2011.02 Tacos Tamix

2011.02 Tacos Tamix

February 5, 2011

Parked at the front of the car wash at 2400 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90006

Pico-Union

Bandini at The Great Taco Hunt shared with us the fact that the great Tacos Leo had some competition for best al pastor here in the middle part of the city. Carmen and I finally went to Tacos Tamix last night, eager to find out for ourselves. It was Friday night just after 9:00 PM, prime time for eating tacos fresh from the trompo. We had both recalibrated our al pastor meters with a trip to Leo two weeks earlier.

Tamix has a great spot, in a car wash (that was actually seeing some use despite the chilly evening) but right next to the sidewalk. There was a cozy, collegial atmosphere among the taco eaters gathered there, as if Pico Boulevard were somebody’s backyard.

I ordered four tacos al pastor, good-sized at $1.00 each. The trompo-master showed us his moves, deftly manipulating the spit and artfully cutting slices of pineapple to be caught mid-air by the taco-mitt. I applied the very spicy red salsa from the condiment table. The meat was sliced thin, more like shavings than chunks of filet. The pineapple chunks were substantial.

These tacos were super delicious, as good as Tacos Leo on a normal day, and better than Leo on a bad day (we have found Tacos Leo to be always good, but not consistently at its best). The pork was tender and flavorful, and the sweet toasted pineapple slices completely subdue one’s internal thought conversation with a sense of happy worshipful respect. Tacos Tamix is most worthy.

Posted: February 5th, 2011
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2011.01 Lomo Arigato

2011.01 Lomo Arigato

January 31, 2011

10601 W Washington Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232

Culver City

The blog has been so silent. I took the month of January off, and though I ate tacos plenty and burritos manifold, revisiting some dear old taco shop acquaintances, I visited no new taco shops. The cincuenta taquerías project has concluded. I visited 60 different Los Angeles-area taco shops in the year 2010. It was a worthwhile and rewarding project and I conclude by recommending such projects. The taco project made my 2010 memorable. It is good to define a project, no matter how trivial or irrelevant, and then set out to do it, and then do it. Furthermore, it is good to visit taco shops and eat tacos whether you are self-reflective about it or not.

I will keep the blog active and post to it occasionally when I have something to say about tacos or taco shops, but the updates may be more like monthly than weekly. I recommend The Great Taco Hunt for your regular taco news fix.

Furthermore, I intend to collate my photos and writings from the past year and design a book, which I will make to be published. I expect that only one copy will be sold, and to myself. I will take good care of it, and then donate it late in life to an important research library. My hope is that it finds its way into the hands of a taco archaeologist 100 years from now, when society has plunged deep into the Mad Max-Max Headroom days but there will still be some weird Brazil scene where a nerdy guy with thick glasses is conducting obscure research in a grey jumpsuit in a grey room with a typewriter hooked up to a computer who needs to know about the world of tacos in the year 2010. This book is dedicated to you, future nerd version of myself. I will announce the book’s publication to my blog’s half-dozen readers when it is ready.

Last week I learned that the underused parking lot at the former bank building at the corner of Washington and Overland in Culver City has been rechristened “Westside Food Truck Central,” and several days a week plays host to a revolving set of gourmet food trucks. Five minutes from my office! Ambivalent feelings of the twitter-driven gourmet food truck “scene” must be set aside when it actually is convenient and appealing to eat from gourmet food trucks. I cheerfully try to convince myself that life must be awesome, that has such gourmet food trucks in it! Amidst fine weather I visited today and found three food trucks circled around a collection of folding tables and chairs. I was compelled and excited to visit the Lomo Arigato truck and order a Lomo Saltado.

Lomo saltado, a stir fry of beef loin, onion, tomato, and french fries in a soy sauce-based sauce, served with rice, is a Chinese-influenced staple of Peruvian cuisine, and truly one of the finest creations known to the international community of humankind. The Lomo Arigato version is not the best lomo saltado in town, but is quite good, and large and filling; it’s cheaper than going to a Peruvian restaurant at $8; and it comes from a truck. It was most pleasing, actually. Its thinly-sliced meat and long-cooked onions reflect Lomo Arigato’s Japanese influence – the dish recalls a version of Gyu Don (which is to say, what you get when you order a Yoshinoya Beef Bowl) with tomatoes and french fries thrown into the mix.

