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Tirsa’s Is For Anyone Who Loves Color and Joy: Burritos, Tortas, and Sopes Inspired by Los Angeles

2:27 AM PST on December 18, 2018

[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]t was an ordinary Sunday and I found myself in Tirsa’s – the least ordinary taco stand I can imagine – after drooling over their instagram feed for at least a month. It’s a small establishment on the corner of Cesar Chavez and Grand, purposely decorated like it’s in the piñata district. As if it wasn’t colorful enough, the woman of the hour, chef Tirsa Nevarez, came bustling in vibrant and smiling.

Nevarez, who owns and runs Tirsa’s, told L.A. Taco almost right away: “I don’t want to overhype it  – my food is just ordinary food.” But no, there is nothing ordinary about Tirsa’s taste, creativity, and comforting yet fun aesthetics.

The story of how Tirsa Nevarez created a truly special establishment is filled to the brim with culinary creativity borne out of grit and a desire to share her delicious creations. She went from being kicked out of Roosevelt High School for “smoking pot everywhere,” to becoming a businesswoman and successful chef.

Tirsa’s menu features a vibrant array of L.A.-style Mexican specialties. There’s Flamin’ Hot esquites; a giant asada torta Nevarez calls DTLA; the Xicanessa torta which is made with breaded chicken breasts; a healthy backyard-style chipotle chicken plate; and the Grand Relleno, a chile relleno burrito that you can get smothered in multiple salsas. The Grand Relleno concoction sounds insane, but actually when you bite into it, the perfectly prepared chile relleno is just nonchalantly chilling there, as if it always belonged inside a flour tortilla.

Tirsa's massive torta is called the DTLA. Photo by Erick Galindo.

The restaurant is also vegan friendly and has options for plant-based eaters. It’s really a place for everyone who likes a whole lot of color and joy. The walls are painted green with giant flowers and there is a corner decorated with paper flowers, a serape, and a sign that says “Let’s fiesta bitches.” Nevarez says that she wants her establishment to feel safe and welcoming – “like the Piñata District.”

Tirsa’s food and decor is not only smothered in love, it’s wrapped in hustle. Unaware of the pop up scene that’s swept through Los Angeles, five years ago Nevarez began her business as something like a lunch service. She sold salad and wraps.

Chipotle chicken plate. Photo by Mariah Castañeda.

To find customers, Nevarez took to her neighborhood’s streets in true tamalero fashion. “I went to my block. I literally went door to door saying, ‘Do you wanna by some food?’” recalled Nevarez.

After putting her culinary degree to use as a food manager, Nevarez quickly began working on starting her own business while balancing a 50-hour work week. Nevarez used her paycheck from her primary job to buy all the ingredients she needed for her lunch services.

At one point, struggling to make her business take off, Nevarez stood on a corner with a sign for salads and maps to her house. “It was embarrassing but I didn’t care,” Nevarez said. “I was slangin’ salads and wraps out of my house.”

Nevarez pushed through the hard times. A year ago, she opened Tirsa’s in downtown L.A.

Flamin' Hot esquites. Photo courtesy of Tirsa's.

Her menu has vastly expanded since her home kitchen days. You can almost see the colors glowing as she moves from dishes like sopes infused with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos dust, to her red and green wet burrito filled with two stuffed poblano peppers.

Tirsa calls her food “my version of Mexican food,” fearing that naysayers might scoff at labeling her festive dishes as Mexican food. And sure, you probably won’t find a chile relleno burrito in your grandmother's kitchen, but it’s as Mexican as the word Chicano – with roots in Mexico but American-made.  

The Grand Relleno is a chile relleno burrito topped with green and red salsas. Photo by Mariah Castañeda.

I’m not sure any of this matters because it’s delicious. All I know is that Nevarez figured out that combining chile rellenos and burritos would be a showstopper, and it was so good I haven’t shut up about it since.

I took my first bite of the burrito from the side doused with chile verde and cilantro aioli. The chile relleno is both crispy on the outside and soft with melted queso fresco on the inside, along with beans, rice, tomato, onion, and guacamole. The fresh flavors danced together, and it was delightful. I thought the side with the salsa verde couldn’t possibly be beat, until I tried the side with the salsa roja. It was tangy with some heat and so fresh, those peppers sang. I didn’t want to waste a single drop. I definitely scraped the leftover salsa with tortilla chips.

Flamin' Hot sope. Photo courtesy of Tirsa's.

The Flamin’ Hot sope was also amazing. Flamin’ Hot Cheetos have always been kind of a comfort food for me, and although I was skeptical about Cheetos dusted food at first, I was a believer after one bite. The carne asada is well marinated with a lime-y tang and the infused masa has a little bit of Flamin' Hot flavor that melted right into it.

The last thing I tried – after pretty much devouring half the menu – was of course the healthy option. But her lime chipotle cilantro chicken doesn’t lose any flavor in whatever calories it’s shedding. The chicken is soft and flavored throughout and I’ll definitely be back for it. Tirsa says it captures the essence of a Mexican backyard barbeque.

 Inspired by all of the delicious food, decor, and Tirsa’s story, I had to ask what advice Nevarez would give aspiring Latina entrepreneurs hoping to make it in the food industry. “Work hard, don't give up,” Nevarez said. “The doors will open up, actually put everything you got into it. You have to keep going.”

For more on Tirsa's go here.

RELATED: From Narco to Sinaloa Sushi Chef: How a Kid from East L.A. is Building a Mexican Sushi Empire

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