Growing up in a Mexican household in Southern California has helped me gain a deeper perspective and appreciation for the kind of city Los Angeles is. It’s a city that thrives off of its ethnic communities and the influence of immigrants. The city is a network of people with roots from all over the world contributing a slice of what life once was for their neighbor to experience. Unfortunately, saturation begins to spread as more and more want to be a part of the pie, which ultimately diminishes the overall quality. Yes, you can find good Mexican food in LA but most still fall short of what’s truly eaten in Mexican households. I grew up eating whatever mom could find in the fridge. Often times, an experiment on a tortilla, but it was never something as specific and cliché as what you find in most Mexican restaurants nowadays: carne asada, al pastor, rice and beans with everything, and so forth.
Enter Guisados. A family-owned restaurant with two locations (Boyle Heights and Echo Park) that specializes in one thing: authentic, home cooked tacos. You won’t find the typical carne asada tacos here. Instead, you’ll experience food and flavors as close as you can get to sitting down at a family table in a Mexican house. Chicken with a poblano-style mole, chipotle and chorizo, steak picado (flank steak) with green bell peppers and bacon, or chicharron tacos (pork rinds slow cooked in a green chile). Or perhaps you fancy grilled panela cheese and chorizo for the perfectly savory taco. They even got the calabacitas right from my childhood: squash, corn, tomatoes, onions, green and red peppers, and a little bit of butter.
I sat down with Armando De La Torre Sr. and his son Armando Jr. who run Guisados and maintain a consistent palette of traditional flavors that has created a cult following among LA’s residents. Here is their story.
How did Guisados get started?
Armando Jr.: Guisados started in August of 2010. My dad had been doing real estate his whole life and my parents went through a pretty nasty divorce for my whole four year college career. After college, I moved to Chicago just to get away from LA for a while and when I came back, I didn’t know what I was doing with my life. It was around that time when my dad was over real estate. He fell out of love with it. But he’s always been a great cook. The dude can taste something and replicate it, if not make it better. He just always had a palette. My dad was the kind of guy that, every Christmas or Thanksgiving, he was the one in charge of cooking. So my dad and I started working on a property that our family owned in Boyle Heights, which is where the first Guisados is now. He was mopping the floors or fixing a sink and suddenly stopped. He then said “we should do something with this”. I had been working in a restaurant since I was 15 and my dad has always been in the kitchen, so thats how Guisados got started. Ever since February 2012, we had a feature in the LA Times and since that day it has been crazy and got busier and busier.
Armando Sr.: The passion was always there. I decided I wanted to do something I would wake up every morning and do every day. I was good at real estate, but I didn’t love it like I love this business. There are gifts from God that he put in me and now I am able to use.
Tell us a little bit about the food.
Armando Jr.: The whole idea behind the food is to create these homemade stews and braises. Everyone’s idea of tacos is so fixated here. You think tacos and you think carne asada, cilantro and onions. We wanted to create these homemade braises instead—like mom would cook. We wanted that nostalgic feeling. We can add rice and beans and our food would still be fantastic but we wouldn’t be any different than other Mexican restaurants. Instead we wanted to compliment them. Next door to Guisados in Boyle Heights is my uncle’s market where he cooks and grinds corn. In the grounding stage, it’s called masa which is ground, flattened corn and placed on the grill to make a tortilla. That was a nice perk. We can get masa fresh any minute.
My dad worked on the menu and kept expanding and experimenting. The tortillas stayed the same and the menu went from 7 to now 14 items and its been the same since. Every once in a while we bring in specials; things that we keep in our back pocket. When we have birria, it gets really popular. People will literally drive from Rancho Cucamonga and order 18 of them and drive home. It’s crazy. We have such an awesome support base.
Armando Sr.: In central, you can find all sorts of markets and you can find anything. I have a lot of ideas of food I want to do but its not traditional, so I’m trying to keep this place really traditional. I can do a thai taco or braised short rib taco but its not traditional.
It was difficult in the beginning because everyone would come in looking for carne asada. Always carne asada. When you have employees to pay and bills to pay, it was difficult to just give in and say ‘Fine, lets just sell carne asada to make some money!’ It was tough to stick to with what we wanted to do. We really wanted to be different. You can find carne asada anywhere.
Food can take you way back. You taste something and it jars something in your brain and it takes you back to something that was familiar, or a happy time, or something comfortable. That’s what food does to me. It takes me back being in the kitchen with mom. I would be in the kitchen with mom just separating beans, and I’d hear the gate open and my mom would say “your dad is here, you better go outside”, so I’d go outside and pretend to be working but I really wanted to be in the kitchen with mom, simply looking for rocks in the beans.
Armando Jr.: At first, in Boyle Heights, it was really hard to get locals. It wasn’t until a year and half after that we started seeing locals coming in. The thing is, with any Mexican family, you feel like you can find the best Mexican food at home. So in the beginning, my dad would literally be begging people to come in. We use to make soup and tamales which weren’t on the menu but we would just do it to get people to come in. We also started featuring artists—which we still do—to put up their work up on the walls. Their work is up for two months. I’ve had artists make big sales or get jobs because of it. I’m an artist myself, but I love collaboration. I love people coming in and creating ideas. Collaboration is the best way to create a sense of community. We like to feature the food or the people of Los Angeles.
How is it working with the family?
Armando Jr.: Every once in a while, I’ll chime in and say, “Hey dad, we should put this on that taco” and he’ll taste it and say, “Hey, thats right” and sometimes he’ll taste it and say, “No, that’s not what i’m going for.” That’s the cool thing about our partnership, if you will. If you work with your dad, you can give him so many ideas but he’s the one that says no or he’s the one that says yes. Compared to any other partnership where it’s two guys at the same level, it’s like, “I’m right,” or, “No, I’m right,” and it turns into an argument. In the end, he’s my dad. If he says no, the answer is no.
Armando Sr.: There’s even a higher authority: my mom.
Armando Jr.: Dad is in charge with everything you taste and I’m in charge with everything you see. Simplest way of doing it.
My sister, Clarissa, has really stepped up to the plate as well since joining us a year ago. She has been instrumental in our growth and has taken the helm, running the Boyle Heights location while my father and I focus our efforts on getting the upcoming downtown location open.