Chicano Chefs are writing the next chapter of mexican-american cuisine in LA

Dia de los Puercos in Pomona with a lowrider outside        Wonho Frank Lee

Dia de los Puercos in Pomona with a lowrider outside Wonho Frank Lee

Dia de Los Puercos and San Diego’s Salud! blends history and culture with tacos and burritos

by Bill Esparaza Octover 18, 2018 1:53 pm PDT photos by Wonho Frank Lee

Pomona could be considered the gateway to the Inland Empire’s explodingMexican food scene and Rick Garcia, owner and el chefe at Dia de Los Puercos stands squarely in the center of the movement. On a bright Sunday at his restaurant, it’s friends and family day, Chicano-style. Garcia greets a customer dressed in an immaculately pressed black Dickies button up with baggy jeans. The customer says, “I knew it was a formal occasion so I dressed up.”

Tonight is a special occasion, and almost everyone is wearing lowrider apparel featuring young Chicano designers (some of the fashion designers are even present), the same way many here have been dressing since they were teenagers. Pendletons, Charlie Brown shirts, and millennial Chicana couture, with brands like Bella DoñaRaggedy Tiff, and Hija de Tu Madre, hold their trendy appeal in the Mexican-American community, and represent Chicano pride.

In places like Pomona, San Diego’s Barrio Logan, and East Los Angeles, pochos, the name for Mexicans who were raised in the United States, have grown up. They’ve started families and have become entrepreneurs, but their dedication to street fashion, Chevrolets, Oldies, and pocho cuisine define a lifestyle that’s been a constant. They are spawning a new generation of Chicano restaurants: places like Salud! in Barrio Logan neighborhood, and now Dia de Los Puercos in Pomona, which moved to a new location in mid-September.

“We still love our cars, the neighborhood, the clothes, and the music, but now we have responsibilities,” a customer waiting in line at Salud! explains. In a similar vein, Garcia’s new restaurant in Pomona is a shrine to Chicanismo, or Mexican-American street cultureStreet lamps light the booths, while Nike Cortez sneakers dangle from mock power lines on the ceiling, indicating where to snag tacos. Sneakers on power lines have often been a signal for where to score drugs.

There’s a wall of fame for car clubs who donate one of their chrome plaques. And all around the restaurant there’s photography and art by local Mexican-American artists like Art MezaMichael RiosCarlos Ponce, and Germizm. Grey, white, and black serapes line the backs of tables in the front bar, covered in plastic as a tribute to all the thrifty abuelas that wouldn’t let the kids sit on the couch without the covers.

The new Dia de Los Puercos oozes nostalgia from the red roses on the tables, to beers served in paper bags, to the quixotic list of oldies spray painted on the back wall while Debra Hurd’s When a Boy Meets a Girl pops on the DJ’s turntable. The soft, breathy soprano riffs take you back to your middle school crush, as funky guitar licks and staccato synthesizer bass lines take you back to the sounds of the Eastside of Garcia’s youth. Cheladas, micheladas, and sangria flow just in time for the firme hour, Dia de Los Puerco’s Chicanofied happy hour.

There’s been a shift in how Mexican-Americans cook the food of their upbringing, with chefs like Ray Garcia of Broken Spanish, Carlos Salgado of Taco Maria, and Wes Avila of Guerrilla Tacos elevating childhood dishes into a new genre dubbed “Alta California.”

In contrast, a new Chicano culinary genre has been emerging from Mexican-American communities — one where tacos, nachos, lowrider bikes, oldies, graffiti art, and micheladas reflect this generation’s youth and heritage. An Art Meza photograph of the old 6th Street bridge on the back wall is a bittersweet memory for the Mexican community.

“Our families crossed that bridge to go to work in Downtown LA from Boyle Heights and East LA, and that’s where we’d cruise our rides at, and now it’s gone,” says Garcia.

