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Tacos

For The Force Behind Chuy’s, Tacos Dorados Are Her Family Legacy

11:50 AM PDT on April 14, 2020

Photo: Cesar Hernandez

During this difficult time for restaurants, DoorDash and L.A. TACO are teaming up to profile some of the most fascinating people behind the restaurants, trucks, and stands that make up Taco Madness. We want to be there for L.A. restaurants who are still #OpenForDelivery and hope you will join us in supporting one another in the weeks ahead. For now, enjoy this profile of the force behind Chuy's Tacos Dorados.

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[dropcap size=big]F[/dropcap]rom the most deeply-rooted Angeleno to the gringo-est gringo, just about everyone in the U.S. would initially recognize the tacos served at Chuy's Tacos Dorados in Downtown L.A. and Van Nuys.

Cheddar cheese is liberally strewn over a crunchy yellow tortilla that shatters easily with a bite, exposing a cache of juicy beef, onions, and lettuce.

At first sight, it appears to be the ubiquitous taco of U.S. cafeterias, middle school lunches and Midwestern "taco nights." The very same one that the oft-criticized taco emoji itself was modeled after for the digital mainstream.

Photo: Memo Torres

But for founder Betsy Leon, these tacos represent nourishment that's fundamentally more Mexican and inherently regional than they might first appear to the masses.

"It is a very authentic taco," Leon says. "Growing up in Mexico, it's a very common recipe."

Leon was raised in a small town, off a dirt road in a humble home of dirt floors, in Tecate in the state of Baja California.

Money and meat may have been hard to come by, but she always had tacos dorados.

Specifically, the golden fried beauties passed down to her family by her great-grandparents, who owned a restaurant in the Sinaloan city of Culiacán in the 1950s, where tacos dorados were the most popular item.

Photo: Memo Torres

Small and topped with lettuce, lime-marinated onions, and cheese, the insides typically held nothing more than spiced potato. When beef was available, the family would slow-cook it with care before it was shredded and tucked into tacos dorados de carne deshebrada, the lynchpin of Chuy's menu.

"We would all go crazy, because it was a delicacy for us to eat the shredded beef tacos," she says.

Tacos weren't the only things Leon's lineage endowed her with. Following a move to Las Vegas in 2007 for her job as a medical assistant, she settled in Monterey Park in 2015. Which is when her entrepreneurial spirit kicked in.

"I'd never in my life worked in a restaurant," she says. "But everybody always loved my food when they came to the house. Then one night when I really wanted a fried potato taco, I went out on a hunt with a friend and we visited a place he recommended. After we stood in line for 20 minutes, I was like 'this is a potato taco, huh?' I'm going to show you real potato tacos."

Needless to say, she was answered with prompt and enthusiastic encouragement.

Photo: Memo Torres

With a cannabis boom pending, the lifelong home cook started making THC-infused tortillas for dispensaries then opened a buzzy concept built around them called Medtillas in Downtown Los Angeles that sold "hemp-tadas" and to-go tortillas, as well as the same weed-free tacos dorados she is now known for.

Once Babylon stepped in to foil this plot, she ditched the cannabis angle, which had confused some customers, and stuck with the tacos dorados they continually praised and returned for.

While the tacos of her childhood involved small sprinkles of cotija cheese or queso fresco, Leon tailored her tacos to suit southwestern U.S. tastes with the rich cheddar she and her father both favor. But her passion for home-cooking and time-honored flavors, including careful consideration for ingredients, remains unaltered.

"I just knew people who enjoy food and who are into trying Mexican food would love it," Leon says. "I just wanted to share with everybody what a true taco dorado was."

Photo: Cesar Hernandez
Photo: Cesar Hernandez

If Tito's Tacos could be compared to, say, Burger King or McDonald's, then Chuy's would be more like In-N-Out or Shake Shack. The potatoes are hand-peeled and the cheese shredded daily. The beef, from SuKarne, is imported from Sinaloa and simmered over four hours using the same spices her father used.

Her salsa verde and salsa roja, served hot, are crafted with a blend of beef-and-chicken broth, though she avoids the cumin from the family's traditional recipe that she never liked. Painstaking months of trial-and-error stand behind a fried tortilla that always retains its structure, even when eagerly chomped down upon in four or five frenzied bites.

Photo: Memo Torres

In addition to tacos de papa and tacos de carne deshebrada, Chuy's serves two versions of tacos idol with a spread of cheese-and-refried beans. One is based on potato and the other, chipotle-spiced carne molido, or ground beef to fulfill customers' frequent requests. There are also burritos, quesadillas and vegetarian versions of these dishes, and not much else, making for a simple, but consistently strong menu.

And we're hardly alone in our praise. After opening, Chuy's quickly grew to the San Fernando Valley, with both locations considered a requisite stop on L.A.'s ever-growing trail of must-try tacos.

Indeed, it is the warm reception and praise of customers that help keep Leon going and maintaining this taqueria's high quality.

"Cooking everything myself, I was losing my mind," she says. "But when people would come up and tell me 'hey, I love this,’ I'm not kidding you, I would start crying. Because there were many times I thought about quitting, but seeing their reactions, it's worth it. When you see that people are enjoying something so much, it inspires you to keep going and it renews my strength. Thanks to them, I didn't quit."

You can order Chuy’s Tacos Dorados right now using the official partner of Taco Madness, DoorDash. Currently, DoorDash and L.A. TACO are profiling some of the most fascinating people behind the restaurants, trucks, and stands that make up Taco Madness.

DoorDash is committed to doing everything it can to support its restaurant partners during this time. With their recently launched #OpenForDelivery campaign, they're seeing chefs and eateries who normally compete begin to support each other. You can also support local restaurants like Chuy's by ordering your meals from them online and spreading the word that many restaurants are still #OpenForDelivery.

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