Before I moved to the United States, everything I knew about Mexicans and their culture were filtered through the media. You know the stereotypes—handsome mustaches, sombreros, and the nonsense screams of “Andale, andale, andale!”
Of course, those are extremely warped images of Mexico. But even while living in a suburban neighborhood in northern Virginia for seven years, most of the Latinos I encountered were immigrants, either first or 1.5-generation. The “Mexican” food available within my community were mostly rice-and-bean-bloated burritos, quesadillas stuffed with cheddar cheese, and neon nachos. I even muttered great fallacies like, “I don’t really like Mexican food because it’s so heavy and gooey.” I’m so embarrassed that I ever said that.
I’m so glad my narrow cultural horizon has broadened in Los Angeles. Moving out of the USC bubble into Koreatown helped a lot, because Koreatown boasts a large population of Oaxacans—which further impressed upon me how diverse that one country of Mexico is.
I’ve mostly explored Mexican culture through its food. I’ve toured the great strip of Mexican vendors in east downtown, sampled roasted grasshoppers, learned to make Yucatan tamales, visited Oaxacan eateries, attended a multi-course mole-themed dinner, bought piping hot bolillos from my neighborhood market, refreshed on chile-sprinkled fruits from the Mexican food carts, and danced to a mariachi band at a Dia de Los Muertos event after a dinner of tacos.
And still, I have to admit, I’ve only tasted the edges of true Mexican cuisine. But what is true, “authentic” Mexican cuisine, anyway? I’m reading this amazingly intensive book called Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food right now, and my mind boggles by how many cultures, traditions and histories have crossed and clashed to form what Mexican food is today.
If you have any remote interest in food history and Mexican food/culture, you’ll cradle this book like the precious thing it is.
I got to meet the author, Jeffrey Pilcher, because he visited my college for a speech. His speech so fascinated me that I scheduled a phone call with him later for an interview.
Mr. Pilcher is a professor at the University of Minnesota, and he’s the epitome of an Academic. On that particular day I met him, he was dressed in a tweedy suit with a scarlet bow tie half the size of his head. Apparently that’s his typical attire. Just look at his intellectual, professor-y glasses!
“I didn’t expect him to be so Anglo,” I heard one attendee say as we commenced to a free luncheon of tacos from a local Yucatan eatery. But that’s the awesome thing about America. We’re such a well-mixed pot of melting cultures and ethnicities that we get to literally share the same dining table.
One interesting thing Mr. Pilcher mentioned in his speech and book is the globalization of Mexican food. We all know (and many disdain) Americanized “Mexican” food like Taco Bell and Chipotle, but there are other forms of Mexican-American food that deserves recognition and appreciation, he said.
Take Tex-Mex, for example, and their non-spicy chili con carne, sizzling fajitas and cheesy nachos. Or New Mexico’s green chile chiles rellenos and blue corn enchiladas. Or San Francisco’s Mission burritos, or the guacamole-laden taco salads.
Who is to say those aren’t Mexican food, when they were brought across the border by Mexican immigrants, adapted to suit broader palates and limited ingredient availability, and finally absorbed into the community as a beloved dish? Mexico itself is a huge melting pot of cooking styles and traditions. What is common in Yucatan, for example, is foreign in Oaxaca or Puebla. There is no one common defining Mexican dish.
There’s something Los Angeles food guru Jonathan Gold once said that makes sense to me: “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.” That’s especially true here in Los Angeles, a region that once belonged to Mexico. It’s a city in which Mexicans have long set root and traditions for generations. Considering the population and the length of time Mexicans have called SoCal their home, you can even consider this SoCal region as Mexico itself.
Mexican American food is just as mom-and-pop as the street snack stalls in Mexico City. And sometimes, they are. Here in Los Angeles, we have something many call “East L.A” cuisine, and that’s the new breed of Mexican American food that’s drastically different from old-school Mexican American food such as nachos.
One prime example is Guisados, a family-operated taqueria in Boyle Heights, a cozy neighborhood east of downtown. I visited it one night with two friends for a weekday ladies’ pig out session.
Guisados is founded by two Mexican Americans, Armando De La Torre and Ricardo Diaz. Now it’s primarily run by Armando, his two daughters, and his son. Next door, Armando’s brother runs a market, in which he grinds nixtamal and sells the fresh masa dough to Guisados for their famous hand-made tortillas.
