A lot of visitors who don’t know Los Angeles tend to paint the city’s Mexican food scene with more or less the same images — taquerías, taco trucks, old-school Mexican restaurants.
In his new book “L.A. Mexicano: Recipes, People & Places,” released in late May, author Bill Esparza writes that the scene is much richer and complex than most people realize. There is not just one style of Mexican food in L.A., he says, but several, and he’s created categories for each type: Regional Mexican, Alta California, Pocho Cuisine and Ambulantes.
No other book breaks down the scene in such a hyper-local way. Regional Mexican highlights the spots that specialize in food from a particular state or city in Mexico; Alta California covers the high-end places where Mexican-American chefs are exploring their roots. Pocho food is the taquitos, enchilada plates and burritos that “many second- and third-generation Mexican Americans grew up eating,” Esparza writes. Ambulantes are the street stands and takeout spots.
The fact that it took him only three months to write the cookbook — which is full of profiles of local Mexican restauranteurs and chefs, as well as recipes — is a testament to his years of seeking out and writing about restaurants and food stalls, and spotlighting under-the-radar chefs.
“For me, it was a chance to talk about how we got here and for the book to document L.A.’s Mexican food stars at a pivotal time when a modern Mexican-American style of cooking is developing,” says Esparza, who is 48 and lives in Hollywood.
Esparza has a music degree in performance, and he did not plan to be a food writer. He grew up in Stockton to a Mexican father and Mexican-American mother, and spent weekends with his grandparents who were from Aguascalientes, Mexico. Like some of the chefs he writes about in his book, he didn’t speak Spanish growing up — Esparza says his father wanted him to shield him from racism. But a lot of his formative memories were built around Mexican food.
Chile verde, beans, rice, flour tortillas, carne asada and macaroni salad were always present at big family reunions. During weekends at his grandmother’s house, Esparza says he never needed an alarm clock because he always woke up to the smell of her cooking.
“The smell of chiles and tortillas and the sound of the pan on the stove, that was a combination of senses and sounds — I can still hear it right now,” he says.
His father’s death in 2002 caused him to take a deeper look at his own cultural identity, and Esparza decided to reconnect with his family in Mexico to learn Spanish.
He'd already been working as a touring musician, playing the saxophone for rock, pop and contemporary jazz bands. (Fun fact: He plays the saxophone in Marc Anthony's "Need to Know" music video.) But instead of eating at crappy sports bars like the rest of the musicians, Esparza, a self-described introvert, would go off on his own. He eventually learned how to find the best food in a new city by asking the locals.
The skill would come in handy when he began to tour Mexico, Central America and South America with Mexican pop star Marisela and Men At Work's Colin Hay. In between sound checks and gigs, and on rides to the airport, he used his newfound Spanish skills to squeeze in visits to markets, street stands and mom-and-pop fondas (homestyle restaurants).
“It was around those years that I started realizing, all those experiences I was having, it gave me a perspective that a lot of people didn’t have about the cuisine,” Esparza says. “It put me in a unique position to weigh in on what was happening in Los Angeles.”
He started his blog Street Gourmet LA in 2007. By 2010, it had caught the eye of Betty Hallock, then deputy food editor at the Los Angeles Times.
“It was immediately obvious that he was passionate about Mexican cuisine — not just Mexican cuisine but regional cuisine. And he was talking about restaurants and food that others (in mainstream media) for the most part weren’t,” Hallock said in an email. “Not just talking about it but really delving into its nuances. He's responsible for bringing to light a lot of places that might have remained undiscovered to a wide swath of L.A.”
Raul Ortega had operated the Mariscos Jalisco food truck in Boyle Heights for about a decade before Esparza came to visit in 2011. At Esparza's urging, Ortega participated in the LA Street Food Fest in 2012 and ended up taking home the People's Choice and Best in Show Awards, for the truck's signature crispy shrimp tacos.
Once back in Boyle Heights, his business jumped, Ortega said.
“I put it this way: before Bill Esparza, we probably had 90 to 99 percent Latino people coming to my truck. And after him, everything changed," says Ortega, who still runs the bustling business in East L.A. “A lot of people from every ethnicity you can name came to my truck. There was Korean people, white people; everybody was coming to my truck.”
Ortega is actually featured in the book, along with many other key players within each genre of Los Angeles Mexican food: Susanna MacManus, granddaughter of Aurora Guerrero, the original founder of Cielito Lindo on Olvera Street; Rocío Camacho, the Oaxacan chef of Rocío’s Mexican Kitchen in Bell Gardens; Ricardo Díaz, the Chicano chef who’s launched a string of successful restaurants in Whittier; and Hualterio Merino, the mastermind behind Salsa Sinaloa, a popular hot sauce found at local Mexican food trucks. The result is a vibrant portrait of Mexican food in L.A., and it shows how profoundly Mexicans and Mexican-Americans have shaped the food of the city.
These days Esparza is still writing about food (a Los Angeles Magazine package on tacos won him the James Beard Award in 2016) and he consults for a local restaurant group. He’s continuously on the look-out for new places to eat, which he finds mostly by exploring neighborhoods on his own. Recently, he gave up driving, and now he rides a skateboard and takes the Metro, which he says has given him further access into the city's nooks and crannies.
He was skateboarding back to the Westlake Metro station one evening a few months ago when he spotted vendors selling Guatemalan dishes he recognized from Panajachel, a town he'd visited on the country's Lake Atitlán. He went back for dinner every night the following week and wrote a story on the night market for Eater.
“I’ve done things where I’ve literally spent two hours going up and down streets, looking for patterns and stands and restaurants,” he says. “I don’t care if a place is great or everyone says it’s the best place. I’d rather carve out another neighborhood and try to find something. You end up realizing the city has a lot more to offer than the same four or five places.”
Top Image: Taco Sabrosa food truck | Staci Valentine