For over 20 years, Afro-Mexican cook Maria Elena Lorenzo has been serving the community of Watts tamales, tacos, and occasionally regional specialties from La Costa Chica, Guerrero like green pozole. On July 15, Lorenzo and her family will open their first restaurant called Tamales Elena y Antojitos specializing in Afro-Mexican cuisine using treasured family recipes. Located in Bell Gardens with a drive-thru, Tamales Elena y Antojitos is LA’s first Afro-Mexican restaurant.
Lorenzo was one of many vendors pushing shopping carts with coolers full of tamales around Watts and South LA in the 90s, selling to Grape Street Elementary School students before class and to her neighbors at the Imperial Gardens projects who call her Mama. She opened a food truck in 2007 with her husband, Juan Irra, and their young daughters, to serve Watts residents. In the intervening years, her daughters Maria, Heidi, Judepth, Teresa, and Nayeli, pursued their own careers in hospitality, gaining valuable experience working as both front-of-house and back-of-house in some of LA’s most prominent restaurants including Rivera, Petty Cash Taqueria, and Guerrilla Tacos. Most notably, Heidi Irra served as the chef de cuisine at Downtown’s Mezcalero, and Judepth Irra will be the sous chef at Neal Fraser’s forthcoming El Granjero Cantina y Taqueria.
There are over a million Afro-Mexicans in Mexico, living mostly on the coasts of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Veracruz. Lorenzo and Irra’s hometown of La Costa Chica is a majority Afro-Mexican community, and is the source of some of Guerrero’s most famous dishes, such as various pozoles, caldo de cuatete (fish soup), and mole rojo con tamales nejos (red mole with unfilled tamales used as utensils).
The new Bell Gardens restaurant will feature traditional banana leaf-wrapped tamales, as well as corn husk-wrapped tamales with meat, vegetarian, and vegan options. Every Thursday will be dedicated to pozole — el jueves pozolero — just like in Guerrero. Lorenzo will serve red, white, and green pozoles, plus a vegan elopozole made with fresh corn. On other days of the week, the menu will still offer red pozole and vegan elopozole.
Lorenzo will be also offering typical Afro-Mexican guisados, like tongue with plantains, aporreadillo (beef jerky and scrambled eggs), and beef barbacoa served in plates and in tacos. There will also be seafood dishes popular in Acapulco such as pescadillas (fish empanadas) and seafood cocktails on the menu. To drink, the family will offer chilate, a pre-Hispanic cold chocolate beverage.
“We’re really excited to share my mom’s recipes, to celebrate our Afro-Mexican culture, and for el jueves pozolero,” said Maria Irra. “And bringing real Guerrero food to Los Angeles.”