L.A. boasts an abundance of good places to find traditional Mexican food throughout its various parts. However, Chalio’s Mexican Restaurant in Whittier, CA has stood out for generations for its famous birria, or meat stew made with a base of dried, roasted peppers. Although birria has traditionally been enjoyed only on special occasions, Chalio’s owner Raul Luis’s father started serving it years ago out of the family’s backyard after he’d lost his job.
Once word spread of the delicious fare, customers needed some sort of sign to find their way to the family’s home. The cactus by their fence became the designated landmark letting people know they’d found Chalio’s! Now, Chalio’s has grown to multiple locations in the L.A. area and in Texas.
Invited to a Chalio’s Cinco de Mayo food tour, my friend and I visited the Whittier location for the first time. Here’s what we had, and how it was:
· Nopal sope – I loved that the pinto beans were whole instead of refried in this dish, which gave the beans a fresher taste instead of weighing the dish down. The diced nopales, or cactus leaves, were tangy and not slimy, as they sometimes can be. The sope was topped with pico de gallo salsa, queso fresco and a slice of avocado. All of these ingredients sat on top of a masa dough base, which brought the dish together to create a unique and healthier sope. Raul expressed his concern over the elevated risk of heart disease and diabetes in the local Mexican population, and said he wanted to create a change in the community and cater to more health-conscious customers through dishes such as these. The sopa de birria (pictured below) had a more traditional base of refried beans, and was topped with red onion and cilantro.
· Zacatecano taco – This taco consisted of carne asada, nopales, pico de gallo, queso fresco and a slice of avocado served on a handmade corn tortilla. “With this dish, I’m trying to get more of the younger generation to try nopales,” said Raul. “If they eat it this way (mixed with carne asada, in a taco), they’ll like it, and my hope is that we can transition them so they can eventually enjoy more traditional dishes.”
· Taco dorado de birria – This unique dish stars the famous goat stew, stuffed into a fried taco shell. It is then topped with red onions and cilantro, then drenched in a savory tomato-based consommé. The filling was moist and plentiful, and the shell added a nice crunch. The consommé made a flavorful dipping sauce for this texturally complex, very tasty dish.
· Camarones a la diabla – Juicy shrimp in a thick and spicy “devil” sauce, made with a combination of chilies, herbs and spices, served with rice and beans. By this point we were beyond stuffed, so I took the dish home. Plus, I didn’t even mention all the great drinks that our super sweet and hospitable server Stephanie kept bringing out for us: Micheladas, horchata, sangria, mango and strawberry margaritas with agave wine… and even vaporized tequila!
I first experienced the Vaportini (pictured below) while covering the amazing 2014 Las Vegas Nightclub & Bar Convention. However, I hadn’t seen it elsewhere since. How does it work, you ask? The liquor is heated at the bottom of the globe, and you suck the vaporized alcohol through the hole, via straw. Not my favorite way to consume alcohol, but certainly a very innovative one!
Cinco de Mayo may be over, but did you know that September 16 is the real Mexican Independence Day? Still, you don’t have to wait for a special occasion to check out Chalio’s if you want to try something unique and authentic. If you do visit, let me know your thoughts!
Often hosting fundraisers to benefit today’s youth, Chalio’s is involved in the community and is constantly looking to find ways to bridge the gap between the newer and older generations. Upon returning from the feast, I learned that Anthony Bourdain had also visited the Chalio Birrieria in East L.A. Interesting, right?
When walking into the restaurant, the friendliness of the staff and the decor inside are two things you notice right away. Raul’s motto is to keep on improving, as he constantly keeps his staff motivated to do a stellar job. He also owns Bad Azz Burrito, which is a custom-built burrito joint with massive portions located in Saginaw, TX. The eatery hosts weekly burrito challenges to finish a 3-lb, 9-lb, or 11-lb burrito in record time. Just something to think about if you happen to be in Texas… because the food may be bigger in Texas, but L.A. is where lies the authenticity in Mexican food!