When you enter Guisados, you immediately face the kitchen, where you’ll see cooks stirring big pots of braises and stews. A lady slaps masa dough together and presses them into thin tortillas before dry-griddling them into this gritty, chewy pancake that forms the base for all the dishes.
Look up at the giant chalkboard menu, and you might notice the lack of carne asada, guacamole, or even chips and salsa. Guisados means “braised” or “stewed” in Spanish, and that’s what you’ll get: stews and braises on top of fresh-slapped tortillas.
After visiting Guisados once, I fell in love and am now a frequent diner there. I love the bustling atmosphere, the warm service, and most of all, the freakingtastic food.
You might be overwhelmed by the menu options, some dishes which might be unfamiliar to you, but just ask the jovial, salt-and-pepper haired guy and he’ll happily explain the dishes to you. That guy is Armando De La Torre, and the pretty girl at the counter is his daughter. I met his son as well, and he’s also a looker.
He’s an artist, too. He created some of the murals and took charge of all interior decorations such as this one:
Now: First, order a tall cup of horchata.
That’s a must, especially if you’re planning on trying their devil-hot salsa. Horchata is a rice milk beverage, usually laced with sweet cinnamon. This one came tinted in pink in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month. I love Guisado’s horchata because it’s wholesome-tasting and not too sweet at all.
If you’re like me, you’ll want to try everything on the menu. The first time I visited, I decided to get the sample platter—six mini tacos for about $7.
I got the queso, the mole poblano, the cochinita pibil, the chicharrones, the chuleta en salsa verde, and the hongos con cilantro.
Queso: Some kind of fried white chewy cheese with a mild salsa on top.
Mole Poblano: Shredded chicken smothered with mole sauce that includes sesame seeds, peanuts and pumpkin seeds.
Cochinita Pibil: Slow-roasted pork, Yucatan-style, with lots of citric juices and spices.
Chicharrones: Fried pork rinds braised with mild and piquant spices.
Chuleta en Salsa Verde: Pork chops in mellow tomatillo salsa.
Hongos con Cilantro: Sauteed mushroom with cilantro, topped with smooth avocado salsa.
I freaking loved every one of them!!!! The tortillas are to DIE for. I never knew how amazing fresh corn tortillas can be. I buy tortillas from my neighborhood Mexican market, but they don’t compare to the ones Guisados make.
They are so thick, so chewy, infiltrating your tongue with this inexplicable corny, roasty flavor. These tacos aren’t what you’ll find in say, Mexico City for example, but they retain recognizable traditions and flavors of good Mexican home-cooking. Armando told me he still considers his food “authentic” in that it’s familiar home-style dishes he grew up eating.
For the vegetarians, they do have non-meat options, like the calabacitas (succotash of corn, zucchini, tomato, onions, peppers and a few crumbles of fresh cheese) or the hongos (mushroom, above). The one below is the calabacitas:
Unfortunately, I underestimated the heat of the habanero salsa Armando provided me. I stupidly dipped my fork into it, chomped down, and even liberally topped all my tacos with that demonic sauce. My tongue burst into flames! That habanero sauce is so freaking hot that it was like a shot of drugs into my system. When I stood up, fanning my tongue in vain, I staggered a bit from giddiness. That’s how spicy it is…so beware!
Guisados also offers this extremely spicy dish called chiles torreados. I had originally wanted to try that one, but it isn’t included in the sample platter and after half-destroying my tongue with the habanero sauce, I’m so glad I couldn’t order that. According to Armando, he created chiles torreados because people kept asking for spicier and spicier. That dish is made by roasting five kinds of chiles and grinding them into a fiery sauce. I’ll try that…one day.
The sampler platter didn’t really fill me up completely. So I got up and ordered another taco, this time the pescado (fish):
I had expected battered and deep-fried fish tacos, but the pescado taco here at Guisados turned out to be grilled, juicy white fish topped with a vibrant ensalada.
I’ve visited Guisados a couple more times, and the pescado and chicharrones tacos are my two must-orders. Actually, I really like them all—they’re all so unique and delicious.
As I continue reading Planet Taco, I’m getting more overwhelmed—and excited—about the vast diversity in Mexican cuisine…I plan to explore as much of it as I can, even possibly including Tex-Mex and New Mexico dishes that some consider bastardized American rather than Mexican American.
Dishes like that of Guisados may be considered “East L.A” cuisine, but they’ve introduced wonderful flavors and cultures to many non-Mexicans like me. And that, to me, is more important than arguing about the purity of a certain cuisine.