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Tacos de Jamaica!? ~ This South Gate Restaurant Doesn’t Let Any Hibiscus Go to Waste

9:10 AM PST on February 12, 2019

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]he flor de jamaica taco from Velma’s Cafe, more than anything, is an exercise in utility. Hibiscus is usually discarded after the deep purple concentrate is extracted to make tea or the popular agua fresca. But Velma’s gives the flower a new home inside a tortilla. The result is a tart, slightly sweet-and-spicy taco.

Velma’s hibiscus is braised in a house made chili paste and herbs, to remove some of the tartness, then it is placed on a yellow Kernel of Truth tortilla, and topped with mango to round things out.

The idea for the taco came from Magdalena Aguilar, one of the kitchen managers, who drew inspiration from her background in Estacion Bamoa, Sinaloa, where it was common practice to eat the flower. Anthony La Prieta, co-owner and chef, told L.A. Taco that they were looking for a way to use the hibiscus instead of letting it go to waste. Since Velma’s is a small restaurant they are always looking to utilize and make the most of everything, e.g. space and ingredients.

Velma's jamaica taco. All photos by Cesar Hernandez.

Velma’s Cafe opened last summer in a disjointed part of South Gate called Hollydale. The La Pietra family has owned the building for over ten years but had to close their doors because of the 2008 recession. In August 2018, they reopened with a new concept and attitude.

The small restaurant has walls decorated with paintings of butterflies and a small TV that loops Guy Fieri’s Grocery Games. The tables are small and the whole place only seats about 15 to 20 people. It feels like a revamped Mexican diner.

But the menu is where Velma’s deviates from its past. They aim to provide newer takes on the Mexican favorites, a bit of old school but with a different flavor profile.

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Velma's jalapeños rellenos.

Take for example the jalapenos rellenos, which are a take on chiles rellenos but resemble more of a bar snack than home cooking. The jalapeños are stuffed with cheese, yellow corn, and black beans. The corn provides small bursts of sweetness in each bite. They are battered in tempura, a thin crispy shell that is topped with a spicy and lightly sweetened chipotle sauce and cotija cheese.

Another entrada at Velma’s is their fried chayotes, which is a squash that’s usually eaten as a snack with limon and chile. Here, it is lightly fried in tempura to keep the fresh floral taste of the chayote intact. The dish could benefit from a sprinkle of salt but perhaps I come from a home that was far too familiar with the extra sodium.

“We wanted to make something approachable, but not too out there,” La Prieta says about the appetizer.

Velma's ribeye taco.

The ribeye taco has small cubes of medium rare steak topped with a limey guac, grilled onions, and a grilled chile. It almost felt like a crime getting this taco in South Gate. Growing up in Southeast L.A., steak was reserved for special occasions but here it is delivered casually in a taco. This taco is part of the seasonal offerings at Velma’s. La Prieta says that he likes to create these sort of specials so “people don’t get bored of the menu.”

RELATED: Tamal or Tamale? ~ How to Correctly Pronounce the Singular Form of Tamales

Velma's Shredded beef quesadilla.

[dropcap size=big]L[/dropcap]a Pietra has been in the culinary world for 15 years. That experience is translated to the modern Latin dishes at Velma’s. But La Pietra told L.A. Taco that he’s been cooking since he was a child and went to culinary school to get “kitchen training.”

After he graduated he landed serval jobs working for private catering companies eventually becoming a sous chef. The companies that La Prieta worked for catered to some of L.A. largest venues, like the Staples Center. Eventually he started cooking for the television industry. He didn’t want to divulge the eating habits of the Hollywood elites. But that’s the kind of person that La Pietra is – loyal, discrete. His goal now is to bring his world and cooking experience to the working class neighborhoods of Southeast L.A.

Velma’s location and scope is important because they are offering good quality food to a traditionally underserved area. They are looking to the future and pushing the scope of the taco but situating themselves in the community they come from.

The response to Velma’s has been positive, from both the locals and people who come from out of town. Now Velma’s is looking to expand – possibly with a new restaurant – but for now, they are just focusing on managing their small restaurant in South Gate.

RELATED: Enchílate: A Mexican Fusion Pop-Up Run by Two Lynwood Moms, Hard-Workers, and Chefs

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