As dining reopens and local restaurants begin the road to recovery the Daily Press is highlighting one excellent eatery a week sharing its history, pandemic struggles, and signature dishes.
This week the spotlight is on Hermanito — a Mexican restaurant and bar located just east of Santa Monica in Sawtelle that surprises diners by incorporating bold and fragrant Japanese flavors.
The story behind Hermanito
Co-owner Amal Flores opened the doors of Hermanito in March 2020, excited to welcome neighbors to a bright and fun Mexican bar with a small yet powerful menu of tacos and platos infused with Japanese spices and ingredients.
Six days later he was closing the doors again as Los Angeles went into full lockdown. Yet, a year later he and his team are miraculously still here.
Their success is due to many factors — a tight knit team that operates like a family, constant creative adaptations, and a killer kitchen run by Executive Chef Abraham Lemus.
Flores long had a vision of a Mexican restaurant that could subtly embrace the Japanese culture and cuisine of the Sawtelle neighborhood, but finding a chef to execute this was a challenge.
Lemus proved to be the perfect match. With Mexican heritage, he is well versed in Latin cuisine and had many family recipes and inspirations to bring to the menu. He is also trained in Japanese cooking having worked under Chef Brandon Kita at Hinoki and the Bird — a restaurant blending new American cuisine with Japanese ingredients and cooking techniques.
“We would make blue corn tortillas at Hinoki and pair it with the Japanese fish. That kind of opened my horizons and then I took off with it,” said Lemus. I was like ‘what if we made al pastor tacos, but we put in lemongrass and ginger?’ and it all started translating and making sense.”
Lemus’s goal is to blend Asian and Latin ingredients together in a conscientious manner that enriches the traditional dishes’ flavors and pays respect to both of the cultures. You won’t find any sushi burritos at Hermanito, warns Lemus, only top quality carefully cultivated dishes.
On surviving Covid
The initial shutdown hit Hermanito hard. After months of hard work preparing a beautiful, bar focused space the team was suddenly limited to to-go only without ever getting a chance to build a following.
Faced with an ever changing sea of challenges and restriction changes, the young restaurant team got scrappy and continuously pivoted to stay afloat.
“I joke that we’ve built this restaurant five times this year,” said Flores. “I’m actually not joking, that’s kind of exactly what happened; we’ve made a restaurant five times over.”
When Hermanito was first able to reopen the team built an outdoor kitchen on their front bar patio and began selling tacos directly to passersby. The street kitchen only required two people to run and coupled with to-go cocktails, it was an excellent way to get Hermanito’s name out.
As restrictions eased they built a spacious outdoor dining set up in their patio and parking lot spaces. By the time the winter lockdown hit, the team had enough neighborhood recognition to make a go of to-go service. Although it has been an uphill battle, Flores said the adversity has drawn the team closer together to the point where staff truly feel like hermanos and hermanas.
“The restaurant as a whole really has this strong family vibe,” said Flores. “I think, and it might sound cheesy, but if people who work in a restaurant are happy to be there that flows into the dining room and the guests experience it in a really profound way.”
What to order right now
The Chef’s top pick is the braised chicken tinga bao buns, which come with cotija cheese, cabbage slaw, pickled onion and cilantro. He also says the pork al pastor taco and birria braised beef tacos cannot be beat.
The cocktail program is mezcal and tequila forward, but like the restaurant, doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are playful frozen slushy drinks like a yuzu pina colada alongside traditional and spicy margaritas. Flores recommends the ‘aeropuerto cocktail made with Ilegal mezcal, Cointreau, Aperol, and lime.
“We take the food very very seriously, but we don’t take ourselves very seriously. We’re not pretentious or anything; everyone can feel welcome and comfortable at our restaurant,” said Lemus.
Hermanito is open Tuesday through Sunday at 2024 Sawtelle Blvd. The restaurant features a daytime coffee and taco program as well as a dinner and weekend brunch service.