Tacos Casa is the home to authentic dishes
By Frier McCollister
For Brisa Lopez of Tacos Casa, culinary novelty and authenticity are intertwined.
“I don’t believe there is anything new in food,” Lopez says.
“You can be as experimental as you want to, but it will never be something that has never happened before. However, if you try to combine that with your story and your heritage, that’s what makes your food a little more special.”
Tacos Casa handles pop-ups, catering and public events. Lopez is also a private chef.
Lopez draws the line between Tacos Casa catering and her pop-up formats, which tend to feature more familiar street food options and her catering approach.
“The kind of food we make, I have to make a huge division: What we do at events or markets or pop-ups is one thing,” Lopez says.
“It’s completely different from what we do in catering or more formal areas. The difference is in the complexity of the dishes.”
While her eponymous tacos are on both sides of the business, the catering menus emphasize regional pozoles and rich moles. Lopez has mastered more than 10 regional moles as part of her repertoire.
A Mexico City native, Lopez is emphatic about bringing her family’s influence into her cooking. She makes it clear that her approach is distinct from conventional Southern Californian Mexican or Chicano cuisine.
She’s trying to stick to the recipes one would find in Mexico.
“Because Mexico is not about sour cream and refried beans and flour tortillas and rice on everything,” Lopez says. “So, I think that’s a little bit of the difference about what we offer and why people come from Glendale or Alhambra to try our food every week.”
Before the pandemic, Lopez operated Tacos Casa mainly as a busy catering operation. Lopez averaged as many as 45 events a year. The pandemic eliminated that model, and she quickly pivoted to her pop-up format that includes a regular presence at Altadena Farmers Market on Wednesdays. Nearby Café de Leche on North Lake hosts Tacos Casas for brunch between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Thursdays and Sundays.
Fortunately, Lopez’s catering activity has recently come back to life. This month, Tacos Casa will provide the opening and closing night gala dinners at the 13th annual HOLA! Film Festival. It’s the country’s largest Mexican film festival. This year it’s being held at Plaza de Cultura y Artes in Downtown Los Angeles and runs from Friday, September 17, to Saturday, September 25.
For opening night, Lopez created a menu focused on regional red, green and white moles in honor of Mexico’s national colors and Independence Day, celebrated on September 16. Closing night’s menu will be a surprise.
September also marks the fifth anniversary of Tacos Casa.
“We started by doing community events that were Latino-heritage related, and that’s how I started,” Lopez notes.
Lopez maintains a deep emotional connection and affection for her roots in Mexico City and her family’s influence. Her grandmother and aunts maintained restaurants there, and the atmosphere at home was suffused with culinary activity and interest.
“It was always something very crucial emotionally, socially and family-wise on an everyday basis,” Lopez says.
“I think that’s the reason why I wanted to embark and learn more about food and the living of it, because it wasn’t just a plate of food. The experience we had, it was always connected with something we were going through — if it was a passing, a celebration, a fight, a wedding, a quinceanera, a reunion of family that hasn’t seen each other in 20 years.
“The most alive place has always been the kitchen, for as long as I remember. It was my goal to come here and just try to transmit that.”
Lopez arrived in Southern California 16 years ago inspired by romantic impulse.
“When I came here, it was a love situation, nothing else,” Lopez says. “I didn’t know the language. I didn’t know anybody besides the person I was coming with. I had to start my life here all over again.”
In Mexico City, she established a career in digital advertising and marketing, and it took some time, patience and perseverance to forge a new path.
“When I moved here, the lack of knowledge of English was a bit of a challenge. I had to humble myself and learn what I had to do and learn the city and break through some fears and go through some challenges,” she says.
Ultimately, she landed a digital marketing position with a major Spanish-language media company based in the United States.
Lopez exudes a sense of calm assurance and determination. Those qualities paid off.
“I moved between companies, and I worked in digital advertising for a few more years,” she says.
“Until for myself, I hit a goal, when I felt very accomplished. I ended up being the manager of national campaigns for the African American and Hispanic markets. I felt very happy. I think I proved what I had to do. Now, I really wanted to experience and do what I always wanted, which was cooking.
“That’s when I quit everything. I quit my job. I put my savings into my business, and I started this adventure.”
Street food culture in Mexico City inspired Lopez.
“Mostly in Mexico City, but really all across the country, (food) is always on every corner,” she says.
“It’s somebody eating — all the time. The soul of the authentic food in my country, it’s street food — all kinds.”