Speaking of Lomo, I am pleased to announce that I have more or less launched my new blog project. It is entitled The Lower Modernisms and is hosted at http://lomo.architectureburger.com/ . Its subject is architecture and design, specifically those forms of design that are Modernist in style and intent, but fall just short of meeting the minimum standards of actual Modernism. (You must be this Modernist to ride the Modernism ride). Whereas I knew nothing and had no opinions about tacos prior to 2010, I have been stockpiling opinions on crappy Los Angeles Modernizing architecture for years, so I intend to post more frequently than I did post here to my fondly thought-of, but now historical, taco blog project. Thank you, dear half-dozen readers, for your kind support.

Posted: January 31st, 2011
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60 Arturo’s Puffy Taco

60 Arturo’s Puffy Taco

December 18, 2010

15693 Leffingwell Rd, Whittier, CA 90604

Whittier

Sad to say, the Cincuenta Taquerías project is running short on time. This rainy day was my last taco-eating Saturday of the year, which helped justify the lengthy road trip out to Whittier upon which Carmen and I embarked to track down another of the great idiosyncratic tacos of the Los Angeles area, the San Antonio-style “puffy taco” served at Arturo’s. They were pretty great. I can’t write anything more insightful than Jonathan Gold did in his typically persuasive review.

Arturo’s timeless American taco stand is to architecture what junk food is to real food – bringing short-term pleasure and lacking nutritional value. The tiled mansard is interrupted, asymmetrically of course, by a glowing lightbox sign. Arturo’s supergraphics reinforce the theme of general Puffiness that characterizes the food. One orders while standing outside – the defining attribute of a taco stand – but a cozy dining room with vintage built-in tables and booths is there for you too.

I ordered three puffy tacos, one each of the picadillo (ground beef), carne asada, and carne guisada (beef stew). The tacos were $2.00 to $2.50 each.

I started with the picadillo, the default choice and my favorite of the three. The picadillo is a sludge-format of very finely ground beef and seasoning, similar in concept to Taco Bell’s ground beef, but tastier. If you had a large-diameter straw, you could probably drink it like a thick and wonderful milkshake. This type of filling is the ideal complement to the yellow cheddar, lettuce, and red tomato-based salsa that rounds out the puffy taco. The flavorful cheese reminded us both of the cheese that is an essential add-on to the tacos at Tito’s.

I am pleased to report that the puffy taco shell was fantastic. If you accept the tenet that deep-fried dough is delicious, then you must therefore love the puffy taco shell. “Masa” cornmeal flour dough in a thick slab is deep fried; the result is light and airy, oily, crispy and chewy in various parts. Only one of my three tacos suffered a catastrophic failure, but I can’t hold that against the puffy taco because it seems inevitable that a beef stew taco should suffer a failure. The puffy taco shell is delicious with our without contents, which cannot be said for many tortillas or crunchy taco shells.

The beef stew guisada was tasty. It consisted of big cuboid chunks of cheap stew meat slow-cooked to bring out the maximum beefiness. It is not really the right thing to put in a taco, though – my puffy failed and pooped out multiple chunks which I later ate with the help of a fork.

The carne asada is good too. Sparely seasoned, it’s tough in a rewarding way, smoky and charry to the taste, and surprisingly gamy. It works quite well as a puffy taco.

Carmen ate a chile relleno, thickly blanketed with a light and airy eggy batter. We both considered it delicious. We wish that Arturo’s weren’t so far away. It’s 2010 – why hasn’t Google or Apple come out with a desktop 3-D printer/teleporter that can output tacos? The pace of technological development in these times leaves me frustratingly hungry. My computer brings me information about tacos – for example, I first read about puffy tacos at the taco-datascape’s ground floor, Wikipedia’s “Taco” entry. That only makes me hungry! To actually eat puffy tacos, like a sucker you need to put on pants and go do an infinitely long drive.

