We are blessed with a lot of good Mexican food in Los Angeles. But for sheer number and breadth of Mexican restaurants, bakeries and sweet shops, you can’t beat Boyle Heights. Sound far? It’s really just a couple minutes from the heart of Downtown Los Angeles, on the other side of the river. You can even take the Metro there, destination Mariachi Plaza.
Al & Bea’s, which sounds more like a Jewish deli than a Mexican joint, is a Boyle Heights institution dating back to 1966. Housed in a squat brick building, it has a loyal and diverse fan base. Families, tattooed homies and paramedics alike line up for cheap burritos that satisfy a basic primal need. Most popular? The bean and cheese burrito, creamy refried beans and shredded cheddar cheese, gussied up with a thin red salsa that packs a surprising amount of heat, enough to start a pleasant quiet burn on the sides of the tongue. If you want to do Al & Bea’s like the regulars, be sure to order an Orange Bang to wash it down. Outdoor seating only, some of it covered.
The first time we ate at Cemitas Poblanas, we stood by the register for several minutes, wondering if someone, anyone, would ever appear, while a table of three generations sat quietly nearby, seemingly waiting as well. Eventually a woman appeared from the kitchen, carrying plates of oversized quesadillas and fat cemitas, the restaurant’s namesake sandwiches. Turns out this woman is not only chef, but server, busser and cashier. So be patient please. Depending on your taste in atmosphere, this very orange dining room, directly across from Evergreen Cemetery, with its plastic covered tablecloths, jukebox and vending machines, including one filled with tiny voodoo dolls, may or may not be for you. But no matter your opinion on the interior, you will be rewarded with one of the city’s best cemitas, a Mexican sandwich not to be confused with a torta, distinguished by the roll on which it is served and from which it derives its name—a golden, sesame seed flecked bun (cemita means seed)—and a pungent herb called papalo. We like it simple, with thick slices of avocado and piled with the slightly funky string cheese known as quesillo. But you can have your cemita with carnitas, ham or milanesa (thinly pounded, breaded and fried beef or chicken). In fact there is a baker’s dozen variations.
Boyle Heights is blessed with numerous panaderias (bakeries). La Favorita is our pick. Before we get to the goodies, first a quick word on some of the unusual décor elements, specifically the statues of a gilded lion and Greek goddesses, framed in marble. Subtle they are not. There is also an oversized, golden mixer. The one item not to be missed here is the conchitas (little shells). These are baseball size puffs of golden, subtly sweet, brioche like dough striped with ribbons of crumbly, delicate sugar. They would make a delicious addition to any brunch table, not to mention a most affordable one. La Favorita also turns out fine bolillos, simple sandwich rolls with a crunchy exterior and a soft inside, as well as a variety of cookies, cakes and turnovers. If you are new to the panaderia experience, the way it works is you grab a plastic tray and tongs and serve yourself. Because of their popularity, the conchitas are usually displayed on a cart of multitiered baking sheets that is replenished throughout the day.
There is no menu at Flor del Rio. Your choices are birria, menudo or tacos. Get the birria, or goat stew. It’s the specialty. You can get the meat off the bone, on a plate, served with a side of broth. But you get more broth if you order the dish in a bowl. It’s a generous bowl of fragrant consommé. And there’s plenty of tender meat, both on the bone and off. Served alongside is a bowl of lime wedges. We like a generous hit of lime to cut the richness of the soup. There are also tender, warm, freshly made tortillas, a split plastic container of cilantro and chopped white onion, and a miniature molcajete of hot sauce. Take some meat, tuck it into the tortillas, add cilantro, onion and some of that medium hot sauce and voila, you’ve got some excellent goat tacos making this meal a two-fer: soup and tacos. The modest restaurant is popular with families. And while Spanish is definitely the first language here, the servers are patient with newbies and non Spanish speakers.
The tacos at the almost two-year-old Guisados are wondrous things. They start with made to order corn tortillas that are quite a bit thicker than your standard tortilla. These are coarse, substantial, chewy beauties, almost too thick to fold. You can get them with about a dozen different fillings, including several guisados or stews. We can’t resist the mole poblano, the classic dark, complex chocolate-chile-nut version with tender chicken. It is finished with a drizzle of crema, thinly sliced red onion, roasted sesame seeds, pepitas and bits of crunchy peanuts. Camarones (shrimp), cooked like they might be at a fancy seafood specialist, which is to say, at that elusive just right place, are slathered in a kicky chipotle mayonnaise and share the spotlight with a tangle of sweet, caramelized peppers and onions. There are even some vegetarian options, notably mushrooms in a subtle cilantro sauce. To drink, there are always several choices on view in the traditional big mouth glass jugs. Though the melon is the popular favorite, we’re partial to Guisados’ ultra refreshing, not overly sweet jamaica.
