Cielito Lindo Defines the Flavors of East L.A.
Mexican American food conquered America with its popular flavors of fresh and dried chiles stewed into hearty dishes thickened by tomatoes or tomatillos, seasoned with simple spices, and served with corn or flour tortillas. Obscured by melted cheese and fortified with beans and rice, the cuisine’s tacos, tamales, enchiladas, chiles rellenos, and other standards are universal objects of joy. Especially tacos.
Tacos are one of the most coveted dishes in America, and Olvera Street’s Cielito Lindo has played a big role in the spreading of taco culture throughout the country as Angelenos and tourists have enjoyed the perfect order there: a pair of beef taquitos drowned in the famous avocado salsa, served with creamy refried beans and cheese, garnished with thin strands of yellow cheese.
“For me, those taquitos are the best tacos in LA,” said chef Wes Avila, who founded Guerrilla Tacos. And it’s all about the slurpable salsa, which many customers carry away in 32-ounce to-go containers. The celebrated stand has been selling Aurora Guerrero’s original recipe of beef taquitos with that avocado salsa since 1934, exposing local and national tourists to taquitos for the first time on Los Angeles’s first street.
Decades ago, the Guerreros were given the opportunity to open a food stand by Olvera Street’s gatekeeper, Christine Sterling, and it’s safe to assume that Sterling’s first taste of Guerrero’s taquitos was very satisfying. Beef taquitos are a staple of Olvera Street stands and restaurants, as they are on many Mexican American menus across the nation; these days, they’re even in the frozen section of your local supermarket.
At Cielito Lindo, the taquitos — which serve as utensils for eating the salsa — transcends nostalgia for Mexican Americans as crispy, slender rolls of Chicano culture and resistance, fried in large cast iron pans.
But the secret is in the sauce. Chicanos don’t have their own regional mole, the iconic dish found in most every Mexican state, but I’d make the argument that Guerrero’s salsa is the closest thing to having our own version. It’s a simple salsa made with lots of cooked tomatillos and thickened with avocados, plus the additions of fruity and floral chiles gueros and nice notes of cilantro. Fans of the Combo #1 use the taquitos and refried beans to eat the magical olive-green liquid as it soaks up a little bit of savory beef juices. It’s a classic Eastside taqueria salsa, and a flavor that helped define Chicano cuisine in East LA, and beyond.
It’s hypnotizing to watch the simple abstract geometry of the taquitos being stacked into the blackened heavy duty pans, then covered in the hot oil from the previous batch — it’s the most brilliant system I’ve ever seen. When people take their first bite of these delicious, flawless tacos, I tell them that this is what Chicano gastronomy is all about. (But I must share an insider tip. Las Anitas, which faces Cielito Lindo, is also owned by the Guerrero family. Grab a table there, order taquitos and a couple of Tecates for an extra special taste of Olvera Street.)
There’s always a line at Cielito Lindo, filled with generations of Mexican Americans, some remembering their first date, others grabbing lunch with family after church. Groups of friends take a snack break after an afternoon of window shopping for curios, Day of the Dead themed candles, and Mexican cookware. It’s our street and these are our tacos.
Cielito Lindo: 23 Olvera St., Los Angeles. www.cielitolindo.org
Bill Esparza is an award-winning writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him at @streetgourmetla. Follow @resy, too.