On the way back, we spotted a bad-ass matte red Hummer with the custom vanity license plate “TAQUERO”. Good to know, in case you need some tacos made somewhere beyond a 22”-high obstacle, a 60% grade, or up to 30” of water.

Posted: December 18th, 2010
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59 Cemitas Poblanas Juquilita

59 Cemitas Poblanas Juquilita

December 12, 2010

532 S Lorena St, Los Angeles, CA 90063

Boyle Heights

My coworker Diana offered a few suggestions for Eastside Mexican food. Diana has bona fide roots in the Mexican state of Puebla, so I took her recommendation of Pueblan specialist restaurant Cemitas Poblanas Juquilita seriously. Juquilita had a taco truck parked across the street, a classic signifier of Street Cred in this business.

After reading a few reviews of Eastside Pueblan restaurants on Yelp! I learned that many offer an item called “tacos árabes,” which according to online speculation is a seasoned al pastor-style pork cut from a spit and served on a thick flour tortilla, and so called because this shawarma-inspired item was originated by Lebanese immigrants to Mexico. Sounds pretty good, Puebla, with your old-timey “fusion” cuisine.

Carmen and I went to Juquilita today for lunch – only 15 minutes away by the freeway – and became overwhelmed by meat. We did not know how to order, and consequently ordered way the hell too much food. We saw no written menu, but only a series of photos with images of their items and names, and no prices listed. I ordered a taco with barbacoa (goat) and an arab taco, and Carmen ordered a taco ranchero with steak and an arab taco, and with two Mexican sodas the total was $28. That was the first sign that we had ordered too much food. We’ll be in leftovers for days.

On this heaty 85-degree December day we found a table in the pleasant indoor-outdoor hybrid space out back, bounded by walls on three sides and a roof, and open to a compact and pigeon-filled parking lot.

The enormous tacos arrived, bringing on an immediate sense of “scalefuck,” a term taught me by a professor in architecture school for the disorientation experienced when something appears grossly out of normal proportion. Look at the photo and see how the Jarritos bottle looks like a half-size miniature and the plastic fork looks like a pretend toy fork. Here I can be seen on the internet pretending to eat this taco like a taco, but in truth this is less a taco than an ENORMOUS meat plate that happens to have a giant handmade tortilla lining the plate. This “taco” makes the Grand Central Market taco look like a Yorkshire terrier. I was picking it up because I had eaten as much as humanly possible and was about to insert it into that undersized take-out container.

Next time I go to a Pueblan restaurant, I will order with more care.

The giant barbacoa taco you see in the picture, the one that looks like Zoidberg, featured a black bean slurry coat first, then several goats-worth of magical goat chunks, and topped with smoky red salsa (per my specification), avocado slices, and a big sliced paddle of chewy cactus. The goat was slow-cooked carnitas-style and had the same textural variation and delights as good carnitas, with blackened crispy bits contrasting with melt-in-your-mouth tender and juicy bits. The flavor is intense and gamy. I hardly made a dent in this bad boy and I have still been tasting goat all afternoon.

In the background you see the plate with the two tacos árabes, which only look small because they appear next to the Gargantua and Pantagruel of tacos. They are really the size of small burritos, like the kind you get at Taco Bell or Del Taco. I had asked for pork and Carmen asked for beef, but we believe that they both came with the beef. Fine with me, because it was deliciousness from the first bite. The meat was cut into long thin strips and marinated in a profound and complex admixture of spices, familiar-seeming but not like anything I have encountered in a taco. I applied a measure of the chipotle-smoky red salsa and ate it like a burrito, and it was pure delicious within a pleasant flour tortilla.

I look forward to visiting more Pueblan restaurants and trying more varieties of tacos árabes. The taco universe is ever-expanding, and the more of it I see, the farther away the taco horizon gets.

