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Inspired by California’s Indigenous Foodways, This Vendor Is Selling Woodfired Lobster Enchiladas in Hollywood

5:23 PM PDT on August 19, 2020

[dropcap size=big]E[/dropcap]very Sunday afternoon, Chef Daniel Salcido turns a Cahuenga Boulevard parking lot corner into L.A.’s latest Alta California hotspot. Tapping into his Mexican American roots and using a wood fire, he’s churning out beautiful seafood, pork ribs, and tri-tips.

“Salsizzle Alta California Grill” debuted on July 19th at the Hollywood Artisans Market, and Salcido already has regulars lining up for dishes like grilled shrimp and avocado tostadas. 

Salcido has flown low in the Los Angeles dining scene. The San Gabriel Valley native trained at Pasadena’s Cordon Bleu in the early 2000s and enjoyed the mentorship of award-winning L.A. chef, Hugo Molina, before landing his first executive chef job at Whittier’s acclaimed Phlight restaurant in 2004. 

Salcido manning his customized grill.

Nearly 15 years later and much more experience under his belt, Salcido is finding his stride with Salsizzle. His new pop-up food stand with a signature style reminds us that Alta California cuisine in L.A. is not dead. It just moved to Hollywood. 

Throwing it Back to Alta California 

The idea of “Alta California” cuisine is pretty new despite its centuries-old roots. 

The pioneering L.A.-based writer covering regional Mexican food Bill Esparza coined the term in a 2015 Los Angeles Magazine article. It heralded the arrival of “Alta California” cuisine, led by the L.A. chef trinity of Wes Avila (Guerrilla Tacos), Carlos Salgado (Taco María) and Ray Garcia (Broken Spanish and B. S. Taquería)—the same three ambassadors featured in the 2017 “Alta California” episode of The Migrant Kitchen. Esparza also cited Eagle Rock’s CaCao Mexicatessen and Ricardo Diaz’s Bizarra Capital in Whittier as exemplary purveyors of Alta California cuisine.

Salmon tostadas

[Alta California] is a genre that allows Mexican American chefs to tell their stories on the plate, reflecting a California dialect without tromping on the classics,” writes Esparza in Los Angeles Magazine. He points out that Alta California cuisine focuses on applying a chef-driven “fine dining” style to everyday Mexican street food and homestyle dishes.

On menus, think “Haute” $5 tacos of Santa Barbara uni, duck “carnitas,” or wild boar. Think mole-covered fries, elevated elotes, or huitlacoche quesadillas on corn tortillas made with organic blue corn sourced from Mexico. 

He researched what the Tongva people in the area ate and how they cooked. The bounty in this region included acorns, chia, sage, yucca, miner's lettuce, berries, wild oat, and fish.

In practice, Alta California cuisine demands attention to the seasons, respect for the ingredients, and a chef’s practiced technique. 

For Salcido, Alta California style means all that and more—it means learning about the more in-depth histories of greater L.A. and Southern California that shape and influence what we eat, where it comes from, and how we eat today. 

Tri-tip flatbread

“To me, Alta California is like a throwback cuisine,” Salcido told L.A. Taco. “It’s an old-school way of using fire and cast iron. It’s informed by the history of Los Angeles and Californio times, back when there were ranchos, cattle, and vineyards here in the 18th and 19th centuries.”  

Salsizzle represents Salcido’s ode to this era and region. According to its Instagram page, Salsizzle “combines a new take on 1800s Californian-Mexican inspired style of cooking with an emphasis on live fire, smoke, and fresh locally resourced produce.”

The chef’s key element is the sizzle—the woodfired, smoky preparation of Alta California staples like tacos, tostadas, and enchiladas all cooked with his custom-made Red Beard Santa Maria-style grill and oven. 

Early Inspirations

Salcido fell in love with open woodfire cooking a few years ago, after a stint in 2018, working at BBQ joints in Austin, Texas. There, he embarked on a self-led crash course on all things BBQ by helping out in kitchens and learning how to incorporate wood and smoke to make a perfect brisket or side of ribs. 

In Texas, Salcido had an epiphany. “Around that time, I saw an episode of Chef’s Table with Francis Mallmann, an Argentine chef known for his open-fire cooking techniques,” explained Salcido. “That episode really called to me and got me wanting to look more deeply into my own culture, as a Chicano born and raised in Southern California, to inform what I wanted to do next.”

Smoked pork ribs

When he returned to L.A., Salcido got a job at a Texas-style BBQ spot in downtown. He started developing the idea for Salsizzle, his take on Alta California food using the stripped-down basics of wood, fire, smoke, and iron. 

Salcido read important culinary history books like Encarnacion Pinedo’s Encarnacion’s Kitchen: Mexican Recipes from Nineteenth-Century California and Victor and Mary Lau Valle’s Recipe of Memory: Five Generations of Mexican Cuisine. He researched what the Tongva people in the area ate and how they cooked. The bounty in this region included acorns, chia, sage, yucca, miner's lettuce, berries, wild oat, and fish.

