BELL GARDENS — The Irra family celebrated the grand opening of Tamales Elena y Antojitos at 8101 Garfield Ave. July 15, one of the few restaurants in the area serving Afro-Mexican cuisine.
The restaurant’s cuisine highlights the Irra family’s Afro-Mexican roots in Guerrero, Mexico and is an extension of their Tamales Elena food truck in the South Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts.
Many restaurants have temporarily or even permanently shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, the Irra family took advantage of a storefront that opened up during this time to bring visibility to their Afro-Mexican roots.
The night before the grand opening, the family shared pictures and biographies of their family members via their Instagram stories. They spotlighted their Black and indigenous parents and grandparents by recognizing and thanking them. The day of the opening, family members put the final touches on the restaurant and had family friends stop by and support them.
“Most of us, if not all of us, lost our jobs because of the pandemic,” said Judept Irra, head chef of her family’s restaurant. “We all helped each other with our savings that we had, and we had this opportunity. The family that used to own this they closed because of the pandemic. I look at it like a blessing.”
The Irra family is made up of matriarch Elena, her husband and seven children, including the chef Judept, who have served the community of Watts for more than 20 years.
Elena Lorenzo first started there as a street vendor by selling tamales out of a cooler. The family later bought a food truck in 2007, which brought them more customers and renown throughout Los Angeles.
The food truck will remain open, while the Irra family look into buying property to make it a permanent location as well.
“People are always going to look for food, even if you are in your house,” Judept Irra said. “We learned that with the catering truck that we have, instead of the business going down it went up. So, it was like ‘wow we can do this.’”
The restaurant specializes in Afro-Mexican family recipes from La Costa Chica, Guerrero, Mexico, featuring fresh ingredients only found in that area. Guerrero is a southern state on the coast of Mexico known for its variety of pozoles, moles, and banana leaf-wrapped tamales. The menu will also include vegetarian and vegan options.
The business is also important to the Irra family because it allows them to promote Afro-Mexican culture, which is often ignored and marginalized by other non-Black Latinos. There are more than one million Afro-Mexicans in Mexico, living mostly on the coasts of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Veracruz,” Irra said.
“Our food, our cuisine is really rich, authentic, fresh. We want to bring that to the rest of Mexico and now the United States.”
Only recently have Afro-Mexicans been celebrated for their contributions to Mexico’s cuisine and culture. In 2016, the Mexican government officially recognized Mexicans who identified as Black for the first time through a national survey. The survey then led to the 2020 Census including “Black” as a racial category, also for the first time.
“It is very important because we don’t get a lot of recognition,” said Irra.
Tamales Elena y Antojitos is open daily from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. for take-out, delivery and drive-through.
By Ashley Orona