If history has taught us anything, it’s that you don’t mess with Mexican food. Too many prior attempts have been smothered in sour cream and neon shards of cheeselike product. Today, though, a group of L.A. chefs is toying with the style in a way that isn’t just good; it’s respectful of tradition. Call it Alta California cuisine.
“Alta California is rooted in Los Angeles but heavily influenced by Mexican cuisine,” says Wes Avila. The pedigreed chef behind the roving modernist taco operation Guerrilla Tacos has been known to serve such Cali fillings as celery root, foie gras, and even basturma—a nod to the region’s Armenian population.
At CaCao Mexicatessen in Eagle Rock, you’ll find tortillas heaped with Santa Barbara sea urchin and a fried chile guero. The squid taco at Carlos Salgado’s Taco María comes on an ink-stained tortilla garnished with watercress and toasted peanuts; Ricardo Diaz of Colonia Taco Lounge serves duck carnitas and fried cauliflower tacos.
It’s a genre that allows Mexican American chefs to tell their stories on the plate, reflecting a California dialect without tromping on the classics. At his Bell gastropub Corazón y Miel, Eduardo Ruiz applies the techniques he learned in the kitchens of acclaimed restaurants like Animal to the foods he grew up eating with his Mexican- Salvadoran family. The result is an ambitious menu featuring such dishes as wild boar chilaquiles and headcheese tacos with house-pickled vegetables. “We let the seasons dictate what we cook with,” says Ruiz.
But the movement is about more than haute taco fillings. As much as these chefs’ taste memories include tamales at Christmas and birría on birthdays, they also share a sense of nostalgia for the comfort foods of this country. So you’ll find cubes of bologna with mayo piled on tortillas at Ray Garcia’s B.S. Taqueria and french fries soaked in mole at Diaz’s Bizarra Capital. That’s true pocho gourmet—and it’s delicious.
This article appears in Los Angeles magazine’s June 2015 cover story, “Taco City.”