L.A.’s beloved Afro-Mexican restaurant nearly closed for good. This weekend, it’s back
For a few weeks, Los Angeles nearly lost these jewels from Bell Gardens’ lauded Tamales Elena y Antojitos: the bright and tangy tomatillo-laden pozole verde, the thin and crispy griddle-fried fish taco pescadillas, the pinched-masa picadas dolloped with beans. In mid-May, after nearly one year of questioning their restaurant’s future, the Irras family announced they would close Tamales Elena, a restaurant that expanded upon their decades-old generational tamale truck in Watts and celebrated the Afro-Mexican traditions of the southern state of Guerrero.
Today, the restaurant reopens in a surprising twist that much of the family didn’t even see coming.
“It was in my dad’s head to reopen. As soon as my sisters decided, ‘OK, we cannot do it anymore,’ my dad was like, ‘Yes, we can make it happen somehow,’” said Teresa Irra Lorenzo, one of Maria Elena Lorenzo and Juan Irra’s five daughters who help run the family business. “He doesn’t want to stay home and do nothing, so I’m like, ‘OK, let’s go another time. Let’s take another turn. Let’s try to make it work. Let’s go 100% and if he wants to do it, we can do it.’”
Tamales Elena y Antojitos in Bell Gardens serves pozole verde, moles and other unique dishes from the Mexican state of Guerrero.
Heralded for its tamales wrapped in corn husks or verdant banana leaves and an array of other dishes traditional to Guerrerense cooking — especially those from the seaside region of Costa Chica — Tamales Elena y Antojitos opened in July 2020 to widespread acclaim. The original food truck, which primarily sells tamales and usually runs out by the early afternoon, remained busy, but by last summer the Bell Gardens restaurant had slowed to nearly half of its first-year sales, spurring the Irras to question whether their small storefront was sustainable.
They attribute the decline in sales to the gradual and natural falloff that restaurants can experience after the excitement of a new opening, but also to the neighborhood: In the first year of business most guests shared that they’d driven from across L.A. to taste the generational Afro-Mexican cuisine, but as 2021 wore on, these visits became less frequent, and the Irras relied on the neighborhood, which did not seem as interested in their food as those who saw the restaurant as a destination.
They began to wonder whether shortening their hours could work, or tweaking their menu in a way that would minimize food costs. The family also wondered if they should change locations — perhaps move downtown, where their food might reach more customers, though the rent is still too expensive. (Another location is still in the plan, if they can afford it, Teresa said.)
In May, Maria Irra Lorenzo, who manages the restaurant, took time off for her wedding and honeymoon, and the family planned to temporarily close the restaurant for only one week. In that time, the sisters primarily responsible for the restaurant’s operations decided not to reopen. They announced the closure online to an instant stream of pleas from customers — both in person and digital.
“A lot of people were really upset and sad that we were closing,” said Teresa, who primarily manages the restaurant’s social media. “I had to get back to a lot of people on Instagram, or people [were] calling and asking where we were, why we weren’t open, since it was all last-minute. Customers came here to the truck to look for us; since we were closed over there [in Bell Gardens], a lot of customers made it to Watts.”
Both Maria Elena Lorenzo and Juan Irra planned to retire next year but they’re putting those plans on hold to see Tamales Elena y Antojitos return and thrive. The parents, who formerly manned the food truck with Teresa, will both move their efforts to the restaurant, while Teresa and her sisters Judept Irra Lorenzo and Abril Diaz run the truck, which operates on an earlier schedule and frees up Judept for another job in the afternoon — another deciding factor in closing the restaurant.
Sisters Heidie Gaeta and Maria will continue to run the restaurant, now with their parents, and with limited hours: Thursday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The menu also will change, focusing more on the matriarch’s Afro-Mexican specialties; some new items might include pescado zarandeado and relleno de puerco, plus daily specials. Many of the fan favorites will remain, including the tamales that are so popular; the family estimates they run through roughly 300 pounds of masa for the food truck alone, and 150 pounds for the restaurant, daily. The pozole will return, as will the pesdcadillas, the moles and the antojitos, such as the family’s hand-shaped picadas — and thanks to the retooled format, Maria Elena Lorenzo will now be there forming them.
Tamales Elena y Antojitos reopens June 3 at 8101 Garfield Ave. in Bell Gardens, with new hours of 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday to Sunday.
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