Salcido understands Alta California cuisine as one that embodies the centuries-long blend of Indigenous, Mexican, and European ingredients and techniques of this region. “Alta California reflects the mestizaje of our culture, especially here in SoCal,” said Salcido. 

Salcido shares a story about coming across a striking photo online one day while researching the Chumash. “It showed a circular firepit and some Chumash people roasting fish over the smoke and fire,” he said. “The wood was from the willow trees around them. They were roasting salmon.”

The old image of a Chumash salmon roast inspired one of Salcido’s most popular Salsizzle dishes—the grilled, achiote-marinated salmon tostada with yellow chile, roasted garlic, and topped with perfectly crunchy pickled cucumber and carrots. Moist, flaky, delicious.

The old image of a Chumash salmon roast inspired one of Salcido’s most popular Salsizzle dishes—the grilled, achiote-marinated salmon tostada with yellow chile, roasted garlic, and topped with perfectly crunchy pickled cucumber and carrots. Moist, flaky, delicious.

“People have come back every week for those tostadas,” says Salcido. “It’s great when I look up at the line and see a few regulars already.”

Salcido’s Sizzle

The tostadas are a hit, but the lobster enchiladas are the star of Salsizzle’s menu. Inspired by his mentor Hugo Molina’s crepas chocolate con lobster dish from Spanish Kitchen back in the day, Salcido’s smoked lobster enchiladas with leeks, cheese, crema, and grilled vegetables are a mouth-watering creation. They alone are worth the trek to Hollywood.

And he’s only able to make enchiladas in a parking-lot pop-up because of his custom-made Santa Maria-style smoker and grill from Pasadena’s Red Beard smokers. Such grills don’t come standard with an oven, but Salcido wanted somewhere to roast veggies and meats, and yes, to bake enchiladas.  

“Nobody really makes enchiladas as street food because you need an oven,” says Salcido. “But, I have one!” 

He proudly shows off the unique oven that the Red Beard smokers added underneath the grill. There, Salcido uses fire bricks on the bottom where white oak logs burn for all his cooking needs, all in one impressive unit. 

“I like the smell and flavor of white oak,” said Salcido. He adds that he buys from The Woodshed in Orange because they source their white oak from Santa Barbara. “The wood is everything. And the white oak lends itself especially well for roasting and oven use. You always get that classic California flavor.”

Along with the tostadas and enchiladas, Salsizzle’s current menu also features a delicious tri-tip flatbread, another crowd favorite. As sous chef Casey Perez prepares verdolagas, avocados, tomatillo-guajillo sauce, and veggies for sauteing, Salcido throws a few handmade Lebanese flatbreads onto the comal for three more orders of the smoky-sweet beef dish. He’ll finish another order of enchiladas off in that oven. 

“Using that combination grill and oven, I think, sets me apart from other vendors,” explained Salcido. “I’ll be able to expand my menu possibilities to match the season and customer tastes.” He looks forward to using the oven more in the colder months by adding gorditas, barbacoa, maybe some roasted acorn from the trees in his yard to the menu.

Alta California isn’t dead. 

That combo grill and oven gives Salcido his signature sizzle and represents his future in L.A.’s Alta California cuisine. 

And that’s good news for all of us, especially those who wanted to sound the death knell for Alta California cuisine after the “one-two punch” of Wes Avila’s departure from Guerrilla Tacos and Ray Garcia’s closure of Broken Spanish earlier this month. A blow indeed, but remember—this is Los Angeles, home of tacos.

And tacos, even of the Alta California variety, don’t die.

Signs of Alta California life abound. We have Macheen, Meztli, Bee Taquería, and now Salsizzle.

For Salcido and many people reckoning with history, names, and places right now, “Alta California” cuisine in Los Angeles does not stop at the Indigenous-Mexican-Spanish and European influences. Anyone who’s had a Korean style taco in L.A. knows this much.

“What is Alta California today?” asks Chef Salcido. “That term has been around for a few years, but times have changed. I think we have to talk about the Asian influence on our cuisine. California is a gateway to the East and the South. It’s what makes us unique in L.A.” 

For Salcido and many people reckoning with history, names, and places right now, “Alta California” cuisine in Los Angeles does not stop at the Indigenous-Mexican-Spanish and European influences. Anyone who’s had a Korean style taco in L.A. knows this much. 

And, true to his commitment to representing the “mestizaje” of his Alta California style Comida, Salcido created a pickled topping for his tostadas and flatbreads that riffs on atchara, a Filipino pickled papaya dish usually served with BBQ. 

“In my version, I use pepino instead of papaya,” said Salcido. “The idea is to enhance each other’s ingredients and treat them with respect while doing my own take on a dish.”

With the uncertainty of the pandemic, especially for the hard-hit foodservice industry, having a restaurant just isn’t feasible right now. Salcido remains optimistic: As long as he has his grill and oven, he’ll keep cooking his sizzling dishes. And we’ll keep lining right up to eat them. 

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Follow Daniel Salcido’s Salsizzle on Instagram at @salsizzle.altacaliforniagrill and visit him for delicious woodfired comida every Sunday at the Hollywood Artisan’s Market.

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