Mario Christerna's story is an important one that tells the tale of people who found their way out of the barrios and into food. He's a hell of a cook, too.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in December 2015
"Finding the right spices for my ras el hanout is kind of like buying drugs. You always have to look a little harder to find the guy who has the good stuff."
Chef Mario Christerna is standing outside of his restaurant The Briks, located a block away from the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The Clippers are playing against the Pacers and a small congregation of looky-loos walking to the arena has formed around the preparation of his discada, a traditional dish native to Northern Mexican states like Monterrey and Durango.
It consists of bits of chorizo, bacon, carne asada, wieners, ham, chipotle, beer, tequila, and what Christerna refers to as his "secrets," some of which may or may not include some of those spices in his confidential ras el hanout spice mix. It's all cooked inside a disk-shaped vessel. "I sleep with this spice mix by my side and no other person in the restaurant knows what is inside it because I stash it in my office," he says in a very serious tone. "Don't trust anybody, right?"
The meaty fumes wafting from the discada have the power to stop people walking to the venue right in their tracks, and surprisingly, it is the first time a discada has ever made a public appearance in a Los Angeles restaurant.
Some people come in and some say they will come back after the game. Nonetheless, Christerna hugs, high-fives, and shakes the hand of everybody as they leave. "At some point, restaurants forgot the hospitality side of this industry, and it became all about moving tables as fast as possible. I just want everyone to feel as warm as they did when I ate at my grandma's house."
It's considered the ninth best restaurant in LA according to Yelp, a few slots behind Providence, Republique, Animal, and Wolvesmouth; a notable accolade whether you like the website or not. This is probably because just like how a discada remains to be one of the most underrated dishes in all of Mexico, Christerna is one of the most underappreciated chefs in the city. He credits a lot of his talent and passion to his mentor from culinary school, Farid Zadi, and working under Martin Berasategui at the two Michelin-starred Restaurante Lasarte in Spain.
The Briks is neither a Mexican restaurant or a North African one, but a blending of the two. The food reflects Christerna's punk rock attitude towards cooking, regardless of what people think. North African and Mexican may come to mind, since his menu includes dishes like gooey, cheesy discada fries and crispy Tunisian briks filled with Mexican chorizo and duck eggs, but it's so much more than that. His cooking is an accurate representation of real Los Angeles cuisine than rice bowls and cold-pressed juice mixes with cute names.
He grew up in East LA's underground punk scene and attributes his passion for food and punk rock to "saving his life."
The equally cutting-edge cocktail menu, crafted by East Los Angeles-native Aaron Melendrez made with things like mamey custard fruit, pear brandy, and saffron—only furthers this claim. The two represent a growing demographic of young bartenders and cooks who are following their roots and making their mark in LA's restaurant scene while totally caring less if it doesn't categorize under any cuisine label.
Christerna proudly describes himself as a "global, greaser cholo." His mom is from Durango, Mexico; his father from India and Barcelona. He grew up in East LA's underground punk scene and attributes his passion for food and punk rock to "saving his life" from the world of drugs and crime that a lot of other inner-city kids face in that part of town. Looking back at living in the heavily gang-infested Wyvernwood housing projects in the Boyle Heights neighborhood during the 90s, he tells me how his friends and family would laugh when he told them that he would own a downtown restaurant one day.
His personal story is an important one that tells the tale of a large demographic of people who found their ways out of the barrios and into food. Today, he still considers his life to be a dream. "Are you kidding me? I'm getting paid to cook? Pinch me now, ese."
This disbelief is probably why he recites the address of his restaurant (1111 Hope Street) with a Twilight Zone-like symbolic undertone. "I'm just a kid from the barrio who got lucky and is living his dream," he says.
Symbolicism is a big theme in his DIY restaurant, where every table is adorned with collages made from old punk rock magazines, plucked right out of an angsty teenager's scrapbook. He's dedicated the bar to Marilyn Monroe, where customers will find pinup posters and her handwritten poems plastered everywhere. "She is a poet, like me with food. I want to honor her."
He's especially proud of the restroom walkway adorned with his own homemade wallpaper comprised of Urban Dictionary print outs. "Slang is the language that I grew up speaking, and I want to share it with that with the rest of the world, too." But out of all of the imagery adorning his establishment, his favorite one is undoubtedly the black and white portrait of his grandparents.
"She used to be a popular singer in Durango and managed to perform alongside Tin Tan and Vicente Fernandez. She still sacrificed everything to come to the US to give us a better life, only to end up living in the projects and taking care of me. Now, when she sees her portrait at my restaurant and feels proud, that means more to me than any sum of money in the world."