Saturday, October 1, 2011

Boyle Heights tastes and sights

Mariachi musicians in Mariachi Plaza - click to "embiggen"
Cross the Los Angeles River east of downtown and you'll end up in Boyle Heights, one of L.A.'s oldest neighborhoods. Irish-born Andrew Boyle moved here in 1858, purchased a tract of land from a Mexican wine-making family and built a brick house. He cultivated the vines and made wine, but he also ran a shoe store and served on Los Angeles's new City Council.

Boyle Heights house
His descendents - starting a new LA tradition - made a lot of money selling plots of Boyle's property during the real estate booms of the 1870s and 1880s, and many homes of this era remain - though they are a little frayed and careworn today. By the 20s, however, affluent Angelenos were heading west to the suburbs and beaches. These new neighborhoods often had restrictive  and discriminatory deeds shutting out people of "undesireable" heritage.  So Boyle Heights became the home of a rich, diverse community of Jewish, Serbian, Japanese and Mexican people.

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.
Guisados (the name means "stews") has a simple menu. An assortment of different tacos - usually a dozen or so, plus tamales and aguas frescas to drink.

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)

Of the tacos above - 10 different varieties - I think my favorites were the Chuleta (the chunks of pork were deliciously flavored), chicken tinga (it had a wonderful smoky taste) and  the calabasitas (it was refreshing after so many rich and spicy tastes). But the rest were delicious, too. The cochinita pibil was really hot with chiles, a little more than I like. And the mushrooms were a touch too salty.

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
 Armando's brother graciously allowed me to take these photos. As we left the market, Armando offered us a dessert of fresh pan dulce, or sweet yeast rolls.

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.

Sidewalk sales and street vendors abound here.

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
After our walk we drove around and saw more of the neighborhood. There were stores, flea markets, food sellers everywhere. And people everywhere too - shopping, strolling, talking and laughing. Lots of kids. Lots of folks just sitting outside, watching the world go by.

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
Here are a few examples. Click all to "embiggen"

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!
Boyle Heights is a little-known treasure of history, arts, culture and food. You can drive to Boyle Heights, or you can visit by taking the Gold Line subway - it's very convenient. Even so, there are many people in LA who don't know this vibrant and interesting neighborhood. If you live in LA and that describes you - you should change that. If you are a visitor to LA and want to go see Boyle Heights - look me up. There's a lot of places there I'd like to explore!


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I might just change my mind about chicharrones tacos.

You've changed mine, and I never knew they existed until now.

P.S. What a great review! I hope Armando reads it.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

The process - developed in Mesoamerica as early as 1200 BC - makes proteins in the corn more easily digestible.

For all the anti-latino animus in this country, those grits eaters would all be suffering from pellagra if it weren't for that Mexican know-how.

SUEB0B said...

Great post. I am putting Guisados on my list of places to visit. You are a local treasure.

Sheila said...

It would be fun going to a lively, ethnic area with great food like this if you weren't taking your life in your hands by doing so. There are people around that main street that are doing their best to civilize the area, and it's great for the people who live there, I guess. There's still tons of gang activity in the area and who knows when someone may go on a spree. People who don't know what they could be in for in the area (or on the way to it, depending on which way they are coming from) should at least be given a heads up. At the very least don't be there after dark.

shrink on the couch said...

I luv colorful graffiti art!

Anonymous said...

If you ever want to change careers, you have a promising future as a food and travel writer!

Glennis said...

I don't think Sheila has ever been to Boyle Heights. With all due respect, her take on it is false.