18 Years Of Al Pastor At Taqueria Vista Hermosa
The al pastor at Taqueria Vista Hermosa is Raul Morales's most precious family heirloom. It helped him put two of his children through college. It convinced him to open a restaurant. It paved his road to success. And it all started in a small town in Michoacán.
As a kid growing up in Vista Hermosa, Morales was always drawn to kitchens. He began working construction at age seven with his dad but he always preferred being by the stove, helping his mother make meals or preparing food for his uncle's taqueria.
At age 19, he came to the United States, leaving behind his wife and three children. He hoped to earn enough money to build a house for his family, back in Mexico.
Although Morales had a strained relationship with his father, his dad offered him a crucial piece of advice before he left: "The cold in the U.S. is unlike anything you've experienced."
At the time, Morales didn't understand. He had packed plenty of warm clothes. What did he need to worry about?
When Morales arrived in Los Angeles in 1990, he stayed with his wife's family in South Central L.A. He was grateful but he wasn't comfortable. When he tried to connect with friends and family members who had already migrated to L.A., he says they never responded to him. Morales began to realize that his impression of the United States as the land of milk and honey was fiction. He started to understand his father's warning, that no jacket could insulate him from isolation and loneliness.
Although Morales worked as a machine repairman, he had trouble finding steady employment. Things got so bad he would scour trash cans, looking for fruit he could eat. "Luckily, I found some that were clean," Morales says.
One day, riding the bus ride home after a long day's work, he noticed a well-dressed older man wearing a white coat. The gentleman asked what was troubling Morales, who revealed that he was struggling to find work. The man advised him to look for a job in the food industry: "You'll never want for another day of work. In fact, you'll get tired of how much work you have."
Was it a sign from above? Was this an emissary from God? Did the conversation even happen? Morales still doesn't know but he says, "I remember him as vividly as this conversation we're having right now."
The next day, Morales applied for a position as a butcher in a meat factory in Vernon and landed the job. Within a few months, he had made enough money to bring his wife and three kids to Los Angeles. Whether real or divine, the old man in white had offered him good advice.
In 1996, Morales branched out. He and his brother opened a janitorial company that cleaned offices and carnicerias. Between these two jobs, Morales would cook tacos for his friends and family. They were good enough that people encouraged him to open a taqueria. At first, he thought it was a foolish idea but, nudged by his uncle, he decided to take the risk. "It's better to run a bad business than to have a good job," Morales says.
In late 1997, he started operating a taco cart near Florence and Compton in Watts but he shut it down after about four months. Morales says he received threats from local gangs that he had to pay them "plaza," aka rent, or leave. He didn't feel safe in the area.
Morales was prepared to give up on his culinary ambitions when saw an ad on Univision about a program to help people become business owners in South Central. The next day, he rushed to the offices of Esperanza, a nonprofit dedicated to helping members of the Latinx community start businesses and find housing, and joined the long line of applicants. This was the program that would become Mercado La Paloma.
The idea behind the Mercado, a cross between a food hall and a cultural center, was to carve out a space where people could eat and socialize, as they might have done in Mexico. The organization would also help new vendors with affordable loans and training, teaching them how to cook and how to run a business. Morales recalls some of the requirements: Applicants had to live in the surrounding area, have good moral character and decent credit, show proof of financial hardship and prove their proposed business wasn't affiliated with a corporation.
Along with approximately 65 other people, Morales was accepted into the program. As the 11-week process wore on, the applicants were whittled down to about 15 people. Along the way, Morales became good friends with Gilberto Cetina Sr., who would go on to open Chichen Itza, popular Yucatecan restaurant, in the Mercado.
His son, Gilberto Cetina Jr., the current owner of Chichen Itza and Holbox, recalls what the Mercado was like in 2001, when it debuted.
"I came on board about two weeks before the Mercado opened," Cetina Jr. says. "I remember there was a lot of excitement but not a lot of business going around."
Like most of the proprietors in the Mercado, Morales struggled to attract customers that first year. He thinks it had a lot to do with 9/11 and the subsequent economic contraction. After eight months of slow business, Morales was ready to pack up the trompo. He went to the Esperanza offices and told them things weren't working out.
The founder, sister Diane Donoghue, replied, "I believe in you even though you don't believe in yourself."
Morales says he didn't speak or understand much English back then but those words stuck with him. She told him that Esperanza would give him additional loans and financial help in order to keep him in business. He decided to give it another go.
