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‘Choyita’ Brings L.A. a Taquería and Taste of Mexicali From a Baja Chef Raised On Both Sides of the Border

From left, tacos with crispy pork belly, charred cabbage, and squash mole, smoked brisket, and grilled asada with frijoles de olla

For anyone who’s ever felt the frustration of making an impromptu getaway to Baja California’s Valle de Guadalupe, only to find it invaded by the same L.A. assholes they were hoping to escape back home, take heart.

Because Baja’s chefs are invading L.A. back.

On the heels of Eater’s recent report that Ensenada-born chef Diego Hernandez has taken over the kitchen at Dudley Market in Venice, a new pop-up taquería called Choyita is planning its initial events across the city with a beltful of Baja-bred talent.

Chef Esteban Lluis at Choyita's first pop-up
Chef Esteban Lluis at Choyita's first pop-up

The concept is steered by chef Esteban Lluis, the owner of Damiana, a farm-to-table restaurant in the Valle de Guadalupe, as well as the former chef de cuisine at both Cala (Gabriela Camara’s restaurant in San Francisco) and Hernandez’s own acclaimed Corazón De Tierra in the Valle. Lluis was raised on both sides of the border in Mexicali and Calexico, and also served as executive chef at Encuentro in the Valle and at Mexicali's Ambar. In L.A., he was chef de cuisine at one of Joe Jonas' restaurants.

He's joined in Choyita by Ensenada-raised chef and Corazon veteran Roberto Espinoza, and business partners Bernardo Salcedo and L.A.’s own Armin Monfared.

The team is currently busy refining the specific offerings of their concept, guided by a firm, overriding dedication to a quartet of holy cornerstones that result in taco excellence:

Quality meats. Mesquite grilling. Handmade tortillas (here, both handmade corn and flour). And a smattering of fresh salsas that surpasses the measure one commonly encounters.

“We struggle to define ourselves in one sentence, but it’s essentially top-notch ingredients all done in an authentic Mexican way,” says Salcedo, an L.A. resident for 15 years. “We want to maintain that traditional Mexican way of doing tacos, where you go to a taco place, and you’re seeing the tortilla press and they’re made on the spot, never something that’s pre-packaged or pre-made. We always want to keep that at the front.”

In addition to notably tasty corn tortillas, there are flour tortillas tweaking Lluis’ grandma’s recipe, while Salcedo says Choyita’s low-and-slow brisket is rubbed in a chipotle adobo that’s been in his family for four years.

“We like to make sure we’re paying homage to our roots and family recipes,” says Salcedo.

Iced carajillo cocktails, from The Carajillo Cafe photo: Tatiana Tomicki.
Carajillo cocktails from The Carajillo Cafe

We caught up with Choyita at a ticketed pop-up preview in a Culver City backyard this week. Large glass barrels of agua fresca sat sweetly aside freshly brewed coffee cocktails sold by an adorable mobile bar called The Carajillo Cafe, as roots reggae and dubby echoes boomed from the DJ’s speakers.

A large outdoor kitchen was crammed with a multi-cultural crew of cooks, tortilla makers, a meat carver, trompo, at least one smoker, and, moving furiously behind the billowing black grates of a smoldering mesquite fire, Lluis and Espinoza.

A serape-draped table upheld assorted bowls containing ten freshly-composed salsas. The variety not only showcased Choyita’s commitment to quality, but the concept’s Mexicali roots, as well. As in the salsa cachanilla, inspired by the capital city’s Chinese population and culture and made with chile güerito, ginger, citrus, green onion, and soy sauce.

“This one and I go way back,” Lluis told L.A. TACO.

The salsa table at Choyita
The salsa table at Choyita

Besides that awaited the glistening sheen of a salsa macha, a chunky salsa made from pickled pineapple and serranos, an addictive nopal salad, the Yucatan’s habanero and naranja agria-based xni-pec, a smooth puree of cashew with avocado, cilantro, and coconut cream, and bowls filled with guacamole, salsa bandera, blistered tomatillo, and fire-roasted tomato salsa.

From left, tacos with crispy pork belly, charred cabbage, and squash mole, smoked brisket, and grilled asada with frijoles de olla
From left, tacos with crispy pork belly, charred cabbage, and squash mole, smoked brisket, and grilled asada with frijoles de olla

Choyita debuted with an initial menu of seven tacos, offering fillings like a 16-hour smoked brisket, a sous vided-and-smoked pork belly paired with a sweet mole folded with a butternut squash reduction, mesquite-grilled asada served with frijoles de olla, and chicken with mole pipian.

Plant-based tacos, from left: kale con hongos al ajillo, flor-pastor, and charred Brussel's sprouts with mole
Plant-based tacos, from left: kale con hongos al ajillo, flor-pastor, and charred Brussel's sprouts with mole

Three plant-based options include epazote-sauteed kale with portobellos and a “pastor-flor,” cauliflower rubbed in the al pastor adobo and cooked sous-vide, when not placed right on the trompo. In addition, Choyita makes a vegan flour tortilla substituting coconut oil for customary lard, the end result of significant experimentation, trial, and error.

“We really like the opportunity that we have in L.A. where there’s a wide-ranging population of people coming from all over the world that have all kinds of different tastes and to make something with vegetables that tastes great to everyone,” says Salcedo.

Chefs Esteban Lluis and Roberto Espinoza
Chefs Esteban Lluis and Roberto Espinoza

Choyita is envisioned for maximum customization. The menu has serving suggestions for the type of salsa you may want to consider, as well as recommendations for the tortilla type you might pick with your protein or vegetable. But guests can ultimately choose whatever they wish.

“Everything we put on the menu, you can always make it your own,” says Salcedo. “It doesn’t have to be anything. That is one of the beautiful things about tacos. However, we want to at least provide a guide or a vision.”

The partners refer to Choyita’s gourmet taquiza concept as “farm-to-corner,” a catchy term justified by its fun, informal feel and undeniably great ingredients that fill salsa bowls and tortillas alike.

Chicken pipian and kale con hongos portobellos
Chicken pipian and kale con hongos portobellos

The brisket is smoky and tender, the asada blissfully concentrated with juices and a magnificent char, the cauliflower buttery and generously spiced, and the mushrooms umami-rich. The flavorful corn tortilla was another big victory in our books; everything tied together through generous spoonfuls from the small galaxy of salsas.

Choyita is just getting its feet wet, an idea long dreamed of before becoming beset by the usual pandemic delays. The partners are planning their first official public pop-up next week in Silver Lake, as well as eventual pop-ups with local bars while hoping to someday open a brick-and-mortar location.

As for why Choyita took on this name, Salcedo tells L.A. TACO:

“Choyita is a rugged, enduring little cactus shrub that grows in the deserts of Southern California, and also in Baja California, where we’re from,” he said. “We grew up on the border in Mexico, but Esteban and I are also American citizens. Choya felt like a just name, being that it doesn’t care if it’s Mexico or America. It grows where it belongs. And that’s exactly the way Esteban and me feel as well.”

Stay tuned to Choyita’s Instagram for updates and future pop-up dates.

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