How a Family With Nothing to Lose Built LA's Favorite Local Taco Chain

The father-son team that founded Guisados is far from finished.

storefront
Photo courtesy of Guisados

2010 was a transitional time for Armando De La Torre, Sr. and Armando De La Torre, Jr. The elder Armando had just gone through a stressful divorce that took a toll on the entire family. He was also a real estate broker and the market was tanking. The younger Armando had recently graduated from Loyola Marymount University after majoring in Business Law and Marketing and moved to Chicago, but couldn’t find work during the recession. Both of them needed a stroke of good fortune.

“[My father] was putting together a real estate deal for this restaurant,” Armando De La Torre, Jr. recalls, “In his mind, he thought ‘This is going to help me get through the rest of the year.’ It was a big deal. I don’t remember the restaurant. I don’t remember the location, but I remember it fell through…and he was just beaten.” 

Thankfully, De La Torre, Sr. still had one supporter: his high school girlfriend, who he reconnected with post-divorce and eventually married. Armando De La Torre, Jr. remembers her pushing his dad and giving him much-needed encouragement, saying, “You can cook. Do what you love.” 

Armando De La Torre, Sr.’s father Mario had built a sizable real estate portfolio after the Korean War, and offered his son the use of a Boyle Heights storefront and former tamale house for six months, rent-free. Jumping at the offer, Armando De La Torre, Sr. quickly transformed the space into what became Guisados, his first restaurant.

tortillas
Photo courtesy of Guisados

“Honestly, I had nothing to lose by opening up,” he says. “I never in a million years thought it would turn into what it has.”

De La Torre, Sr. reached out to Ricardo Diaz, the chef and co-founder of Cook’s Tortas in Monterey Park. The two partnered on Guisados, which opened in December 2010, giving the De La Torre family hope that better times were on the way. 

Together, the two business partners developed a menu of guisados, home-style Mexican stews that are particularly popular in Mexico City, served on thick, house-made corn tortillas made with masa from De La Torre Sr.’s younger brother Eddie, who grinds and nixtamalizes corn next door at Carnitas Uruapan. Eddie still supplies all of Guisados masa, and toppings still include chuleta en chile verde (diced pork chop in chile verde), bistek en salsa roja (flank steak simmered with red bell peppers and tomatoes), and mole Poblano (shredded chicken breast in Puebla-style mole). 

Guisados got their big break when the late, influential restaurant critic Jonathan Gold published an LA Weekly review in September 2011. “We were slammed for two weeks straight,” De La Torre, Sr. says. “Nobody took a break. Nobody sat down. It was crazy.”

Photo courtesy of Guisados

De La Torre, Sr. was able to hone his palate by watching Diaz and through practice, saying, “He would just put things together and they tasted amazing.” He adds, “I’ll forever be indebted to him for what he’s done for me.”

Diaz had other projects in the works, so the two amicably split. “After he opened up Dorados in Monterey Park, he was looking to grow into the city of Whittier where he lived,” De La Torre, Sr. says. Diaz has since opened businesses like Bizarra Capital, Colonia Publica, and Whittier Brewing Co. 

When Diaz refocused on Whittier, Armando De La Torre, Jr. stepped up. His father recalls that moment, saying, “When Armando said he wanted to be involved, I said, ‘Well, one restaurant will take care of one family. I don’t know if it will take care of two families, so if you’re serious, we have no choice but to grow.’” De La Torre, Sr. began looking for new locations to expand to and found the chain’s Echo Park and Downtown  locations at the same time, deciding, “Let’s just go for it. Let’s work our asses off and just go.” Armando De La Torre, Jr. initially focused on aesthetics and branding, and now does everything but cook, just like Dad. 

Father and son now run seven Guisados locations across Los Angeles, along with two side projects.

Photo courtesy of Guisados

George’s Burger Stand is a Boyle Heights institution that dates to the 1960s, and Mario De La Torre previously owned the building. 

“Ever since I can remember, I would go visit my dad at the office where my grandfather was with all of dad’s brothers,” Armando De La Torre, Jr. says. “Every once in a while, my grandfather would say, ‘Come take a walk with me.’ He’d go collect rents and we would stop at George’s to grab coffee and food.” 

When he heard that the business might be closing, De La Torre, Jr. leapt at the opportunity, saying, “I really wanted something new under my belt where I could challenge myself.” 

Since Armando De La Torre, Jr.’s primary responsibilities resided with Guisados, he needed operational, day-to-day support. Pastrami-focused friend Robert McCord had been working at the same restaurant for a decade and was ready for a change. McCord even had a Boyle Heights connection: his father attended Theodore Roosevelt High School. They checked out George’s, where they were met with seas of frozen food and a menu that had ballooned out of control—but they also saw potential.

“We decided, we either do this, or let it close and somebody else takes over operation,” De La Torre, Jr. reflects. The verdict was: “Let’s see what we can do.”

Ángel Agustín León Gorbea

In 2018, they closed George’s Burger Stand and within four days, had rebranded the restaurant, installed a more streamlined menu, and sourced new ingredients.

“George’s has been a really fun blessing and very fulfilling because a lot of people in that neighborhood have so many memories,” Armando De La Torre, Jr. says. “I can’t tell you how many people in the neighborhood come up to us and say, “I grew up down the street and my grandma used to take me here.’”

In March 2021, father and son opened Playita, a Mexican seafood stand in Silver Lake. While driving along Sunset Blvd, De La Torre, Sr. spotted a “For Lease” sign at the old El Siete Mares building, a classic neighborhood mariscos spot. The owners were going to close the open-air restaurant, so the De La Torres made them an offer and took over the space. 

“We knew that we wanted to keep the ceviche spot,” Armando De La Torre, Jr. says. “I don’t think that El Siete Mares closed because they were doing bad. It was more that they had been here so long and were looking for something else. We knew the need for this type of food was still there.” Playita’s menu is in the spirit of their predecessor, with ceviche, spicy campechana, fish tacos, and crispy tacos dorados.

@playitamariscos

It’s still too early to speculate about expansion potential for Playita, but Armando De La Torre, Jr. would like to open another George’s Burger Stand, depending on their ability to find another historic building with a similarly nostalgic marquee.

“I really want to open more Guisados and branch into new cities,” Armando De La Torre, Jr. says. Logistically, they’re currently limited since a single Boyle Heights commissary kitchen supplies all existing LA locations.

“To us, the most important part of our business is consistency,” De La Torre, Jr. emphasizes. “That’s far more important to us than how many locations we have.”

It’s this practical attitude that has helped Guisados withstand the COVID-19 pandemic without incurring any debt. 

Armando De La Torre, Sr. became emotional when asked about initial expectations for Guisados, which have far exceeded his wildest dreams. I never knew I’d be here today where I am,” he says. “I am in such a good place in my life. I just feel that I’ve blessed and I’m able to really bless others, which is the most important thing for me.”

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Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS.com in 2005 and continues to showcase the best food and drink, regardless of price or cuisine, while sharing stories of people behind the flavor.