Taqueria Vista Hermosa's saving grace turned out to be catering. Approximately six months later, Morales got a call from the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce asking if he could cater a five-day business seminar. Although he had no experience with that kind of work, he accepted. "Back then I had no idea what logistics was. I took whatever came to my lap," Morales says. To learn, he asked to shadow friends who worked in catering.
These days, his catering gigs are often elaborate affairs that allow him to stretch his wings and serve dishes he doesn't offer at his taqueria. At past events, he has set up trompos made out of rib eye, chicken and lamb — "like the originators," Morales says.
Once he got into catering, his business stabilized but it didn't start booming until 2003. In June of that year, Barbara Hansen wrote a Los Angeles Times story naming Vista Hermosa the best al pastor taco in the city. When she called Morales to tell him, he thought she was a scammer and hung up the phone. Two attempts later, Morales finally understood what she had been trying to tell him.
"The food was excellent. It was outstanding, like all the food there," Hansen says. "I always enjoyed talking with Raul. He was always so friendly and ready to share information."
Despite the accolades, Morales knew how fickle the food world could be. For Taqueria Vista Hermosa's first five years, he continued running his janitorial company, often working at the taqueria during the day and cleaning offices at night. He didn't hang up his mops until 2006.
Nearly two decades after Mercado La Paloma opened, only two of its original 15 vendors remain, Taqueria Vista Hermosa and Chichen Itza. "I think there's a closer relationship between between us because we've been here the whole time," Cetina Jr. says.
Vista Hermosa looks much the same as it did 18 years ago. A small stall with a window reveals a kitchen where you can see the trompo slowly turning and fresh tortillas being flipped. In 2015, the stall had a facelift. Morales repainted the yellow walls to a vibrant orange and changed the logo to a flaming trompo. He also trimmed the menu, keeping only the most popular items
Early menus at Taqueria Vista Hermosa consisted of many dishes that were personal to Morales — pollo a la michoacana, various tamales, 11 different salsas — but didn't appeal to customers the way he had hoped they would. Now, you can choose from tacos, flautas, tortas, burritos and daily specials like birria plates, taco combos and enchiladas. The favorite is still the al pastor. Save for a few tweaks, Morales has kept the recipe relatively untouched.
"I've tried it many, many, many times," says fellow chef and business owner Cetina Jr. "It's heavier on the chiles and the marinade is really deep in the meat."
Morales learned the recipe from his uncle, who owned a taqueria in Michoacán. His adobo boasts five different chiles and four sources of acidity although he has only revealed two, grapefruit and pineapple.
He will, however, talk to anyone about how he prepares his al pastor, which he doesn't automatically serve with pineapple — blasphemy to the al pastor elders. "I find a different way to include that acidity," he says.
Yes, Taqueria Vista Hermosa has a trompo and yes, it has a pineapple on top. But if you want some of fruit on your taco, you'll have to ask. Instead, Morales adds pineapple juice to the adobo in which he marinates the meat.
Morales doesn't think the secret to his al pastor is its marinade. He credits his rotating spit and his tortilla press.
The spit roaster, a rare version he imported from Michoacán when Vista Hermosa opened, differs from what you'll find at most L.A. taquerias. While most trompos are blasted by flames, Morales's machine features several metal panels that radiate heat and slowly cook the meat, similar to the method typically used at Meditaranean restaurants. It's "just like the original recipe from the Lebanese," Morales says. The method demands patience but it's hard to argue with the results — succulent, acidic, spicy, lightly caramelized al pastor.
Morales also adds a bit of sugar to his adobo, a unique touch. "Al pastor has no recipe," he says, explaining that each trompo varies based on the region and preferences of each taquero. Your al pastor recipe is a personalized stamp reflecting your identity.
One of the most recent additions to Vista Hermosa's menu is what Morales calls "elotes gringos" — aka white people elotes. Inspired by his white son-in-law, who can't handle heat, Morales created a version of the popular corn snack that adds mango jam and a touch of habanero to the usual mayonnaise and cotija cheese. It's unconventional. The sweet, tart flavor of mango is the last thing you'd expect in elotes but it blends well with the creamy tang of the cheese and mayo. Are elotes gringos a dessert or has Morales created a new subcategory of antojito? It doesn't matter. The dish works.
Morales still shows up at Taqueria Vista Hermosa every day except Wednesday, his day off. At around 8 p.m., as the staff wraps up and preps for the next day — washing dishes, butchering meat, readying the trompo — you might catch him washing dishes or doing whatever other tasks need to be done. Despite the struggles of starting a business, despite the literal and metaphorical chill that came with moving thousands of miles away from his homeland, Morales is one of the lucky ones. You can sense the pride he has in his operation and you can see his gratefulness in every taco he serves.