|Mariachi musicians in Mariachi Plaza - click to "embiggen"|
|Boyle Heights house|
The Second World War changed Boyle Heights dramatically. The Japanese were rounded up and interned in relocation camps. The Jewish community moved west to the Fairfax District, fleeing the increasing poverty and perceived crime of East Los Angeles. By the 1970s, it was primarily a Latino neighborhood - today, 94% of Boyle Heights residents are Latino.
The streets in the main business district of Boyle Heights are named after US cities - perhaps by homesick settlers from places like Chicago and St. Louis and Saratoga. The main drag, originally Brooklyn Street, was renamed Cesar Chavez Avenue in 1994 - sealing the deal. This is a strongly Latino neighborhood.
We last visited Boyle Heights in the summer of 2009 - visiting the regular but totally unofficial street food fair that thrived all too briefly before being shut down by the County Health officials. Happily, the vendors were able to thrive by adapting to new technology, using Twitter and Facebook to advertise their locations.
Today we came back to Boyle Heights after reading a review of a great taco place, written by LA's Pulitzer Prize winning food critic, Jonathan Gold.
Guisados is on the corner of St. Louis Street and East Cesar Chavez Avenue, in a venerable old brick building that used to be a Jewish bakery - the ovens, apparently, are still in the basement. Its owner, a friendly man named Armando, owns a couple of other casual restaurants in the area, but restaurants aren't originally in his background. He's a former real estate man - an echo of Boyle Heights' history. But the restaurant is an extension of his family - the building is family owned and the store next door is run by Armando's brother. That family connection is what helps make Guisados an extraordinary place.
|Click to "embiggen" and read the menu.|
The first time you come here, the best choice is to order the sampler plate of six mini-tacos. This gives you a chance to taste Armando's selections. If there's more than one of you, you can pretty much try out the whole menu in one delicious sitting.
|Clockwise from top: Cochinita pibil, Chicken tinga, Mole poblano (with chicken), Steak picado, Chicharrones, and in the center, Chuleta (pork chop) with salsa verde|
|Clockwise from top: Hongos (mushrooms), Chicken tinga, Calabacitas (zucchini), Steak picado, Bistek en salsa rojo (beef in red sauce) and in the center, Chorizo (sausage)|
The real revelation for me, though, were the chicharrones. Chicharrones are fried pork rinds, which, if you eat them fried, are delicious; crunchy, salty, greasy and sinful. But chicharrones tacos are usually made with stewed chicharrones - the crispy crunchy pork skin is stewed with vegetables until it's spongy and soft. That idea never appealed to me, and when I saw one on my plate, I was reluctant to try it.
These, however, though soft, were so unctuously rich in flavor that I almost swooned. I might just change my mind about chicharrones tacos.
The tacos are served on a small, thick corn tortilla made right here in the store. Armando uses freshly ground masa made by his brother, who runs a market next door. The tortillas were so delicious - coarse and nutty and toothsome - that I'd eat pretty much anything you'd wrap in them.
Armando also serves a seriously hot habanero salsa.
I could only take a little taste. [The Man I Love] poured it on with gusto!
Artwork by local artists hangs on the wall - some pieces are for sale if you're interested. Armando's support of local artists is another manifestation of his love for Boyle Heights.
When we finished our meal, Armando came and asked us what we thought. He's a canny salesman, and pretty much figured out that we were drawn here by the Jonathan Gold review. Nevertheless, he was a great host, telling us about his food, how he started the restaurant, and the things he thinks are important.
And of utmost importance to Armando are his heritage and his neighborhood. "I've had lots of people tell me I should move to the Westside," he said. "How could I do that? I make my tortillas fresh, from the nixtamal my brother makes everyday right next door! How could I do that on the Westside?"
In fact, he offered to show us his brother's operation, leading us out the door and into the small market next door.
Behind a hot deli case piled with delicious meats - including hot crispy fried chicharrones - he brought us through a swing gate and showed us the large steel grinder. Whole kernels of corn are boiled and steeped in lime in a huge vat, then ground in this big machine. The process - developed in Mesoamerica as early as 1200 BC - makes proteins in the corn more easily digestible. The ground fresh corn is used to make Armando's tortillas.
|Fresh masa dough|
Completely stuffed, we decided to take a stroll down the street to walk off our meal. East Cesar Chavez Avenue is lined with Australian fig trees - a poor choice of urban street tree used several decades ago. Their deep evergreen foliage darkly shades the sidewalks, and their vigorous roots have bulged and burst Boyle Heights' sidewalks. Nevertheless, the street scene on a Saturday afternoon was active - busy, bustling and full of sights, sounds and smells of delicious food from all the other restaurants that thrive in this neighborhood.
The well-known restaurant La Parilla has marvelous hand-painted signs. Mariachi musicians hang out here, and sometimes stroll through the restaurant, playing for tips.
|Musician with his guitar, standing outside restaurant|
One of the things I love the most about Los Angeles' Latino neighborhoods are the hand-painted signs and the murals you see everywhere.
|Virgen de Guadelupe, with a shrine at the base, on the side wall of Lupita's restaurant|
|La Casa del Musico|
|A sign for a seller of fruit smoothies and beverages|
|A mural at a pool hall - the men are dogs and the women are cats. One woman perches in a cocktail glass!|