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Stewed Taco Perfection at Guisados in LA's Boyle Heights

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[Photographs: Clay Larsen]

What does it feel like to be considered one of the top taco purveyors in all of Los Angeles? You'd have to ask Armando De La Torre, co-owner of Guisados, the stewed taco phenomenon that's been growing on LA for a few years now. It's not hard for curious diners to find the man; just wait long enough at the Boyle Heights outpost and he'll walk right through the front door. Should you need to pick him out of a crowd, just look for the pepper-haired man sporting a Guisados polo shirt and a large, wide smile.

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Waving De La Torre over to your table might be a mistake, though, depending on your tolerance for all things habañero. He likes it spicy (just try the chiles torreados for some fiery-lipped understanding), and you probably won't make it far into a conversation about the tacos in front of you without receiving a complimentary splash of the housemade habañero salsa. It's a good thing you've got a half-full horchata in front of you.

Back to that plate of tacos. At Guisados, it's all about savory, thick stewed meats and vegetables that are dolloped onto freshly patted corn tortillas. Maybe you'll find a thin slice of avocado here, a dusting of toasted seeds there, and plenty of pickled spicy onions to go around, but that's about it. The stews do the talking at Guisados, though it's really the menu board itself doing all of the heavy lifting.

That's because there are more than 15 daily taco options running the length of the handwritten chalkboard, some with chile peppers drawn next to them as a sort of spice-o-meter. You'll find at least two versions of any fish, chicken, vegetarian, pork, or steak taco, often with enough variance (even between the same proteins) to warrant an explanation from the patient ladies who run the register. They couldn't be cheerier, actually, even though they field the same, "What are hongos?" questions every thirty seconds.

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To make it even easier for first-time diners,Guisados has devised a Taco Sampler: six little taco kisses on mini corn tortillas for only $7. Unless you eat here with any regularity and have narrowed down your preferred meats, it's by far the best deal you can find on the board. Not that the larger tacos (at around $2.50 each) are skimpy—it's just that with this level of variety, getting six tacos onto one plate for less than ten bucks is a privilege.

Any taco you order is bound to be a beauty. Especially those with a splash of color on top, like the Cochinita Pibil. Pork shoulder is given the low-and-slow treatment until it pulls apart in fine shreds. Then it sits around and bubbles even longer inside of a smoky, peppery sauce that comes with varying degrees of heat, depending on your preference. For depth, there's a thin smear of black beans underneath it all, along with a dollop of cheese to offset the heat with some creaminess. And when it's just about done, they slap some of those vinegar-doused red onions on top to offer a nice final push of acid and clean heat. It's perhaps the most popular taco on the menu, and easily among the best versions of cochinita pibil you'll find around Los Angeles.

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A close-up of the Cohinita Pibil

Forward-thinking diners should also try the Mole Poblano, a chicken iteration that is velvety and smooth, with a near-perfect balance between chocolatey richness and the mild peppery warmth. Freshly crumbled cotija cheese, a thin round of red onion, and toasted seeds deliver texture and acidity, with that same thick corn tortilla holding up the whole taco. You'll find more satisfying power in the Tinga de Pollo, however, which combines the same pulled protein texture as the Cochinita Pibil, but with the lightness of chicken and a thin slip of creamy avocado.

Anyone looking for a more normalized taco experience may be a bit disappointed by the Bistek en Salsa Roja or the Chorizo. Both are perfectly serviceable—tasty, even—but it's tough to shake the desire for a bit of heat and flame to crisp up the edges and add a touch of smokiness. Still, on those perfectly realized corn tortillas, it's hard to find a taco that doesn't work to some degree.

And a quick word about those tortillas: Not only are they pressed and griddled on site at the Boyle Heights location, but the entire nixtamal process is handled next door at Uruapan Market. Which, not coincidentally, is run by De La Torre's brother, making Guisados a vertically integrated taco house with full control over everything that goes into their products. No wonder these tacos taste so damn good.

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For anyone unaccustomed to making the trek to Boyle Heights for a taste of Guisados' stewed tacos and their fiery habañero salsa, there's a recently opened Echo Park location that comes complete with parking. Sure, the seating is still limited and the menu simple, but they're bussing up the masa by the bucketful from the Boyle Heights location, so the tacos don't skip a beat. Once their downtown location opens later this year, you may start to see masa-filled delivery trucks next to you at every red light.

To be clear, that wouldn't be a bad thing—with Guisados' focus on fresh ingredients, deep flavors and peerless execution, their expansion across Los Angeles is a welcome addition to a landscape littered with grilled, chopped meats. The stew is king at Guisados (and soon enough, everywhere else).

Guisados
2100 E. Cesar Chavez Ave., Boyle Heights (map) and other locations.
Guisados.co

About the author: Farley Elliott is a freelance writer and comedian living in Los Angeles. He maintains a weekly taco column for SeriousEats.com, as well as a weekly alcohol events column for KCET.org. He also blogs about burgers, comedy shows and holds celebrity interviews for LAist.com and the Earwolf podcast network.

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