How a former skateboard kid went from working at Yoshinoya to becoming one of the city’s most promising chefs.

By Andy Wang
January 20, 2021
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Let's say it's 8 a.m. on a weekday in Los Angeles. You have things to do, but you need a pick-me-up before anything productive can happen. Groggy and hungry, you drive to Milpa Grille in Boyle Heights, where Macheen chef Jonathan Perez is doing a five-days-a-week takeout pop-up with his tacos and breakfast burritos. You order an enormous birria burrito, which is $10 and big enough for two meals.

You take a bite. The pillowy scrambled eggs, crunchy chile-dusted tots, and tender braised beef jolt you more than any cup of coffee could. (Milpa Grille also has good coffee.) Just like that, you're fully awake.

Credit: Courtesy of Macheen

The spectacular birria that the 30-year-old Guatemelan-American chef serves is based on his mother's recipe.For the stock, which includes guajillo and California chiles, garlic, cloves, bay leaves, and Mexican beer, Perez roasts bones and deglazes with red wine. He serves the birria burrito, which also includes Swiss cheese and chipotle aioli, with a guajillo demi-glace because he is a talented new-school taquero who understands that food in L.A. is about bouncing between different worlds.

So along with Macheen's bestselling birria and pork belly breakfast burritos, Perez also makes longanisa breakfast burritos because he's enjoyed the Filipino sausage at fast-food chain Jollibee. He serves dashi-braised chicken tacos that he tops with pomegranate seeds. He puts salsa macha, mango relish, and citrus slaw on oyster tacos. He's got a Brussel sprouts breakfast burrito.

Credit: Courtesy of Macheen

Perez, who was born and raised in Compton, was a talented skateboarder. He was sponsored by local skate shops and thought about turning pro. But that dream ended when his car was T-boned in an accident that messed up his 17-year-old back. He had surgery, went to physical therapy, and decided that food was going to be his future.

Perez had been working at the Japanese rice bowl chain Yoshinoya prior to the car wreck. After the accident, he went to a café in Torrance and inquired about a job. The general manager scoffed when he saw Yoshinoya on Perez's résumé. The GM even brought another manager over, so they could both smirk at the audacity of this kid who thought that his fast-food experience meant something.

Perez told them he was willing to start at the bottom. He had spent almost eight months washing rice at Yoshinoya, where he also had to prep chicken and cut vegetables before he was allowed to grill anything. He told the managers of the Torrance café that he would wash dishes. They told him to leave and go back to making fast food.

"They were just laughing at me," Perez said. "From there, that anger built a passion for just wanting to prove them wrong."

Credit: Courtesy of Macheen

Perez enrolled in the Le Cordon Bleu culinary school. After getting his diploma, he cooked with classic French techniques at the L'Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills and L'Epicerie Market in Culver City. He had graduated from fast food and chain restaurants, but then he decided to do something that really manifested his future as L.A.'s breakfast-burrito sensation. He got a job at IHOP because he wanted to learn how to cook eggs perfectly.

"I was just doing eggs, building speed, and getting in love with eggs and the whole breakfast," he said.

Macheen was born in 2016 at taco expert Bill Esparza's Tacolandia festival. Perez is quick to credit Esparza and the many other taco luminaries who have helped his career. He's driven by the rage he felt in Torrance, but he's just as driven by the gratitude he feels now. He had never cooked tacos professionally before Tacolandia, and he's fortunate that Esparza believed in him.

Perez is also grateful to Zach Brooks at Smorgasburg, where Macheen was a smash-hit vendor until the food market closed during the pandemic. He feels lucky to be friends with global taco king Esdras Ochoa, who's cooked alongside him at events. He mentions writers Javier Cabral and Paolo Briseño González. Perez was helping Briseño González with a photo shoot for a Food & Wine piece about tamales, and she introduced him to somebody who could potentially change his life: Ana Odermatt, the general manager of Enrique Olvera's Damian and Ditroit, asked Perez if he was looking for work and encouraged him to send his resume. She had eaten his tacos before and recognized his talent.

Credit: Courtesy of Macheen

Perez knew this would have been the ultimate dream job if he were younger. But he had already built something great at Macheen, which he wants to turn into his own brick-and-mortar restaurant.

Macheen had cultivated a big following. Perez had done pop-ups at modern Mexican restaurant Maestro in Pasadena. He had learned a lot about tortillas after befriending chef Christine Rivera of Galaxy Taco in La Jolla. (Before the pandemic, Perez regularly drove two hours to pick up tortillas that were infused with mole, chiles, vegetables, herbs, and even squid ink.) He was confident his food was delicious and had a distinct point of view. This past May, Macheen won Taco Madness, a prestigious bracket-style people's-choice competition that was previously won by heavyweights like Mexicali Taco & Co., Guerrilla Tacos, and Sonoratown.

Perez was flattered by the prospect of working for Olvera, but he knew he wanted to keep betting on himself at Macheen.

In 2020, a year that was "a survival kind of thing," he proved that Macheen could sustain him while also providing a job for his sister, who works front-of-the-house but can also make tacos when necessary. (His brother, who has a job at Boeing, previously cooked for Macheen.)

"To be honest, man, what's better than working for yourself?" Perez said. "You believe in yourself and achieve your dreams. Keep pushing forward and show consistency. Head up high, man. You're grateful for the dollar that you make. I'm just planning on working for myself."