Volcanes Aren't Easy To Find In LA — But Kermes Makes Some Of The Best
For decades, this spot near the southeast corner of the triangular East L.A. strip mall bordered by Atlantic, Pomona and Beverly boulevards was home to a Chinese restaurant. For almost a year now, it has been Kermés Taco Grill, a small taqueria that specializes in volcanes — crisp, corn tortillas, curled at the edges and heaped with toppings, maybe pollo con crema or chicharron in a verde sauce or calabacitas (squash sauteed with corn, tomatoes and onions).
Despite the amazing breadth and diversity of Mexican food in Los Angeles, volcanes aren't something you often find at restaurants or food trucks here. When you do, they go by many names. Vampiros. Gringos. At acclaimed DTLA restaurant Sonoratown (which just won Taco Madness 2019), they're called "lorenzas." Whatever you call them, nobody does them quite like Kermés.
The credit goes to chef Eva Torres, 54. She runs and owns Kermés, along with her daughter, Zuly Barrios, and her son-in-law, Jorge Pacheco.
Torres came to Southern California in the late 1970s from Jalisco, where she's part of a culinary family. In her hometown of Melaque, a small town between Puerto Vallarta and Colima on Mexico's west coast, Torres's mother runs Restaurant Costinoy. Volcanes are common street food in Jalisco, Sinaloa and Baja California, especially at night, Barrios said.
When Torres arrived in Los Angeles at age 19, she worked at a bunch of restaurants. She worked at a King Taco, El Cihualteco in South L.A., and a cousin's restaurant in Lakewood. For several years, Torres and her husband ran a lunch truck that they parked at a hardware store near San Pedro and Vernon. What did Torres do there? She was a cook, her daughter tells me. Always a cook.
Last year, the family decided to open their first brick and mortar restaurant. They named it Kermés, after the term for a food fair or festival. "Tacos, quesadillas, tostadas, flautas. We have a little bit of everything, and we're like a kermés," Barrios said, so that's what she named the restaurant.
When she and her mom were deciding on the menu, they knew they needed to serve volcanes.
"I think every Mexican family after a barbecue, you kind of grill your tortilla on the barbecue grill and you top it with cheese and then you make your volcanes," Barrios said. "This is something we don't see that they sell too much around here, so we wanted to bring it to East L.A."
The crisp tortilla is similar to a tostada, but different in a couple of crucial ways. Where tostadas are fully cooked tortillas that are fried in oil to make them crisp, volcanes start life as flattened rounds of masa that are placed onto a grill and cooked at extremely low heat for a long time, maybe an hour and fifteen minutes. The curl up at the edges forming a sort of crater that resembles a volcano, hence the name. Kermés makes about 400 of these each day.
At Kermés, you can choose from 13 different toppings, mostly guisados (or stews), all of which are made by Torres from recipes that she has spent decades perfecting. The asada and the tinga are probably the most popular choices. There's also cabeza, lengua, chicken mole, shrimp, rajas (poblano peppers grilled with corn, tomatoes and onions) and refried beans with elote. (You can get any of these toppings made as a quesadilla, mulita, burrito or taco.) The volcanes come with Monterey cheese, guacamole and sour cream. After that, it's up to you to dress them.
Aside from the usual options — sliced radishes, pickled carrots, a few salsas, etc. — Kermés has a large electric kettle filled with warm pinto beans.
"Where we're from in Jalisco, whenever you go to a taqueria, they always have the beans in the middle of the table, so you could always add the beans to your taco. So this is something that we wanted to also introduce here," Barrios said.
The beans, too, are a family recipe. In fact, all of Kermés is a family affair. Barrios, Torres and Pacheco not only work together, they live together in East L.A., not far from the restaurant.
"We're family owned and operated," Barrios said. "We're local from East L.A., and our food is made fresh daily with nothing coming from a can."