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A Former Mexican Federal Cop Opened L.A.’s First Restaurant Dedicated to Comida Chiapaneca in La Puente

Without an extensive Chiapaneca population in L.A., former federale Francisco Reyes was understandably hesitant to be one of few, and especially the first, to feature food from Chiapas. So he made his menu accessible.

Caldo de Chipilín with Chochoyotes. Photo by Sean Vukan for L.A. TACO.

Caldo de Chipilín with Chochoyotes. Photo by Sean Vukan for L.A. TACO.

Until last year, comida Chiapaneca was just about the only regional variation of Mexican food you couldn’t find in a dedicated restaurant in Los Angeles County.

That all changed last year when La Cocina de Los Reyes opened in La Puente, offering hauntingly aromatic soups and tamales flavored with chipilín herb, and refreshing, cacao-based aguas frescas that you can only find in Chiapas. 

They are L.A.'s first restaurant dedicated strictly to the food of Chiapas, Mexico.

“You need to embrace Chiapas. Let’s show people how diverse Mexico is.”

That was the advice Esmerelda Hernandez gave her father, Francisco Reyes, when he thought of opening up his restaurant. Today, 29-year-old Esmerelda manages the socials and marketing for La Cocina de Los Reyes, in addition to her full-time job.

Francisco and Sofia Reyes
Francisco and Sofia Reyes. Photo by Sean Vukan for L.A. TACO. Photo by Sean Vukan for L.A. TACO.
#9 combo: 2 tacos dorados, empanada, garnacha
The "#9 combo" at La Cocina de Los Reyes: Two tacos dorados, an empanada, and a garnacha. Photo by Sean Vukan for L.A. TACO.

After immigrating to the United States in 1999, Reyes spent his time working in kitchens that specialized in recipes that most diners think of when they think of Mexican food in Los Angeles: those of Michoacán, Jalisco, Tijuana, and Zacatecas.  

This was, after all, what people wanted: Tacos. Burritos. Sopes. Chiles relleños. Combo plates.

“There were already two places near us that served that style," Hernandez says. "I told him if he did combo plates, he wouldn’t make it."

For the Reyes family—father Francisco, mother Sofia, daughter Hernandez, and son Fredy—opening a restaurant of their own offered an opportunity to reconnect with the home they had left 23 years prior.

Storefront for La Cocina de Los Reyes.
La Cocina de Los Reyes' storefront. Photo by Sean Vukan for L.A. TACO.
Sofia shelling the cacao from Chiapas.
Sofia shelling the cacao from Chiapas for their pozol. Photo by Sean Vukan for L.A. TACO.
Freshly shelled cacao beans and cinnamon go into La Cocina de Los Reyes's pozol agua fresca. Photo by Sean Vukan for L.A. TACO.

During their time in Chiapas, Francisco and Sofia worked in Tapachula, near the border with Guatemala. He was a federal police officer and she a secretary in a government office. Sofia was always the cook of the family.

Francisco was born in Tapachula, one of the larger cities in Chiapas and a significant destination for migrants coming up from Guatemala and El Salvador as they make their way throughout the rest of Mexico.

Sofia was born in Revolución Mexicana, about 50 miles south of the capital of Tuxtla Gutierrez. She worked in the capital while Francisco was based out of Tuxtla and assigned to visit various regions throughout Chiapas. Even working as government officials, life for the Reyes, like many in Chiapas, was not easy.

A handmade tortilla at La Cocina de Los Reyes. Photo by Sean Vukan for L.A. TACO.
Caldo de Pollo Fresco
Caldo de Pollo Fresco. Photo by Sean Vukan for L.A. TACO.

“We were poor,” says Francisco. “That’s why we came to the United States—for a better opportunity. For a better home.”

Chiapas is one of the poorer and more underdeveloped regions in Mexico. It is also the state with the highest Indigenous population.  

“When food is grown in Chiapas, it’s mostly grown for sustenance,” says Los Angeles Times food editor and former L.A. TACO editor Daniel Hernandez. “They grow what they need to survive.”

