Ricardo Diaz is on his way to building a culinary empire with Mexican restaurants that innately reflect the attitudes and fluctuations of the Angeleno appetite.
Three years ago, Diaz and his in-laws opened Cook's Tortas in Monterey Park. There, sturdy, rustic rolls are baked on-site, everyone sips pineapple-celery and watermelon-mint aguas frescas and dessert brings soft corn cakes and biscuits smeared with loquat marmalade. For every diner who longs for the torta of grilled chicken, salsa, avocado and fried sage, another loves grilled skirt steak, dry-aged chorizo, nopales and guacamole. The restaurant is the all-inclusive ideal of what a modern Mexican cafe should be in Los Angeles.
Guisados, Diaz and business partner Armando De La Torre's new Boyle Heights taquería, shares a similar universality. Here, guisados achieve ascendancy; these are humble stews and braises that you'd otherwise most likely find simmering atop a home stove.
The restaurant occupies a busy corner of César Chávez Avenue, a prismatic space in which the soot-stained colors of the street refract back into a flood of gleaming white light. The ceiling rises to the sky; paintings capture the neighborhood with impressionistic quickness. Young families and businesswomen spend their lunches here in complete peace, heaving tacos in hand.
As at Cook's, the menu is writ large on an enormous chalkboard. It's a sharply focused selection, each day's guisados parceled out into about a dozen different tacos and tamales. But with the restaurant's huge handmade tortillas — glorious, rough-hewn things impeccable in their imperfection — two tacos (and a tamale to go) is all you'll need.
There's always an incentive to dine in. It could be a complimentary cup of vegetable soup, porous pieces of squash soaking up Scoville units of chile heat until they themselves start sweating. Or it might be a cream of mushroom soup, silky as those poured tableside into glistening porcelain.
Guisados' menu is designed to change every other week. But, De La Torre says, there are already some tacos too popular to be replaced. One is the calabacitas, a succotash of corn, zucchini, tomato, onions, peppers and a few crumbles of cheese. It's a taco for all times, both a perfect precursor to the similarly sought-after bistec en salsa roja (steak bathed in a smoldering salsa) and a meatless rejoinder to the porcine chicharrón, sheets of fried pork skin braised almost to the point of sublimation.
The tinga is equally indispensable. Chicken is stewed with onions, cabbage, chorizo and chipotle until its fibers unravel into smoky strands. Pickled red onions and a single slice of avocado rest on top. Try the steak picado too, a bed of beans, caramelized onions and peppers supporting a heap of skirt steak streaked with creamy avocado salsa.
There's definite depth to Guisados' mole poblano. The mahogany sauce conceals wisps of tender chicken and arouses all the necessary senses: barely bitter, subtly sweet and alive with gentle heat. Sesame and pumpkin seeds and a few stray peanuts cling to the mole like glitter to glue.
If your timing is right, you might also luck into tamales stuffed with that same rich mole or, just as happily, others bursting instead with shredded coconut and pineapple. But even those filled simply with chicken are good enough to encourage bulk orders.
Soon, Diaz and De La Torre hope to open a ceviche bar in Monterey Park. For now, their attention is on Guisados' daylong stews and braises, some of their most vivid family memories steamed inside delicate sheaths of masa and swaddled in those rugged tortillas.
Location: 2100 César Chávez Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 264-7201.
Price: Tacos, $2.50; taco sampler, $6.50; tamales, $1.50 or 12 for $18.
Details: Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Street parking. Credit cards accepted.