In the nearly 30 years since Frito-Lay debuted Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, the knobby, atomic-red snack has become the preeminent junk food of Generation Z-ers, inspiring rap songs, fashion shows and even, for a brief moment in 2018, a Flamin’ Hot Cheetos-sponsored pop-up restaurant from Roy Choi.
At Tirsa’s Mexican Cafe, a casual restaurant on the edge of Chinatown, the spicy corn puffs are the inspiration for one of chef Tirsa Nevarez’s most popular dishes: Flamin’ Hot sopes.
Nevarez turns the pulverized corn snack into a binder for her masa, which she hand-shapes into sturdy corn discs that are fried to order and then filled with refried beans and your choice of grilled meats (the frizzled carne asada is most popular). The meat is buried under layers of cheddar cheese, chipotle aioli and fanned-out avocado slices, and then finished with a thick, vivid dusting of crushed Hot Cheetos.
The masa cake has thin, crispy edges and a faint stutter of chile heat. The meld of dough, meat and cheese is crispiness collapsing into creaminess. The dish is utterly rich and fun.
Hot Cheetos were developed in the early 1990s by Richard Montañez, then a janitor working at Frito-Lay’s Rancho Cucamonga plant. He noted a demographic gap in the company’s product line; his creation was piloted in the convenience stores of East Los Angeles and marketed to “urban” Latino and African American neighborhoods. They are a natural choice for any youthful Angeleno chef tinkering with unorthodox flavors and ingredients.
For Nevarez, who describes her food as Mexican American cooking inspired by Los Angeles, the decision to cook with Hot Cheetos is bound up in nostalgia: She wanted to cook something delicious with her favorite childhood snack.
A former manager at Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank, Nevarez is a Le Cordon Bleu graduate who got her start in the food industry by selling baked goods, sandwiches and salads from her home. In late 2017, her husband, Steve (also a Le Cordon Bleu graduate), closed out his corporate 401(k) to fund Tirsa’s.
Housed in an almost compulsively cheerful mini-mall space near Bunker Hill, Tirsa’s bold, jade-green interior is filigreed with colossal paper flowers, laundry lines of papel picado and a shiny gold banner that reads: “Let’s fiesta, bitches.” The never-ending thump of dance music makes the room feel busy and energized even when it’s half-empty.
The colossal specialties inspire delight: The DTLA Torta is an enormous, flat, crusty telera roll plumped with crinkly strips of carne asada, beans, rice and guacamole, served with a steak knife plunged into the sandwich’s mammoth heart. The enchilada plate is a chile-stained quartet of rolled tortillas oozing with cheese and your choice of meat — try them filled with the dark, caramelly barbacoa. Grilled chipotle chicken sounds humdrum, but the juicy breast is cooked in a bright, sharp marinade streaked with chile.
Burritos are half-pound behemoths stuffed with things like French fries, carne asada and creamy whorls of guacamole. I’ve become fond of the breakfast burrito called the Noa Noa, a substantial meal of grilled chicken, potatoes, vegetarian chorizo, cheddar cheese and eggs clotted with various creams and sauces yet somehow still fluffy.
The meat-forward menu shelters some excellent vegan options, most notably a dense, fibrous tangle of jackfruit served in a citrus and chile marinade. It’s an honorable stand-in for the standard carnitas in any burrito or taco. Deeply savory mushrooms, sautéed until they are inky-black, are finished with onions and a squiggle of chipotle aioli; try them inside one of Nevarez’s freshly fried hard-shell tacos.
Tacos, the only thing at Tirsa’s that aren’t spangled with creams and sauces, spotlight Nevarez’s talent with guisados. Chicken tinga is impressively lush, braised seemingly forever in a brothy chipotle sauce with a spiciness that lingers. Birria is deftly seasoned and rich, immured inside a griddle-blistered tortilla sealed by lavish amounts of melted cheese. I was less enthralled by the Korean beef taco, whose sticky-sweet marinade overpowered the dish. Fish tacos reset the palate: the white fish, cleanly fried, shatters beautifully against a lightly dressed bed of crisp shredded cabbage.
It would be a mistake to leave Tirsa’s without a spoonful of the chef’s other signature Hot Cheetos concoction: the unfortunately named Me So Corny. It’s the most perfectly calibrated esquites dish I’ve come across in years, a super-rich sundae of crisp white corn gently muffled by mayonnaise, cotija cheese, butter and the final extravagance: a fuzzy layer of Hot Cheetos, a necessary gilding that would be out of place almost anywhere else but Tirsa’s.
Tirsa’s Mexican Cafe
Location: 701 W. Cesar E. Chavez Ave., Suite 108, (213) 878-9030, tirsas.business.site
Details: Credit cards accepted. No alcohol. Lot and street parking. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices: Appetizers $5.50-$12.99; tacos $3.50-$5; soups and salads $8.99-$13.29; burritos and bowls $11.69-$12.69; specialty plates $13.69-$14.99
Recommended dishes: Flamin’ Hot sope, chicken tinga taco, quesataco, chipotle-lime chicken, DTLA Torta