An old idea, but new to you [restaurant review]
One of the more enjoyable food fads of the previous decade was putting cross-cultural things in tacos, such as pastrami with sauerkraut, fried chicken with mashed potatoes, and of course Korean bulgogi with kimchi. Hermosa Beach was host to an establishment that received lasting but unfavorable publicity for foie gras tacos, among other concoctions, and a few local places still carry on with this creative silliness. Otherwise, tacos locally are what they’ve always been, usually grilled meat, onions, salsa, and maybe some cheese.
Until recently, that is, when a new outpost of an established restaurant introduced a regional style hitherto unavailable in the South Bay, namely that of Mexico City. While most of the ingredients are the same pork, beef, and seafood found in the Northern Mexican style that is prevalent here, the method of preparation is different. Northerners usually grill or fry their meats, while further south they are stewed or braised, traditionally in clay pots. High-heat grilling is fuel-intensive, fine in countryside or village areas where fuel is plentiful, but expensive when it has to be transported long distances. Mexico City has been urban since it was still called Tenochtitlán and the arrival of a boatload full of strange men in armor was a distant rumor, so efficient cooking was a must here. It’s slow, but yields more tender meat and intense flavors.
The generic name for those spicy stews is guisados, which is also the name of the restaurant that has replaced Crafty Minds on Hermosa Avenue. The octopus sculpture that adorned the exterior of the building is gone, but otherwise it’s pretty much the same inside and out. The main decor is copies of rave reviews for their location in Boyle Heights, which opened in 2010 and became a critical darling. There are seven locations now, but most flavors are the same as ever, because all of the braises are made at that original kitchen and brought to the satellite spaces to be reheated and served. That makes sense because braised dishes intensify in flavor with time, and most braised meats are more tender with reheating. The heart of the menu is eight braised meats and seven vegetarian items, all available as tacos made with fresh corn tortillas.
Though most items are the same at all locations, Hermosa has a few unique selections. They offer breakfast tacos on weekends that I haven’t tried yet, plus seafood tostadas that are available daily. These tostadas aren’t the usual mountain of salad and cheese with protein buried somewhere under the guacamole, but are simply seafood mix on a crisp chip with a slice of avocado on top. I tried the aguachile tostada, and it was a thrill ride for my tongue. Aguachile is a ceviche of raw fish marinated with lime, serrano and habanero peppers, cucumber, and onion.The citrus juice helps extract and enhance the peppery flavors. If you enjoy spicy ceviche, you must try this, but have a beverage handy because you will want it. It’s delicious and zesty, but powerful.
Another item available only at Hermosa is tamales, which can be stuffed with chicken, chile verde pork, or cheese. I’ve tried the chile verde and while the exterior of the masa was a bit dry, it had a nice corn flavor that went well with the slightly citrusy, meaty green chile. If they’re trying out the tostadas and tamales at Hermosa to see whether they go over well, I hope they stick with them.
And now to the tacos, the heart of the menu. The default tacos here are medium sized street tacos, and three or four of them is a good meal. An alternative is the taco sampler, six small tacos that are two good-sized bites each. This is a great experience, like dim sum but Mexican, and it’s a deal for $9.50 for either the omnivore or vegetarian version. The omnivore default is steak picado, bistek roja, chicken tinga, chicharron, and cochinita pibil, but they allow some substitutions.
I tried that version and my first bite was the steak picado. The beef is braised with bacon and green bell peppers, and has notes of smoke and is intensely flavored, but not very hot. It was a good place to start, because the next one I sampled was the chicken tinga, which had a powerful chile kick. Like all of these braises, even the hottest items aren’t just hot – there are layers of flavor reminiscent of an Indian curry. The mole poblano is almost reminiscent of an Indonesian satay because of the liberal use of peanuts in the sauce. (There really should be a peanut allergy warning on the menu.) It’s not my favorite mole poblano because that peanut flavor is dominant rather than a contributor to the melange, but I did like it on its own terms.
I wasn’t a big fan of the braised chicharron (fried pork skin), because the main attraction to chicharron is the crispy texture. When braised it becomes jellylike, and the flavor isn’t interesting enough that I need to have it again. I do want more of the bistec roja, because that zippy deep red sauce with chile de arbol had my mouth burning in the nicest way. I’ll also have the cochinita pibil, a specialty of Yucatan that involves marinating the meat in tart orange juice before braising it in an achiote chile and garlic sauce. I’m a big fan of cochinita pibil, and this is the best version I’ve had locally.
I’ve mentioned the heat in the sauces several times, and that’s because the general palate here leans on chili peppers and other sharp seasonings. Those who are spice averse can have a fine meal if they pick and choose, and on both visits the people behind the counter have been happy to give both advice and samples. One item they don’t give samples of, and that is not recommended for anyone without a fireproof mouth, is the taco de chiles toreados. This is a taco stuffed entirely with chillies blistered at high heat, and it’s topped with a habanero salsa in case that isn’t enough for you. Don’t expect to see a review of this by me, because while I am dedicated to trying new experiences, there are lines that I draw and this is one of them.
I did however try the shrimp taco and a quesadilla con chorizo. The shrimp was fajita style with mild heat and fresh bell pepper taste, good but conventional. The quesadilla was different from what I expected because it was made with panela cheese, which becomes soft when heated but doesn’t melt, and chorizo that is quite different from the greasy stuff you buy in a plastic tube at the store. This chorizo was a nicely seasoned ground pork with plenty of paprika and spice, far better than the standard item. Along with that panela that was like a cheese-flavored marshmallow, it was like nothing I’ve had before. I think I prefer quesadillas with Oaxaca cheese, but may have to try another of these to find out.
Since there’s a lot of heat on this menu, you’ll want to have beverages handy. Guisados obliges with either agua frescas or standard Mexican and American beers. They plan to add sangria, and I’m looking forward to that because I expect it to be a great antidote to peppery heat. As for dessert, they don’t serve any – have another taco, or walk a block to Cafe Bonaparte or one of the plaza cafes.
Guisados has only been open for a month and has attracted a following of people who have been driving long distances to visit the original. Their take on the authentic food of interior Mexico is a winner, and recommended to anyone who wants the real thing without a long drive.
Guisados is at 1031 Hermosa Avenue in Hermosa. Open daily at 9 a.m., close 10 p.m. Mon.– Sat.; 8 p.m. Sun. Parking lot or street parking. Wheelchair access good, patio dining, some vegan items. (310) 374-3033. Guisados.la. ER