Posted: December 12th, 2010
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58 Worldwide Tacos

58 Worldwide Tacos

December 4, 2010

2419 W Martin Luther King Jr Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90008

Leimert Park

Worldwide Tacos may be the most idiosyncratic of the taco shops I have visited thus far. This idiosyncrasy can be quantified with two numbers: 154, which is the number of varieties of tacos listed on their menu; and 105, which is the number of minutes we waited today to be served our taco order.

Damien and I met at Worldwide this afternoon and put in an order for six tacos at about 1:00 PM. Our order hints at the diversity of fusiony options available on the menu – we ordered one each of the Jerk Chicken; Chili-Cheese Beef; Curry Beef; Grill Carne Asada; Raspberry Chipotle Chicken; and Thai Chicken tacos. Taco prices ranged between $2.95 and $3.85 each. We paid at the little window facing King Boulevard, and left a phone number on which to be called when the food was ready. We were warned by the serveuse that it would take 45 minutes. I’m glad she didn’t say it would take an hour and 45 minutes, though, because I might have lost my nerve.

Time on our hands to be killed, we walked down King as far as Crenshaw before turning around. About 45 minutes had passed. We talked about all the things that there are to talk about. We then encamped in the Worldwide parking lot. A corrugated metal canopy extends from the west side of the building, sheltering a few surprisingly comfortable chairs, making an ideal vantage point to spend an hour watching the traffic on King Boulevard, admiring the International Orange façade and ad hoc detailing of the Worldwide Tacos stand, and sneaking peeks through the window hoping for a glimpse of our tacos.

At 2:00, an hour had passed and our tacos were late. I gradually became convinced that, despite the hype about how awesome and totally-worth-the-wait Worldwide’s tacos are, they couldn’t possibly be good, because surely tacos that take an hour must be the soggified result of inattentive cooks. By 2:30 we were both waxing eloquent about how damn hungry we were, acknowledging also that any food would be greatly enjoyed at this point; not to mention increasing awareness of a nagging sense of fullness emanating from the the urinary bladder region of the torso. Should we walk down to 7-11 for a Big Bite to hold us over? Our number came up at 2:45. About four customers were served their tacos during the hour we waited.

We sped off to my nearby home for the eating, and somewhat to my surprise at this point, I found all the tacos quite tasty. They were not soggified and seemed fresh even after a car ride home to the Village Green. You might be thinking, of course they’re good, otherwise why would they have customers despite the slowness? Clearly the Worldwide business model is best suited to a clientele based in the neighborhood that can keep otherwise busy while waiting for their number to be rung.

Worldwide’s delicious tacos are exclusive. The fact that they are so hard to get only makes them more desirable – rarer and more delicious, like any hard-to-find delicacy. Being forced to wait strips away your sense of self-importance. Think you’ve got stuff to do today? Fuck you, your whole afternoon is now at the mercy of some tacos. These tacos field-strip you down and reduce you to your bare trembling essence. Enlightenment in the form of tacos is only delivered when you have been humbled, redeemed. You must release the ego and accept the fate. You end up with a kind of taco Stockholm Syndrome.

Featured in the photograph are the carne asada taco (in the “crunchy” tortillaway) and the raspberry chipotle chicken taco (in the “soft” tortillaway). I ate the carne asada first. The details are getting fuzzy in my recollection, but I found it delicious this afternoon. The lettuce was fancy, the tortilla shell with just the right oily crunchiness; the hot sauce pretty spicy, the cheese strings fine and melty. The steak was good, satisfyingly a bit chewy like a real steak cut.

The raspberry chipotle chicken taco is fascinating. The soft tortilla worked well, seeming similar to the crunchy tortilla but halfway fried rather than fully fried. The thick fruity compote in the taco called to mind raspberry jam. Chicken chunks were large and satisfying.

Thai chicken featured peanut sauce and curry, with big chicken chunks. The curry beef resembled the carne asada, with the addition of a moderately spicy curry sauce. I enjoyed them all. Damien thought that the jerk chicken was the best. My favorite permutation was probably the beef and the crunchy shell. Tacos of interest for my next visit include the Meatball, Orange Beef, B.B.Q. Beef, and Beef Pastrami. I would be glad to go back to Worldwide Tacos, and it’s not just about the tacos, but about the masochistic pleasures of being brought to my knees waiting for deferred gratification.