It’s also available any time of day.
“Honestly, it’s 24/7,” Lopez says. “There’s not a schedule or time. It happens all the time.”
The menu at her market stand, and the regular brunch pop-ups at Café de Leche, reflect that culture with some dishes not often seen locally.
“Besides the tacos, we make a pambazo, which is a big sandwich that is stuffed with potatoes and chorizo,” Lopez explains.
“(At most local taco stands) you won’t find something like that. It’s not very common. But once people get used to that item, they embrace it because it’s something new. It’s different and it still has the Mexican taste of it.”
Gorditas are another big seller for Lopez, which she compares to Salvadoran pupusas and Venezuelan arepas.
Don’t get Lopez started on commercial fast-food varieties of Mexican dishes.
“If you say, ‘I can go out to Del Taco and get some chilaquiles,’ guess what?” she says rhetorically. “Ours is actually made with mole, and we make our mole from scratch.”
Oaxacan mole to be precise. It’s a staple on her brunch menu and well worth sampling.
Other distinctive items on the brunch menu include huevos divorciados with green and red salsas separated by fried eggs; molletes, toasted rolls topped with scrambled eggs, potatoes, chorizo, cheese and pico de gallo; and another Mexico City street staple, the guajolota. It’s essentially a cheese tamale sandwich, topped with fresh salsa, crema and cotija cheese. Catering setups include a taco bar, an antojitos or appetizer bar, full buffet service and formal dinner service.
Lopez sees an actual restaurant in the near future.
“Hopefully, if not next year, in the beginning of 2023 (I intend) to definitely have a location,” she says. “If it happens, it will be here, because I’m very fond of where I live.”
Her home has been in Altadena for the past nine years, and she lived in South Pasadena for four years prior to that.
Lopez says her community partners paved the way for her move to a brick and mortar.
“If it wasn’t for two businesses, I don’t know if I would be here,” Lopez says. “I feel compelled to share that. Café de Leche and Altadena Farmers Market. (Because of them), now we’re actually saving some money.”
Despite the pandemic, Lopez says she feels inspired.
“I think this very unfortunate momentum that we have all gone through, it has also shown the best part of us as a community in this area,” she says. “People have become more close and more considerate and more open to try other things.
“Try always to be local and support each other. That doesn’t happen in all communities and neighborhoods, and that’s what I’ve seen in my area. We always try to be local and to support each other, so the money stays here, and the support stays here as well. That is something that I think is very important for all of us. Thank you for this opening to the community.”
As a token of gratitude to Arroyo readers, Lopez shares her recipe for sopa de frijol negro y tlacoyos.
Sopa de frijol negro y tlacoyos
Sopa de frijol negro y tlacoyos is naturally vegan, gluten free, low in calories, high in fiber and made out of Mesoamerican ingredients only.
For the soup
750 ml of vegetable broth
1 1/2 cups of black beans (cooked)
1 small onion
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 dried pasilla chile, clean, without seeds and soaked in hot water
8 epazote leaves (can be found at the fresh produce area in Hispanic markets)
1 tablespoons of sea salt
1 tablespoons of vegetable oil
In a nonstick pot, put the oil; half of the onion, finely chopped; garlic; and let cook on a medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Stir until golden brown. Add half of the broth, cover and leave on low heat.
Blend the rest of the broth with the beans, salt, 3 epazote leaves, pasilla chile and 1/2 onion.
Add mixture to broth and let cook on medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes. Serve with fresh chopped epazote.
For the tlacoyos
2 cups of corn flour for tortillas
2 cups of water
1 cup of mashed potatoes,
3 tablespoons of vegetable oil
2 thin pieces plastic to make the tlacoyos
In a bowl, mix the corn flour with the water until you get an even, smooth dough. Knead it for a few minutes until it feels soft. Heat a griddle over medium heat.
Divide the dough in 10 equal parts. Grab one dough piece and roll between your hands. Place between the sheets of plastic and roll with a rolling pin to form a thick circle.
Uncover and add 1 1/2 tablespoons of potatoes in the center. Cover with plastic; fold the circle to seal the edges; lightly press until getting a flat, long diamond shape. With two hands, hold the tlacoyo and press the ends to form pointy tips on each side.
Place the tlacoyo in the hot griddle and cook each side for about 3 to 4 minutes, depending on the thickness. Add oil to taste around the tlacoyo for crispiness.