In a parking lot between two nondescript, vaguely Art Deco buildings, a cheery neon sign with marquee lights beckons passersby to Chicas Tacos. Step through the red wooden door, into their low-ceilinged, brightly white-walled space, and bask in the warmest of welcomes.
The menu consists of quote-unquote “elevated” classics, made with organic ingredients that are delivered fresh daily. Their fried fish taco is heaped with Caesar salad — the perfect marriage of two Baja legends (the Caesar salad was invented in Tijuana in the ’20s). Chorizo-spiced cauliflower holds down the veggie taco, bedecked with a meaty slice of marinated portobello mushroom and a dollop of avocado cream. Their peppery grilled asada is best ordered “mama’s style” — sandwiched between layers of molten cheese and extrathick tortillas (made to spec at Boyle Heights’ famed La Princesita Tortilleria). Sharing the twopound stack is probably prudent, but hey, no judgement if you go at it alone.
The chicken taco, though — with tender dark meat grilled to perfection and topped Baja Med style with olives, creamy feta, and cucumbers — that’s where Chicas began.
For brothers Chris and Jon Blanchard, who own the restaurant with Nico Rusconi, their affinity for Mexican cooking grew out of church trips to Ensenada and family vacations all throughout Baja. As they got older, they spent more time in the Valle de Guadalupe, the oldest wine region in the Americas.
“We met this family,” Chris says, “and we would stay on their farm, learning about them and their style of cooking. That Baja- Mediterranean salad was the first thing we tried, and it happened to be on top of this amazing organic chicken that was raised locally by another farmer. We were like, we’ve got to do something with this.” With the family’s blessing, they set to work on Chicas, busting out the teal paint, shipping in tile from Mexico, and revamping a 1947 Spartan airstream (it’s still a work in progress, but will eventually open as additional dining space). James Beard-nominated chef Eduardo Ruiz honed the recipes, Californiaing them up here and there with, say, a little kale. Soon enough, locals were lining up for house-made aguas frescas and juicy carnitas.
“The fact that we’re getting that response back from the neighborhood is unbelievable. It puts the biggest smile on our face,” Chris says through a mouthful of their off-menu merit salsa-topped quesadilla. And Chicas extends equal good will to every straggler who wanders in the door. If anything outshines their food (whether that’s even possible is debatable), it’s the sense of exuberance and familial fondness shared between the Chicas crew and already solidifying crowd of regulars. “We couldn’t feel more welcome,” Chris says. “It just feels like a warm hug.”
Written by Thomas Harlander
Photographed by Caleb Thal