To many Angelenos, the tacos from King Taco, a chain of fast food restaurants that began in 1974 with a converted ice cream truck, are the quintessential taco, the taco to which they compare all others. These tacos are small (about 3 inches across), cheap ($1.45 a pop), and hit the spot. They are ideal for late night munchies; this location stays open until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. The default accoutrements are cilantro, chopped onion and red salsa, though the latter can overwhelm the flavor of the meat. Our favorites lean to pork: the carnitas, thin hanks of sweet, caramelized meat, and al pastor, nibs of smoky charred pork tricked out with lots of sweet, melting caramelized onions. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, they open their annex to accommodate the crowds. They also roast whole chickens on the weekend. These could be sublime but we couldn’t say. It seems blasphemous to order anything other than tacos at King Taco.
The specialty at Manuel’s Original El Tepeyac Café, a compact eatery dating to 1955 and commonly known simply as El Tepeyac, is burritos. Big burritos. Burritos to put all others to shame. If you can eat an original chile verde Manuel’s Special burrito on your own—you have one hour in which to complete this task—you score a free “I Ate the Whole Thing T-Shirt.” Note this particular burrito is meant to serve 2-4 people. But even the standard burritos are gargantuan things. We like the Okie or Hollenbeck de machaca: shredded beef, paired with rice, beans, cheese and (unlike so many places) a generous amount of excellent guacamole. The Okies are finished with red enchilada sauce while the Hollenbecks get a stew of mild chilies, onions and tomato. The same menu is available outside. You order at the patio window. But we like the clatter and buzz inside, preferably at the counter. Meals here end with the delivery of a plastic basket filled with individually wrapped Double Bubble gum, Tootsie Rolls and doctor’s office suckers.
In the 1950s, when what is now Cesar Chavez Avenue was Brooklyn Avenue, and Boyle Heights was primarily a Jewish and Japanese neighborhood, a tiny Japanese spot with five counter stools and three booths opened called Otomi Cafe. Today Otomi is Otomisan. The place is on its third owner, Yayoi Watanabe, who runs the front of the house. And the small television set behind the counter, often tuned to NHK World (a Japanese news, history and culture channel) is color. But little else has changed. You can order a bowl of udon or side of gyoza. Most popular however are the combinations, which allow you to choose any two of seven items including tempura, pork cutlet, chicken teriyaki and California roll. We like the tempura. You get two shrimp along with a generous assortment of seasonal vegetables such as broccoli, yam, kabocha squash, eggplant, zucchini and green beans. Combinations come with miso soup, rice and a simple salad in a miso-sesame dressing. Just don’t come in a mad rush, which is to say, the kitchen is a tad slow. Consider it time to take in a little history.
It’s hard to miss Raspados Don Manuel: a bright blue corner building across the street from Evergreen Recreation Center. Here you can get a scoop of rainbow sherbet ice cream. But the thing to order is a raspado, which is like a cross between a snow cone and a slushy, but made with fresh fruit and real fruit syrups. The diablito (devil) is one of the specialties. It begins with a choice of fresh chopped mango or slivered cucumber in a cup, or a combination of both. Then comes coarsely shaved ice, your choice of mango or tamarind syrup, a hit of sweet ‘n spicy chamoy syrup and chamoy powder, more ice, more syrup, and to finish, a straw of dried tamarind in chamoy powder or dried mango in chamoy powder. For diablito virgins, the first couple bites might be a bit confounding. But the sweet-spicy flavor bomb quickly grows on you. Equally good, but entirely different, is the nuez (nut) raspado, which tastes like a pecan pie on ice. It’s a creamy, subtly sweet refresher laced with bits of pecan.
Boyle Heights’ best known restaurant, and its prettiest, was one of the first restaurants in Los Angeles to show a diverse clientele that Mexican food means more than rice, beans, cheese and tortillas. Today, those seeking refined Mexican food have more choices. But La Serenata de Garibaldi still has a loyal following. Service is old school gracious. The tortillas are made in house, as you can see through a small window into the kitchen next to the bar. The complimentary plate of chips delivered to each table also comes with wedges of quesadilla. And meals are preceded by complimentary bowls of soup, often highlighting a single vegetable, maybe peas or crookneck squash. It is these little touches that distinguish the 27-year-old restaurant. La Serenata is known for seafood. Garlic lovers need look no further than the fish of the day with mojo al ajo, perhaps sea bass or salmon bathed in a delicious olive oil sauce heady with finely chopped garlic. But there are several excellent chicken dishes as well, including enchiladas suizas blanketed in a mild tomatillo sauce and cheese. La Serenata’s beans are so good we were sure the secret must be a ham hock or something equally porcine. We were wrong. “Olive oil,” offered our waiter.
Al & Bea’s Mexican Food
2025 E. 1st St., Los Angeles, 90033
Cemitas Poblanas Elvirita
3010 E. First St., Los Angeles, 90033
La Favorita Bakery
2305 E. 4th St., Los Angeles, 90033
Flor Del Rio
3201 East 4th St., Los Angeles, 90063
2100 E. Cesar Chavez Ave., Los Angeles, 90033
2400 E. Cesar Chavez Ave., Los Angeles, 90033
Manuel’s Original El Tepeyac Café
812 N. Evergreen Ave., Los Angeles, 90033
2506 E. 1st Street, Los Angeles, 90033
Raspados Don Manuel
2848 4th St., Los Angeles, 90033
La Seranata de Garibaldi
1842 E. 1st St., Los Angeles, 90033