“My food is pretty much my life story,” says Mario Christerna. His restaurant The Briks, located in the South Park section of Downtown, is named after a North African filled and fried pastry (which the chef likens to Hot Pockets). But his influences are multi-pronged. Christerna’s Boyle Heights upbringing in the projects guides his cooking as does his French training, his mentor Farid Zadi, and his culinary coming of age in Barcelona under Michelin-starred chef Martin Berasategui. “I wanted my first restaurant to represent my journey, I wanted it to represent my struggles, everything that I’ve been through to get to this moment now,” he says.
Every Thursday night, starting around six o’clock, you’ll find Christerna paying homage to his Chicano roots. Standing over a large metal drum right outside his restaurant, stirring up his discada—a melting pot dish of meats and vegetables that reduces down to a hearty stew—the chef greets customers and curious passersby who stop to have a look and take a whiff. As far as we know, The Briks is the only restaurant in town that serves the Northern Mexican specialty.
The large-format porcine affair causing the stir is usually served at gatherings since it’s an economical way to feed a lot of people—Christerna says his uncle used to make it at backyard barbecues when the chef was a kid. “I used to always tell him, ‘Tio, one day when I have my own restaurant, I’m going to make a discada,’ but of course my funky version of it. I had to do it,” he says.
His funky version is a mash up of chopped onions, tomatoes, peppers, chorizo, carne asada, bacon, ham, hot dogs, tequila, and two bottles of Negro Modelo. Each meat is added one at a time, allowing the fat to render and the juices to flow. The meat is then pushed to the side, and the vegetables are scooped into the liquid to cook and soak up the flavor. Eventually, the meat is added back in along with the booze, chipotle, tomato juice, dried and fresh herbs, and some spices that he won’t divulge.
It takes about an hour and a half for the mixture to reduce down to a thick stew, which he serves in tacos topped with a few slices of avocado and on his ridiculously decadent discada fries, a chili fries upgrade finished with melted cheese, harissa mayo, and cilantro. It’s feel-good food with a lot of soul.
That soul, along with his local and global influences, trickles down to Christerna’s daily menu, too. His selection of briks includes a traditional Tunisian version, aptly named The Classic, filled with tuna, capers, harissa, and a yolky egg that spills out when you cut it open. There’s also the Cuban-tinged Tony Montana (a nod to the chef’s Cuban stepdad) with lechon and mojo, and The Bougie with duck confit. Spanish flatbreads called cocas are topped with the makings of shakshouka and chicken ras el hanout while his hearty salads reference everyone from his mom to Cesar Chavez. Entrees include stuffed whole branzino topped with chermoula—Christerna describes the sauce as the offspring of chile verde and chimichurri—lamb shank, and a pork belly tajine glazed with piloncillo.
“As artists, as chefs, we have to make something that people haven’t had,” he says. “If I’m doing [something] like every other chef, what story am I telling? It’s like making a whole new song.”