INTERVIEW: GUISADOS’ ARMANDO DE LA TORRE JR

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L.A. is spoiled when it comes to good tacos. You can’t go for a jog without being tempted to stop by a truck and eat three, maybe five delicious tacos. Those on the Westside suddenly know fluent Spanish when they want to order theirs al pastor or de carnitas. Even New Yorkers are on a desperate search to find some for themselves that rival ours. Best of luck you guys. In this city, when it comes to tacos, we got this, it’s ours, it’s just what we do best. But even here, claiming one spot as equal to or better than any other is grounds for a street fight. So when one Mexican restaurant is unanimously loved by Angelenos, it means something.

Guisados is the father-and-son restaurant that for the past three years has been receiving all the love. The Eastside prides itself on its historic Mexican roots and can spot authenticity a mile away. Within the first year of its opening, the restaurant on the corner of Cesar E. Chavez and St. Louis St. became a staple of Boyle Heights and Los Angeles as a whole – with families, church dwellers, and blue-collar workers, coming in daily to grab a bite that’s familiar, and most importantly, legit. In the same year Guisados left food critic, Jonathan Gold, at a loss-for-words. When he finally caught his breath, he described one of their tacos as, “a taco that will sneak out of the house in the middle of the night to do things that no taco should ever do, but you will always take it back, because you have tasted the complexity that lies three layers down.” If that’s not real love, I don’t know what is.

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Armando De La Torre Sr. and Jr.  managed to set up a restaurant that feels like the cook rummaged through mom’s kitchen, found some of her best recipes, and slapped portions of them on top of a warm homemade tortilla. Even the masa used to make the tortillas is made in a small market behind the restaurant by another family member. Their second location in Echo Park has already won over the area, and now Guisados is preparing to open a third location in downtown. Armando De La Torre Jr. sat down with LAC to tell us about his family’s history, the growth of the restaurant, and of course, the tacos.

LAC: Ok, so let’s start from the beginning..

ADLT: In 2010, Guisados was born on the busy  corner of St. Luis and Cesar Chavez. A small taqueria created to serve traditional braises on handmade tortillas. Next door is Carnitas Uruapan, which is a market and deli. There they grind the corn to make masa. So we knew we had that there at our disposal. We integrated this fresh masa into our menu. Thinking we can do tortillas, tamales, etc. We were like, “let’s do these home-style braises, these Guisados. Items that usually go with a side of rice of beans, but instead put them on a tortilla and call them a taco”.

We started with the idea of what your mom cooks at home. While your mom is cooking you grab a tortilla, stick it in the pot, and grab whatever she’s making. It’s just something you did as a kid and we wanted to bring out that nostalgia. Even to this day we get people who are like, “this takes me home.” It’s amazing to see people relate to our food.

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LAC: Where’s your dad from?

ADLT: He was born and raised here. He was born in Monterrey Park, same with my mom. I was raised in Alhambra.

LAC: How do you work out the recipes with your dad?

ADLT: My father, and his partner at the time Ricardo Diaz, worked up our menu. I was in charge of everything you see, the branding, the empty walls, the social media, and the daily operations. When we first opened Guisados, Ricardo Diaz and Armando Sr. wanted to focus on the idea of these braises on handmade tortillas, the merging of Armando Sr and Ricardo Diaz created something special. The menu started off small at the beginning and eventually grew to what you see today.  Since then, Ricardo has ventured into other projects of his own and my father and I decided to focus on Guisados and work on expanding into other locations. Now, we have a couple of guys who cook our recipes every day. They come in early in the morning leave by noon. Their only job is to cook our recipes over and over and over again. So that way, our food stays consistent. We cook everything in Boyle Heights. In the morning we separate it and send portions to Echo Park. That’s how both locations can provide food that tastes exactly the same.

LAC: What year did you open the restaurant?

ADLT: December of 2010. This December will be our three year anniversary. We want to have our downtown location open by January to kind of be able to have one restaurant open a year. When we started that was like a dream. When we started we were like, “oh man it would be so cool if Jonathan Gold wrote about us”, or, “man, it would be so cool to open another restaurant”.  So now that we have this new location coming up, we have so much pride in it because this is our opportunity to show that this isn’t just a fad restaurant. A lot of people tell me, “eighty-something percent of restaurants don’t pass two years”. We’ve gotten passed that. But it kept us humble because it’s also scary. Every time we get a slow day we’re like, “oh no..” We start getting worried. It’s an interesting change for us and we’re open to the challenge.

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LAC: How’s the Echo Park location working out?

ADLT: It’s been a blessing. It has far beyond exceeded our expectations. We took a chance on that location because there are no other businesses around it. For us, we saw that as not having competition. At the same time there’s barely any food traffic, most people drive to us. In Boyle Heights there’s so much foot traffic, we have so many locals coming in.

Each one of the locations has a very different vibe. Here in Boyle Heights, it’s home’ish. Echo Park is very laid-back, you can go there and hang out. Hopefully we’ll be serving wine there soon. In downtown, it’s going to be a hybrid of both. Each one is going to have a different feel. To me, it’s like everything is just one big restaurant that has everything you want, but it’s broken into three different locations. We’ll experiment different ways in how to get people in them. One thing is a breakfast menu, like breakfast tacos, but mainly things we were just raised on.

LAC: Do you ever change the menu?

ADLT: The menu that you see right up front stays the same. The only thing that changes are the specials. At first it did change a lot, which is why it’s written on a chalkboard, but after a while we started to understand how to maximize our food so we don’t throw so much away.

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LAC: What makes a good taco?

ADLT: For me, it’s originality and flavor. Everybody has their own opinion of where the best tacos are, “this place has the best carne asada! No, this place has the best carne asada!” Well to me, I’ve had plenty of carne asada, but carne asada is just carne asada. It’s steak, grilled. Even today, we get people who look at our menu and order carne asada. We don’t have carne asada. We have the same kind of beef but made completely different. It makes people try something new. It makes them step out of their element. We’re not trying to change Mexican food, because this is Mexican food, but we’re trying to broaden people’s perception of Mexican food. It was important for us to be original and true, especially here in Boyle Heights.

LAC: Talk about the habanero sauce..

ADLT: Our habanero sauce is practically a puree. It’s 95-97% habanero, mixed with a few other ingredients, but it’s mainly habanero. People are used to red and green, then they see habanero they’re like, “yeah I’ll try it”. They’re all machismo about it. Then they taste it, and honestly, I’ve had guys cry.

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LAC: You seem to get everyone from LA here.

ADLT: We do. We get celebrities, locals, doctors, students, lawyers, politicians. It’s all for the food. That’s the most important thing for us, it’s the quality of the food. Focusing on one thing and try to do it well, which is why we don’t serve anything else but tacos.

When we started this place the walls were just white, now I’ve started to feature local artists’ work on the walls. It gives them some exposure, it changes my walls up a little bit. It gives a sense of community. The main idea of this restaurant wasn’t to just make money, it was to try something new and throw our passion at it. I just want people to come here, feel welcomed, and enjoy themselves.

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