On the banks of the LA River, a taste of Norteño Mexican food

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Chef Esdras Ochoa grew up eating tacos on the streets of Sonora and Mexicali and he’s trying to bring a little slice of his childhood to diners at Salazar — dust, trees, cacti, flour tortillas and all. (Photo by Stan Lee)

In a tiny kitchen on the banks of the LA River, a boombox blasts “All My Lovin’” by the Beatles while two women press balls of dough into paper-thin flour tortillas that are roughly 3 inches wide. When the translucent tortillas come off the grill, they are steaming, stretchy and delicious. “We’re making close to 1,000 tortillas on the weekends,” says Esdras Ochoa, a trim 34-year-old bearded chef who grew up just south of the border in Mexicali. “It’s tortilla heaven over here. They’re just flying out of the kitchen.”

This is Salazar, a restaurant that opened in LA’s Frogtown neighborhood, also known as Elysian Valley, in May. Chef Ochoa has another restaurant in Los Angeles, Mexicali Taco on Figueroa, and Norteño Mexican-style tacos made with flour tortillas are being served there too. But those tortillas are not being made in LA and Mexicali Tacos doesn’t have an outdoor dining area. At Salazar, you park your car on the street and walk past a pretty bar to one of a dozen or so wooden tables shaded with umbrellas and olive trees. You might try the chorizo breakfast burrito on the weekend or the pescado zarandeado — that’s the catch-of-the-day grilled over mesquite wood — for dinner. (Jonathan Gold has several other recommendations too.)

The pescado zarandeado is marinated and cooked over mesquite wood on a Santa Maria-style grill. (Photo by Stan Lee)

On a hot summer day, the margaritaspalomas and micheladas are refreshing. But it’s the tacos that Ochoa really takes seriously: “It’s only three elements that make a perfect taco: it’s got to be a perfect tortilla, a perfect cut of meat cooked the right way and a good salsa… Because it’s so simple, you’ve got to refine it perfectly.” To that end, the veggies and meat are cooked on the Santa Maria-style grill for the carne asadaal pastorpollo asado and seasonal vegetable tacos on the menu. Ochoa has been refining his flour tortilla for two years using local ingredients and recipes from family members in Sonora and Mexicali. 

“Back home on the weekends, carne asada is king and it’s a tradition, it’s a religion, to do carne asada every weekend. It’s a gathering of families, of friends, of loved ones, and there’s nothing better than to do it outdoors,” says Ochoa. (Photo by Stan Lee)

For dessert, Salazar has roasted corn flan on the menu and tres leches, which features four milks actually, one of them being goat. Don’t mind the dust or the occasional beetle that crawls onto the table while you eat, or the electric buzz of the I-5 freeway. It’s all part of the experience. Ochoa grew up eating tacos outside in Sonora and Mexicali and he’s trying to bring a little slice of that childhood to diners at Salazar — dust, trees, cacti, flour tortillas and all.

Roasted Corn Flan
Salazar’s spin on the Mexican classic is a quatro leches cake, which adds goat’s milk to the usual recipe of evaporated, whole and condensed cow’s milk. (Photo by Stan Lee)

Abbie Fentress Swanson: What’s the idea behind the menu and concept at Salazar?
Chef Esdras Ochoa: Back home on the weekends, carne asada is king and it’s a tradition, it’s a religion, to do carne asada every weekend. It’s a gathering of families, of friends, of loved ones, and there’s nothing better than to do it outdoors. It’s the only way to do it back there. We tried to recreate that here. You go to your uncle’s farm, your friend, his cousin has a ranch out in the middle of town and everybody just brings a potluck. Somebody’s in charge of the beans. My mom’s in charge of the guacamole and the meat and somebody brings the tortillas. It’s just a way to get together as a family [for] a true family meal, the Mexican way, and that’s what we’re trying to do here at Salazar. That’s what makes us unique and a little bit special.

AFS: Jonathan Gold is a huge fan of your tortillas. What’s different about yours?
EO: Outside the meats and the Santa Maria grill, the star of the show is the tortillas. People ask me all the time, ‘What makes a good taco?’ Obviously the meat is key but right up there with the meat has got to be a good vessel, which is a tortilla. Flour is king in the northern region of Mexico. We use it more than corn so it’s very important to have the right tortilla with our meats. It’s got to be a little bit stretchy, a little bit chewy, it’s got to have some flavor, salt. A lot of people, when they do flour tortillas, they just do it plain. You’ve got to have some flavor in the tortillas. Like everything else, you’ve got to season it right. It’s an art form. I learned the hard way: I’ve been trying to get the perfect tortilla for the last two years. I had it down before we opened the restaurant with a small batch. But you go on a bigger scale and then you have like 10 people doing the tortillas and something gets lost in the middle. Right now my goal is to just… make sure they’re doing the exact same recipe that I’ve been practicing that’s been used for generations and generations back home in Sonora with my family down there [and] my mom in Mexicali. I combined both recipes and I think I came out with the perfect tortilla. But it’s just a matter of nailing it down to perfection, when it comes to the volume we’re doing here at Salazar… The tortillerias that we’re using here, the ladies, the wonderful, lovely ladies, they’ve only done corn tortillas, they’re not from where I’m from in Mexico. So it’s very new to them.

In the tiny Salazar kitchen, tortillerias crank out 1,000 flour tortillas a day on the weekends. (Photo by Stan Lee)

AFS: Everything affects how the tortillas turn out right? From the humidity to the temperature to the water?
EO: Yes. It’s another form of pastry I would say, tortillas. There’s a whole science to it. Just like back in New York, you’re never going to have the same bagels or pizza on the East Coast [as you would here in California] because New York water is very different. The temperature is different. It’s the same thing with tortillas. You’ve got to let [the dough] rest, you’ve got to let it breathe… A lot of people have this misconception that when you get your ribeye steak or your flatiron steak and then your side of tortillas, people automatically think they have to make tacos with them. Not necessarily. The way we eat tortillas in Mexico outside of tacos — because we eat them with every single meal — it’s kind of like a dinner roll with your steak. You grab your tortilla, you roll it up, put it on your left-hand side — it depends on if you’re right-handed or left-handed — you take a bite out of your meat, dip it in your salsa and then just take a bite of the tortilla. Chase it with your “dinner roll,” per se, and that’s our form of having our tortillas.

AFS: Where do you get your meat from?
EO: Different farms: Niman Ranch, Beeler’s Pure Pork, Creekstone Farms. There’s a lot of good stuff out there; you can’t really go wrong once you start looking for the good quality stuff… For tacos, for me, there is no better meat than chuck because it’s very fatty. It’s got to be a nice cut of meat. We use all natural, humanely-raised meat. For me, that’s very important… Cook it over mesquite and it’s just heaven.

Recommendations: Tacos (signature carne asada, veggie, pollo asado, al pastor),  gem caesar, pescado zarandeado, esquites, jardin en escabeche, la paloma, margaritas and micheladas, quatro leches and roasted corn flan.

Location: 2940 Fletcher Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90039

Find more of Jonathan Gold’s restaurant recommendations here.

Photos by Stan Lee, FCS 2016 James Beard Foundation visual storytelling award winner.

Dishes of esquites are becoming increasingly common restaurants in LA. The one at Salazar is roasted corn with chiles and spices. (Photo by Stan Lee)