When chef Maria Elena Lorenzo opens her doors to her restaurant Tamales Elena y Antojitos next Wednesday — for takeout, delivery, and drive-thru only — Los Angeles will gain one of its most important regional Mexican restaurants in decades, representing Afro-Mexican cuisine from La Costa Chica in Guerrero. Guerrero is a southern Mexican state, equal in its culinary riches as Puebla, the Yucatan, Oaxaca, or Michoacan, yet lesser known north of the border. Guerrerenses are most famous for their variety of elaborately garnished pozoles (red, white, green, and more), moles, pescado a la talla (fish grilled on stakes), mezcal infusions, and banana leaf-wrapped tamales. But only recently have Afro-Mexicans been recognized for their profound contributions to Guerreren cuisine.
Most Afro-Mexicans from the state of Guerrero in LA have been selling affordable, corn husk tamales to Blacks, Central-Americans, and Mexicans in Watts, but at Tamales Elena y Antojitos, Lorenzo and her daughters are going all in on Afro-Mexican cuisine, making it perhaps the only restaurant if its kind in the United States.
First off, it’s a pozoleria, offering green, red, and white pozoles made from pork head stock, which is a tradition that’s not easy to find even in places like Acapulco. Make a note to visit on el jueves pozolero, or pozole Thursdays, where all of their pozoles will be offered. Thursday is a special day for pozole in Guerrero, just as weekends are for barbacoa in Mexican culture (like taco Tuesday in the US).
For those avoiding animal products, Lorenzo has developed a vegan elopozole, which is another provincial pozole from Guerrero that’s made with sweet corn; just imagine an elote stew with a vegan broth. “We tried different stocks until it had that Mexican flavor,” said Lorenzo, who will also prepare vegan mushroom tamales.
Because no other Mexican culture devotes so much attention to pozole, Lorenzo’s are dressed with oodles of toppings: queso fresco, chicharrones, spices, chiles, avocado, shredded cabbage, chopped onions, and radishes. Everything can be safely ordered through the drive-thru window.
Lorenzo’s red tamales are moist and rich, boasting a medium, fruity spice from chiles costenos, the most important cultural chile in La Costa Chica. The heat will nip at your tongue just enough to get your attention. Her tamales in general are slightly more aggressive in flavor than the banana leaf tamales from the Valles Centrales found in LA’s Oaxacan restaurants. Dessert lovers will enjoy the ultra-fluffy torrejas, egg-battered French toast.
A dish that truly expresses Tamales Elena y Antojito’s Afro-Mexican flavors is the lightly sweet and spicy beef tongue with plantains, which has a nice kick of chile serrano. The mole verde with tamales nejos (unfilled tamales used to eat the mole) is a dish only found in the home of local Guerreneses, until now. Here Lorenzo’s culinary skill shines with a nuanced mole with notes of green pumpkin seed, green chiles, herbs, and kissed with epazote. Use the tamales nejos as utensils, tearing pieces off the tamal to drag through the mole, as practice that’s endured since re-Hispanic times. Tamales Elena y Antojitos is a celebration of Afro-Mexican culture in Los Angeles, the greatest Mexican food city in the United States.
Tamales Elena y Antojitos will open July 15 at 8101 Garfield Avenue, Bell Gardens, CA 90201. Delivery, takeout, and drive-thru available.