Back in Barrio Logan, Salud! has become a beacon of Chicano imagery and lifestyle, with murals, bumper-laden walls, lowrider bikes, and Chicana servers. They serve simple delights like tacos, mulitas, and quesadillas — a menu that pulls inspiration from Pocho taco shops, late-night taquerias in Tijuana, and the San Diego stands of the owners’ youth. The kitchen dresses the tacos traditionally with cabbage, cotija cheese, Mexican cream, and even a bit of cheddar. Salud!’s owner, Ernie Becerra, sees lines out the door at his pair of taquerias (Salud recently opened a second location in Midway) with a broader audience embracing their grown-up Chicano identity.

Becerra feels that Chicano culture is more in the public eye these days, but there’s still a struggle to shift broader cultural perceptions. There’s also a tension within: He says Chicanos are often stuck between not being Mexican enough or American enough.

“As a kid though, in the late 80s and early 90s, the gangs, party crews, and tagger crews really gave our culture a bad stigma,” Becerra explains. “It’s a different time now, and although we are still cruising lowriders, repping our sets, bumping the same music, and eating the same food, Chicanos are becoming more business-minded and showcasing our talents to the world.”

Garcia, like many young Latino cooks, went to Le Cordon Bleu culinary school, then bounced around kitchens like Mi Piace and Cafe Santorini in Pasadena before landing a gig as corporate chef for Marriott Hotels, where he worked for nine years traveling to various outposts and fixing problems in the chain’s hotel kitchens.

“I never really found my place cooking at restaurants,” says Garcia. “So I took the job at Marriott, but when I got back into cooking Chicano food, that’s when I knew what I needed to do.”

It was the food he was cooking at home and for friends that inspired him to open the Piggy Smalls food truck in 2013, before upgrading to a brick and mortar, the original Dia de Los Puercos in West Covina, two years later.

Chicanos, like their families and friends in Mexico, draw inspiration from their elders.

“I think the roots of Chicano cuisine come from young children watching grandparents and parents who have come from Mexico, but who are now using what they have at their disposal here in the States and mixing the two together,” says Becerra.

Gramma B’s influence is all over the menu, from the sopes and tacos dorados to guisados like rajas con queso and calabasitas. Like many of his Chicano peers, Garcia also looks to notable Baja California chefs like Javier PlascenciaBenito Molina, and Jair Téllez for inspiration. But he spent more formative years eating East LA cuisine at Al & Bea’s, Ciro’s, and the legendary Cielito Lindoin Downtown Los Angeles’s Olvera Street.

Chihuahua-style plates like taquitos de weenie (hot dog taquitos), menudo served with a bolillo (small Mexican roll), and a torta of mochomos (Chihuahua-style shredded pork) get Chicano twists that reflect a Mexican-American aesthetic. The La Mesa torta comes with a pair of fried eggs and mochomos (seasoned beef ), while he serves the taquitos de wennie with ketchup. There’s the Ese Borracho, an LA-style bacon wrapped hot dog like the ones outside every concert and club where Latinos congregate.

Dia de Los Puercos’s Mexicorn, or esquites, comes with bits of bacon while the Flahco taco incorporates Flamin’ Hot Cheetos into the masa for a tinted special tortilla. It’s an ode to the the popular liquor store snack so highly coveted in LA’s Latino enclaves. It’s fine dining for the clika, and a place where raza can feel at home with familiar flavors that reflect Mexican-American culture.

“Chicano cuisine is a thing,” says Silvana Salcido Esparza, who owns Barrio Cafe, widely considered a pioneer of modern Mexican-American cuisine in Phoenix, AZ. “Mexicans born in Mexico can’t began to understand the struggles of growing up Mexican in America,” she adds. Chicanos are immersed in their culture, from their clothing, to their cars, their caló dialect and the food they grew up with. As pocho gastronomy enters the mainstream with restaurants like Dia de Los Puercos and its food hall branch at Food Lab in Riverside, which opened on October 4, the real flavors of home cooking in Los Angeles’s barrios are creating a new narrative. This is the future of Mexican cuisine in America.

Dia de Los Puercos. 115 W 2nd St, Pomona, CA 
Salud ! 2196 Logan Ave, San Diego, CA