Estrano chef Diego Argoti is wearing a pink mask, vintage MTV tank top, cut-off jean shorts, and high-top sneakers as he helps his crew unload equipment from his well-worn pick-up truck. They scramble to set up alongside the Comfy Pup tent behind Club Tee Gee’s back patio in Atwater Village, unfolding tables and making a kitchen materialize like magic, revealing two woks, two pots, two propane tanks, six burners, trays, and pasta baskets. As one man starts taking order on a pad, Argoti begins prepping pasta dishes in aluminum and plastic takeout containers.
“We are the opposite of traditional Italian,” Argoti says. “I always say we are really bad Italian food because we break rules.”
On that particular night, the menu indeed broke rules left and right. One of the items, a collaboration with the Midwestern-focused concept Comfy Pup, was a Chicago-style tsukemen featuring Sonora alkaline noodles with a quail egg, white onions, neon green relish, pickle spear, green zebra tomatoes, sport peppers, and celery salt. Comfy Pup’s chef sliced and deep-fried hot dogs so they would “octopus,” and Argoti used them to garnish each noodle bowl. He also borrowed yellow mustard to squirt on tiny split-top poppy seed buns he speared with chopsticks. This dish came with a cup of kielbasa/trotter broth, aka hot dog water “dashi,” for dipping.
Argoti loosely based his dan dan verde on the famed Sichuan noodle dish, but tossed garlic chive tagliatelle with green pistachio tahini, topping with emerald plum XO, smoked shiitake, basil leaves, and spicy chile oil.
Before he started breaking rules, the 31-year-old chef had to learn them. Argoti worked alongside Ori Menashe at Bestia starting in 2013—you may recognize his hands from the Bestia cookbook—before helping to launch Bavel. Sadly, he had to leave to care for his dad.
“It was the first time I didn’t have an identity in a kitchen,” Argoti says. “I always loved pasta. Fettuccine Alfredo was the first dish I ever made from scratch… When someone dies, I make chicken noodle soup with handmade pasta for the family. It’s one of the reasons I applied to Bestia.”
Argoti is an Ecuadorian-American “food nerd” who grew up in Burbank and takes a global view of “street pasta” at rotating pop-ups that synthesize L.A.’s multicultural flavors. He’s served pasta a la carte on Eastside patios like Glendale Tap and 1802 Coffee Roasters, and even hosted a five-course tasting at Cambodian restaurant Gamboge in Lincoln Heights.
He first conceptualized Estrano with three pastas in mind: stuffed, hand-cut, and extruded. “The model was based more as a taco stand,” Argoti says.
He first served pasta to the public in an alley behind Café Tropical in Silver Lake. “I texted ten friends an hour before, and we sold out in 30 minutes,” he says. “It was just a group of people eating noodles, no chairs, no tables, just eating weird-ass pasta while listening to hardcore and Cumbia.” He repeated the same menu and it felt “easy, and was turning into something expected and sustainable,” an overly comfortable setup that Argoti needed to “destroy immediately.”
“I want to create and push myself into a place where I push boundaries that I didn’t know I was capable of doing,” Argoti says. For a Chinatown pop-up near Majordomo, he completely rewrote the menu the night before. He grilled quail and served it over popcorn with flambéed Sichuan sauce. He grilled pork belly with fermented corn mustard, made beef tongue “musubi” with his own Spam, and spun three ice creams: avocado, corn and tahini, and tomatillo.
Argoti describes his cooking style as “Alinea meets Olive Garden, early Schwa, but on the street.” Referencing two iconic Chicago fine-dining restaurants and a national chain in a single sentence says a lot about his culinary dexterity.
“Being creative during a pandemic changes the way you think,” Argoti says. “Noma was making cheeseburgers and I was like, ‘Game on.’ The best restaurant in the world is making cheeseburgers… it’s a much needed pause and blank canvas for how we identify restaurants.”
Argoti’s first creations were cheeseburger ravioli, tortellini en pozole verde, and mushroom chow fun(ghi). “It has always been taking a classic dish or something we grew up with and recreating that dish with all the components in different ways,” he says.
“For the ravioli I treat it like a ragù,” he says, “but with caramelized onions, beer and mustard powder, caramelize large chunks of meat. We top it off with shoestring fries. The sauce for the pasta is straight-up tomato and mustard. The pasta dough is tomato paste and mustard powder. We stuff it with Velveeta.” He adds, “It’s funny to take the most replicated pop-up dish of the pandemic”—hamburgers—“and turn it into something unexpected.”
Argoti played in hardcore bands and sees parallels between Estrano and punk rock. He found inspiration from Dead city punx, who started hosting last-second, bare-bones shows during the pandemic.
“Hardcore is something you create and nourish. You have to find the location, record your own shit, and create a community because no one else is going to do that unless you do it,” Argoti says. “You aren’t going to get played on the radio. You aren’t going to play established venues. You are going to find an auto shop in the Valley. Scream your little heart out, while a bunch of skinny jean wearing motherfuckers dance around like pogo sticks and feel like you belong for ten seconds in this weird series of events we call the world as we know it. Replace music with food and that’s my connection.”
Upcoming plans are fluid. “I don’t want a brick and mortar to be a success,” Argoti says. “I think that would destroy what we created; you can’t retain it in a box. My goal in the future is to do an Estrano in Mexico City, Bangkok, and Denmark. We will go from there.”
In true punk fashion, Argoti says he’s prepared to (figuratively) “burn it all to the ground” and start over as soon as the projects stops being fun.
“Longevity isn’t the point,” he says. “This isn’t a 20-year lease. This is tonight. This is make it count.”
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