Posted: December 4th, 2010
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57 Mrs. García’s Tacos y Burritos

57 Mrs. García’s Tacos y Burritos

November 22, 2010

9905 Washington Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232

Culver City

This place is five-minutes’ walk from my office, and yet I’ve been putting off giving it a try for two years. It’s next door to an El Pollo Loco, where I have been at least a dozen times, and never set foot in Mrs. García’s. I expected it to suck. On the outside, it looks like a phoney chain restaurant that would only be patronized by a captive market of office workers. I would suppose that Sony Pictures employees make up the majority of their customers. But I finally went there for lunch today, and while it was better than I feared, it was also somewhat pricy as I had feared, and nearly as “meh”.

I ordered the three-taco combo plate, consisting of three tacos, rice and beans, a basket of chips, and a small soda, for $8.25, choosing carne asada, chicken, and pork (carnitas). The soft tacos are available a la carte for $2.25 each. They are above average in size, so it’s not a terrible price, but not competitive with real taquerías. Mrs. García’s isn’t really in The Game, so to speak, but it’s good enough to stay in business despite the robust competition of a Pollo Loco next door.

The tacos are served unadorned, but various salsas and condiments are available for the dressing of tacos. I tried the salsa roja and the salsa tomatillo. The former was bland, the latter decent, a bit smoky with some depth, though not very hot.

I ate the carnitas first. This was the standout of the bunch, with good flavor and decent texture with a bit of toothiness, dryish rather than moist. I would order it again. I hypothesize that the thing to get at Mrs. García’s is burritos with either chicken or the carnitas, and I don’t entirely mean that as a disparagement, because I am not a burrito-hater. Burritos are Easy.

With credit to the sound advice Garrett has passed on to me: it’s okay to like tacos, but make burritos your favorite food. You’ll have a much easier time of it in this life we are living.

The tortillas were okay, but a bit dry. These tacos were all on the dry side, which is better than the watery-taco side of the street where you’re liable to find catastrophic taco failure or taco dumping syndrome. They could really use a little more oily griddling. Maybe they want more lard.

The chicken was okay. It had a chickeny marinated flavor. It should be in a burrito with an easy and accommodating flour tortilla rather than a taco with an attention-seeky corn tortilla.

The steak was also okay. I struggled while eating it to form an opinion about its taste. It was mildly treated with carne asada seasoning, pretty spare. The texture and moisture levels were appropriate. It seemed wholesome. If I ate nothing but carne asada from Mrs. García’s every meal, I would probably live to 99.

I can foresee visiting again. The dining room is acceptably pleasant. The menu has some choices. I will have something other than tacos.

Posted: November 22nd, 2010
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56 El Parian

56 Restaurant Familiar El Parian

November 21, 2010

1528 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90015

Pico-Union

A s I have mentioned before and consistent with my general belief in the virtues of rectitude and propriety, I place high priority on respecting the specialty of a restaurant. If the name of the restaurant includes a word like “taco” or “pizza”, then I know what I ought to order. The contrapositive of this fact is that I have avoided sullying my cincuenta taquerías project with reports of places that are not in fact taco shops. But I have made an exception for El Parian, the sign over the door of which says “Birria Estilo Jalisco, Restaurant Familiar,” because of its significance in the tacoscape – to wit, El Parian’s role in the evolving taco-informationscape of the 21st Century.

I first heard of El Parian in the pages of Jonathan Gold’s seminal anthology of restaurant reviews, Counter Intelligence, published in 2000 and now seeming like a relic of a bygone age. Gold describes El Parian as the exemplary one-dish restaurant, specializing in Jalisco-style birria (goat stew). Gold also shows his hand in a statement uncharacteristically and praiseworthily unambiguous for a critic to make: “in my opinion, El Parian’s birria is the best single Mexican dish in Los Angeles.” Gold goes on to end his review by stating the El Parian does also have carne asada on the menu, but implicitly casts aspersions on the manhood of anyone who would order it, writing that “it is on the menu for the same reason ‘Landlubber’s De-Lite’ might be at a seafood restaurant.”

