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From the Skateboard to the Kitchen ~ Macheen Makes Alta Cuisine Tacos for the Streets

10:14 AM PST on December 13, 2018

    Jonathan Perez is the guy who got laughed out of a chef's interview for proudly listing Yoshinoya on his resume. He's also the guy who drives to San Diego twice a week to reup on tortillas. When he was a kid, he almost went pro as a skater, until he broke his back. Perez is all about taking things to the max. It makes sense that he named his popular pop-up taco stand Macheen – a Spanish slang term that might best be translated as all the way up.

    On a colder-than-usual Sunday morning at Smorgusburg, Perez stands tall with broad shoulders. The sides of his hair are cut to a fade, and his button-up is buttoned all the way. Perez’s Macheen pop-up has graced Smorgusburg every Sunday for about two years now, slowly building a stand-out reputation for its street-level Alta California cuisine.

    Photo by Cesar Hernandez.

    Macheen makes tacos and dishes that you’d find at a fine restaurant, but energized by L.A streets. The Macheen breakfast taco is inspired by Torrance’s many Filipino restaurants and it features a Filipino longanisa as the star, crispy cheese, salsa macha, and an egg. The pork belly has a smear of frijoles volteados (turned over), Guatemalan-style creamy beans that have been cooked until you can sauté and turn over, and are dressed with cotija and salsa.

    A hallmark of any Macheen dish is the infused tortillas, which at first glance might seem oddly colored but are packed with distinct flavors. Twice a week, he drives to La Jolla to source them. The dedication and special L.A.-born attitude has been with him as far back as he can remember.

    RELATED: Alitas El Diablito: Dreaming Big in Compton With Wings Flavored In Mole, Aguachile, A La Diabla Sauces

    Photo by Cesar Hernandez.

    A Skateboard and a Yoshinoya Kitchen

    [dropcap size=big]P[/dropcap]erez worked in food service since he was 15 and it all started at a Yoshinoya. But Perez’s real ambition as a youth on the streets of Compton and Torrance was skateboarding. He had a promising career and had landed a sponsorship, a much sought-after goal for all amateur skateboarders. Perez was on his way to hood fame.

    Then, at age 17, misfortune came in the shape of a car accident. It resulted in a back injury requiring surgery. The accident was the end of his skateboarding career, but he found a new drive in the kitchen.

    Courtesy of Macheen.

    It’s been a long but fruitful slog since his days at Yoshinoya. And Perez found that at first he had a tough time finding a job in the kitchen based on his limited experience. In one interview, he was laughed out the room and they told him that he shouldn’t include the term Yoshinoya on a resume.

    But he was undeterred. Perez enrolled in culinary school. College was never for him, but he was driven by those who said he couldn’t. It was the defiant spirit of a skater that still raged within him. After culinary school, Perez landed a few jobs back in the industry. He started at the bottom and worked his way up to junior sous chef. His last job was cooking for USC, which he has now left to pursue Macheen full time.

    RELATED: These Are the 12 Best Birria de Res Tacos in Los Angeles Right Now

    Photo by Cesar Hernandez.

    Becoming Macheen

    [dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]he genesis of Macheen comes from Perez and his friends cooking for each other. The team today consists of Perez’s family: Rolando, his brother, who helps him prep the food; Kassandra, his sister-in-law and Rolando’s wife; and Ana, his sister, who serves and take orders.

    Macheen’s big debut came at Tacolandia 2016, where things went well until they ran out of tortillas. (Now they make sure to stock up on tortillas.) On the subject of tortillas, Macheen offers some of the most interesting tortillas in Los Angeles. Perez has set up an ongoing relationship with Chef Christine Rivera of Galaxy Taco in La Jolla, who specializes in infused tortillas.

    Photo by Cesar Hernandez.

    Before you get excited, these aren’t infused with L.A.’s favorite medicinal plant, but ambitious flavors like al pastor, kale, and squid ink. The tortilla is the blank canvas of a taquero, but Macheen offers so many different colors, the canvas is part of the art.

    The story of the tortilla trips to San Diego are part of Macheen’s dedication to quality. If bearing the California roads and infernal traffic is not a reason to eat these tacos, then it at least shows Perez’s dedication to calidad. He could have chosen some of the famed tortillas from East L.A., but these tortillas make Macheen stand out; both aesthetically and in flavor.

    Perez is upfront about not being Mexican, his family is from Guatemala. But the taco does not discriminate. Perez infuses his roots the ones he inherited from his family and his upbringing in Compton and the South Bay: he makes L.A. tacos.

    Courtesy of Macheen.

    Switching It Up

    [dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]acos aren’t the only offerings at Macheen, they have several burritos, some with the eggs soft scrambled until they are like velvet in your mouth. The birria burrito, previously featured as an honorable mention in the best birria de res tacos in L.A. – right here at L.A. Taco – is a recipe that he inherited from his mother. She learned the recipe for birria de res when she migrated from Guatemala and lived in Mexico. The chicharron burrito packs a spicy punch and is a wonderful pairing with the stewed pork rinds. It is certainly part of what makes L.A. a burrito destination.

    Macheen constantly changes the menu, that way people can’t say, “Oh. I’ve been there before.” Perez always leads with what is in season and is constantly experimenting.

    Courtesy of Macheen.

    On special occasions, Macheen has a dinner series where Perez shows off his fine dining experience. At these prix fixe menu events you’ll find pozole verde with scallops on a half shell and pork belly plate with pistachio mole. For dessert, Macheen plays with classic childhood treats, like a duvalin panna cotta. Perez said he wanted to “give it some elegance.”

    Most recently Macheen has been known for its Taco Tuesday takeover at Pasadena restaurant Maestro, where they are allowed to experiment with new dishes.

    Courtesy of Macheen.

    Perez has come a long way from the skateboard. But one thing's for certain, Macheen is purely a labor of love with a smidge of defiance – the attitude of L.A., of a skater.

    Now, it’s a good thing when the tortillas are all gone. But on this chilly Sunday – unlike most Sundays at Smorgusburg – Perez can relax a bit. “It’s the season,” he says. He may even take it down a notch, unbutton the collar, and stand a little less tall. But still, no one here dare laughs at the kid who proudly remembers starting out in the food world at Yoshinoya.

    RELATED: A’s BBQ: Smoked Meats With Mexican Flavors and the Soul of East L.A. 

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