringos who returned again and again because they loved the “Spanish” food. The dishes, which relied on local ingredients, became a template for the delicious norteño-inspired cooking Sierra’s serves today. Call it Cal-Mex, Mexican American or the cuisine of assimilation, whatever, it’s what most Californians (including many with Mexican grandparents) accepted as authentic until such things as tacos de trompes (pig snout) or the fabulous goat stew, birria de chivo, came onto our screen. And it’s exactly what most people feel like eating when they go out for Mexican — even those who insist they can’t live without a plate of the spinal cord in green mole from Monte Alban.
Sierra’s doesn’t attempt to make the most humongous burrito in town or gut-busting gorditas that no mortal can finish. It won’t compete that way. The cooking has a clean simplicity; each dish looks and tastes as though it’s been carefully tended by the talented grandmother who founded the business. Sierra’s crab enchiladas will be an epiphany to anyone who equates Cal-Mex with combo plates smothered under a thick blanket of over-microwaved cheese. The pure crabmeat filling is doused with just enough tomatillo sauce and cheese to set off the moist seafood. Tostadas heaped with exceptionally lean chunks of pork or chicken, gently infused with verde or rojo sauce, come on a fried flour tortilla that resembles the seashell for Botticelli’s Venus. A swirl of sour cream, squeezed from a pastry bag, is the final touch. Although the chef has been with Sierra’s for about 15 years, the cooking seems to evolve into a lighter and lighter style. Where once the chicken pipian was a rich stew of skin-on chicken parts, now you get pure white chicken-breast meat, lightly cooked in an earthy, russet-colored sauce of ground pumpkin seeds and chiles. Owner Ronald Jaramillo (his mom was a Sierra) denies the kitchen is headed toward “diet-conscious food” or any thing trendy or nouvelle. “We do use lard in our beans and for our carnitas — or they wouldn’t taste right,” he says.
The newer Canoga Park Sierra’s, which the family opened in 1969 on the bones of the old Vick’s Steak House, has the same welcoming ’30s hacienda style you might imagine of the family’s original home. Fireplace mantles hold books and family mementos; hand-painted vines and tropical flowers trail along the walls; and roomy high-back booths create intimacy for diners.
Jaramillo and his wife run the business (that now also includes three more-casual Mission Burrito restaurants) with the help of his semiretired parents. He insists that Sierra’s is, and always has been, about serving families with a traditional Latin mi casa es su casa feel. Longtime customers ask for their favorite waiter who knows them. It’s likely the waiter even knows the customers parents and grandparents. And who knows?, the grandparents may have been around to see the Duke or Errol winding down after a wrap. No.1, 500 Mission Blvd., San Fernando, (818) 365-9196; No.2, 6819 Canoga Ave., Canoga Park, (818) 884-0776.