As a result, finding restaurants in more rural areas of Chiapas is hard to come by outside of major population centers such as Tuxtla and Tapachula. It could also explain why there’s a lack of Chiapaneca restaurants in Los Angeles, as well.

Barbacoa de Res
Barbacoa de Res plate at La Cocina de Los Reyes. Photo by Sean Vukan for L.A. TACO.

After the Reyes family came to the United States 23 years ago, Francisco got a job at Super Burrito in Whittier. He learned about combo plates, tacos, and burritos during his time there. Over 20 years at that fast-casual Mexican restaurant, he observed that this style of food is what people liked.

Without an extensive population from a Chiapaneca diaspora in Los Angeles, there’s understandably a hesitancy to be one of few, or even the first, to feature food from Chiapas. So Reyes decided that if he were going to open a restaurant with Chiapaneca food, he would try to make it as accessible as possible. 

By the La Cocina de Los Reyes register, you'll find infographics of two of Chiapas’ major food staples: the chipilín and pozol.  Chipilín is one of the 16 most important edible leaves in the world, according to WorldCrops.org, and a valuable source of protein. Commonly found in southern Mexico and Guatemala, it is often used in caldos and mixed into the masa of tamales, as is the case at Cocina de Los Reyes. 

“We get customers who come in and tell me they haven’t had this for ten years; 20 years,” Reyes says. “No one has a restaurant like us.”

Their caldo chipilín, for example, is a delicious, light broth packed with carrots, corn, zucchini, dumplings of corn masa known as chochoyotes, and a handful of chipilín plant.

The best way to describe pozol is essentially as a less sweet version of champurrado, but traditionally served cold. Very common in the southern states of Mexico, it is a hearty drink of fermented corn dough, cocoa, and grains that is usually consumed at around midday.

At Cocina de Los Reyes, this is served over ice and is more or less a thick chocolate, corn-based agua fresca. A little less thick, but still incredibly refreshing option, is the tascalate: still made with corn but a bit sweeter and colored naturally with crushed anatto seeds. The cacao used in both the pozol and tascalate drinks at Cocina de Los Reyes comes sourced directly from Chiapas.

La Cocina de "Los Reyes" comes with a special flower to Chiapas, Mexico. Photo by Sean Vukan for L.A. TACO.

Reyes also keeps his restaurant accessible to newcomers by offering menu items usually associated with Mexican food restaurants in Los Angeles.

He’s even created his own “Chiapanecan combo plates” at Cocina de Los Reyes: sampler plates like the “Chiapas #9-Antojitos Chiapanecos," which comes with an empanada de Chiapas, tacos dorados, and a garnacha. The Chiapas #1 comes with eggs slathered in red sauce, black beans, fried plantains, and queso fresco. A plate that's accessible, no matter where you’re from.

Chiapanecan tamales, however, have been some of Esmerelda’s favorites since she was a kid, and for good reason. Wrapped in banana leaf, these tamales are more tender than their cake-like, corn husk-wrapped relatives, bringing out a bit more tropical flavor.

Their tamal de chipilín with salsa verde, mole con pollo, and salsa rojo is excellent and should be considered for tamal listicles that will eventually come out between Dia de Los Muertos and Christmas. Customers can also buy their tender tamales by the dozen.

For the Reyes family, taking their daughter’s advice has not only left him with a pearl of a restaurant in an ocean of—while at times great—similarly styled restaurants. It’s also provided them a chance to meet people who, like them, and like Chiapas itself, is often overlooked when people think of Mexico.  

“People often confuse our food with Oaxaca, Guatemala, or El Salvador,” Esmerelda says. “It’s not.”

The Reyes family is proud of where they come from and what it took to get here, which is reflected in the restaurant's smallest details.  Right down to the handcrafted wooden napkin holders, which have “La Cocina de Los Reyes” engraved around a brightly painted flower.  

They are from Chiapas, and this is Cocina Chiapaneca.

“We get customers who come in and tell me they haven’t had this for ten years; 20 years,” Reyes says. “No one has a restaurant like us.”

La Cocina de Los Reyes ~ 13712 Amar Rd. La Puente, CA 91746. Closest transit lines and stop: Foothill Transit Lines 274 and 486 - "Amar/Puente."

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