If you’ve never heard a punk rocker gush about the miraculous power of love, you’ve never met Mario Christerna. In blue jeans, his signature All-Stars, a Suicidal Tendencies tee, and tattoo sleeves, he looks the part of devil-may-care bad boy, but he’s quick to rattle off 1 Corinthians 13:4, “Love is patient, love is kind.” He’s not religious, mind you, but it’s love and patience that brought him from the projects of Boyle Heights — watching Jacques Pepin on TV and sneaking spices from his mother’s cabinet — to owning one of the most popular restaurants in L.A. “I knew that I could manifest my own destiny if I believed it,” he says.
After two years of working seven days a week, putting himself through culinary school, and saving money like crazy, he packed his knives and embarked on what he calls a “Kamakaze trip” to Spain. Through sheer persistence he got himself across a coffee table from legendary chef Martín Berasategui.
“I said, ‘Sir, with all due respect, if you love this art the way I love this art, there’s no way you can tell me no.’ And he said, ‘Give him an apron. Let’s rock and roll.’”
The passion Christerna brought to his apprenticeship at Berasategui’s two-Michelin starred Restaurante Lasarte in Barcelona is the same that fuels his work at The Briks, the South Park restaurant he opened at 1111 Hope Street in 2014. His devotion to his art is exemplified in his most popular dish, the lamb shank. Preparing the meat is a lengthy ordeal of seasoning, searing, braising — a process he calls his “eight hour therapy.” He drives hundreds of miles to buy ingredients for his ras el hanout spice mix, which he prepares, almost ritualistically, behind the closed door of his office.
“It’s kind of like a seance,” he says. “It’s very spiritual to me because I’m giving this love to it. In my mind, I feel like I’m transmitting something to it. It’s fucking weird, but I’m an artist like that.”
Also a labor of love are the briks themselves. The crispy North African pastries are stuffed will all manner of goodness — chorizo and egg in the “Cholo,” lechon and black beans in the “Tony Montana,” duck confit and cauliflower puree in the “Bougie.” From the menu to the cocktail program, everything exudes Christerna’s myriad sources of inspiration. You can taste the influence of his time in Spain, his North African mentor, his half Indian/half Spanish father, his Mexican mother, and his Cuban stepdad.
On Thursday evenings Christerna stands out on the street and tends to a simmering pot of discada. It’s an unapologetic hodgepodge of bacon, wieners, chorizo, asada, ham, beer, and tequila, and if the smell alone doesn’t have you feeling the love, safe to say you’re a lost cause.
Written by Thomas Harlander
Photographed by Eric Cacioppo