Felipe Ochoa could have ordered the Pablo Escobar burrito or the large tortilla tacos named in honor of Chicago gangster Al Capone.
Instead, the 45-year-old opted for the diminutive El Chapo tacos, named after the on-and-off imprisoned head of the Sinaloa drug cartel known as “Shorty.”
As Ochoa ate his little tacos, sprinkled with lemon juice, he nodded at a shrine adorned with photos of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera and a figurine of the narco saint, Jesús Malverde.
It was all par for the course at Tacos Los Desvelados, a drug lord-themed restaurant in Maywood where the menu reads like the Drug Enforcement Administration’s most wanted list.
Like Americans, Mexicans have long been fascinated by gangsters and outlaws, who have inspired a whole genre of popular music known as narco-corridos.
Years of bloodletting in Mexico from the drug wars and associated political corruption have claimed tens of thousands of lives, taking some of the luster from the underworld romance that most famously manifested itself in music, TV and movies. Enter Tacos Los Desvelados, which puts a culinary spin on the fascination with narco-culture.
“We have narco-corridos, so why not narco-tacos?” said Fabricio Ramirez, who opened the restaurant.
In Southern California, where millions trace their roots to a country being wracked by violence from the drug war, the commodification of its colorful protagonists isn’t to everyone’s taste. Many Mexican immigrants come from states, such as Sinaloa, Michoacan and more recently Jalisco, that have seen the tally of dead grow as drug gangs jostle for territory.
Sitting at the bus stop at 55th Street and Atlantic Boulevard, just south of the restaurant, 66-year-old Maria Medina of Nayarit, Mexico, said: “It’s offensive to me. When we talk about drug traffickers we’re talking about millions of people who have died.”
At a nearby park, Stephanie Lopez, 40, said the concept of a drug lord-themed restaurant was misguided."They’re trying to make drug cartels look cool and I don’t think it’s right,” she said.
Wedged between a doughnut shop and a tax preparation business, the restaurant’s chalk menu includes the burrito named after Colombian drug boss Pablo Escobar and nachos named after Ignacio Coronel “Nacho” Villarreal, one of four leaders of the Sinaloa cartel. There’s also a quesadilla named after Sandra “The Queen of the Pacific” Beltrán, an ex-beauty queen once accused of having ties to the cartel.
“It was weird to see the tables, the décor and how the food had been named after narco-traficantes,” said Maywood Councilman Eduard De La Riva. “It’s geared more toward the younger generation that grew up with these figures in the news. You have telenovelas, movies, TV shows. One of the most popular shows on Netflix is ‘Narcos.’ And there’s nonstop coverage of ‘El Chapo’ and his escapades.”
De La Riva, 38, said he preferred that the restaurant had named its dishes after reputable “historical and cultural Mexican figures.” But he enjoyed the Nachos Coronel.
Drug lords, gangsters and outlaws have long inspired classic movies such as “The Godfather,” “Goodfellas” and “The Departed,” as well as the decor of restaurants that play on the exploits of real and fictional criminals. The story of Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villarreal, a U.S.-born Texas high school football player turned Mexican drug cartel leader, will be turned into a movie starring “Sons of Anarchy” star Charlie Hunnam.
Guzman was captured in January and soon after, an article written by actor Sean Penn for Rolling Stone detailed a meeting he had with the drug kingpin that had been brokered with the help of Mexican actress Kate del Castillo. Del Castillo, who had portrayed a cartel kingpin in the 2011 Telemundo soap opera “La Reina del Sur” (“The Queen of the South”), had been contacted by Guzman’s lawyer with the idea of making a movie about the drug lord’s life.
Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at Rice University’s Baker Institute, said Guzman was the rare, larger-than-life drug lord who inspired popular myths casting him as a modern-day Robin Hood. His ability to escape were seen by many Mexicans as a jab at a widely reviled government that is seen as corrupt and incompetent. Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel was also perceived as less bloodthirsty than other groups like the ultra-violent Zetas.
Ramirez said his restaurant’s theme focused on the most wanted outlaws in the world. That explained its slogan: “The most wanted tacos in the world.”
The walls and tables of the restaurant, whose name roughly translates to “the Sleepless Tacos,” feature images of iconic Hollywood gangsters like Tony Montana from the movie “Scarface” and Don Vito Corleone from “The Godfather.” One table has an Instagram image of José Rodrigo Aréchiga Gamboa, a now imprisoned former top enforcer of the Sinaloa cartel known as “El Chino Ántrax,” sitting on a rocking chair with a gold-plated semi-automatic firearm on his lap. On one wall a poster reads: “When life gives you lemons, put it on your tacos.”
Ramirez eventually removed the customer-erected “El Chapo” shrine because too many people were gathering around it. The restaurant’s website features a Mexican banda song, with lyrics — translated from Spanish — such as:
If you go with your mom, order a mini taco Guzman. If you go with your lady, nachos Coronel. And if you’re with the other one, burrito Pablo Escobar
“When I saw the name and saw the whole theme was about the cartel, that’s what interested me,” said Josue Cabrera, 18, of Corona, who ordered the Pablo Escobar.
Yvonne Yee, 27, of Alhambra, visited the restaurant with her boyfriend and two friends last month. One of her friend’s had seen the restaurant on the TV news and wanted to eat there.
“I said, ‘Oh look, El Chapo, let’s go sit at his table,” said Yee, who tried the Queen of the Pacific quesadilla.
Ramirez said he wrote songs and played in Mexican bands and got a U.S. work visa as a musician before making his way to Las Vegas in 2002 and then settling in L.A. He started producing music and organizing music concerts throughout Mexico and the U.S. A friend persuaded him to try the food business, and he opened Tacos Los Desvelados in October.
Ramirez said military service members, government employees, a priest, Mexican banda musicians and Mormon missionaries have walked through his doors.
Though some of the drug kingpins and other famous criminals featured in the restaurant are long dead, others are part of a history counted in months, or a few short years. Much of Mexico has been convulsed by a gruesome, ever-escalating violence that seems unceasing— including the kidnapping and likely killing in September 2014 of 43 college students in the southern state of Guerrero, which unleashed protests against the government.
David Lopez, 24, of Cudahy said he didn’t have a problem with the restaurant’s theme. As Michael Corleone, the protagonist from “The Godfather” might put it: It’s business, not personal.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “it’s about making money.”