Five years later in 2005, in the bright early days of taco blogging, the pioneering taco blogger Bandini wrote in the Great Taco Hunt of visiting El Parian and, in another wonderfully unambiguous statement: “simply put this is the best carne asada in the history of mankind.” Bandini threw down the gauntlet, reclaiming for a frequently birria-nervous audience of interweb-reading gringos the carne asada that Gold had so contemptuously dismissed. And now Gold has himself taken notice – Gold’s reports about El Parian in recent years acknowledge both the taco blogosphere’s influence on the place and the fact that the carne asada truly is delicious.

Carmen and I met Russ, Shanta and Damien here for lunch on this beautiful afternoon. From the sidewalk all you see is the dingy façade and a half-dozen busy cooks in the front prep area, but passing through the heavy screen door reveals a surprisingly vast and airy, high-ceilinged space, unpretentiously spare with something of the communal feel of an open-air beer garden or a cafeteria. We sat towards the back between a row of arches that seem to be actually holding up the roof, and a row of store-style glass refrigerator doors where the beers and Mexican sodas are stored. Russ, Damien and I ordered tacos – I chose the carnitas and carne asada, $2.99 each but big enough to be worth it. Carmen hewed to the path of righteousness and and took an order of the birria. We waited quite a while for the food, but crowded in our corner of this spacious-feeling, cold, noisy and smelly dining room felt to me like the right place to be hanging out.

My two big tacos came in unorthodox fashion – rather than tortillas flat with a heap of meat atop, the tortillas were already folded over to encompass the heap of meat filling. The heavy, thick, doubled handmade tortillas were quite corn-tasty and structurally adequate for the job. I ate the carnitas first, dismayed by the puddle of carnitas-water forming on the plate around this taco, but the carnitas itself is very good. Moist and flavorful, but far from crispy and with a fairly uniform texture, it possesses the deep pork-alchemical flavor magic of serious earthy carnitas. The thick handful of taco offers many big satisfying bites for the pork lover. And the thick tortillas withstood the moisture to the end.

The carne asada taco could do nothing other than disappoint, as expectations had been so ramped up by the hype. Rather than the “thick strips” that Bandini described five years ago, I found cuboid chunks. The steak was great, don’t get me wrong. It was seasoned sparely and effectively, with visible specks of black pepper. The steak had the fatty taste of marbled skirt steak. The charry, full-bodied steakiness of the cuboid chunks gives it the satisfying “I just ate real steak” impression that you get when you eat a named cut at an American-style steakhouse, as opposed to the anemic feel that finely cut taco carne asada often exhibits. The experience was marred by a few scattered tough bits. This was a great taco that I would gladly eat again, but there have been several steak tacos that I have enjoyed more during this year’s rewarding taco-eating journey.

I sampled the birria too. So flavorful and good, but so goaty and empalagating. Your clothes will smell like El Parian afterwards and you may prefer that they did not. But I think it’s worth it – I found El Parian charming.

Posted: November 21st, 2010
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55 El Super Taco

55 El Super Taco

November 17, 2010

11499 Jefferson Blvd, Culver City, CA 90230

Culver City

El Super Taco is the fourth consecutive Westside taco shop I have visited – I’m in a slump, as the Westside is not a hotbed of fine tacos, but rather a hotbed of taco eaters too lazy to travel far enough east to get good tacos. El Super Taco is a chain of approximately three Westside locations, and this one looked terribly banal on the outside, in a generic stucco strip mall next to the 405 freeway. I was pleasantly surprised, though, and likewise I hope you, my readers, will be pleasantly surprised when you scroll down and see the photo. Four tacos, and all four meats vividly distinct in color and appearance!

Although it’s in a crap little strip mall storefront illuminated by a half-dozen lay-in 2×4 lensed fluorescent fixtures in a blue-painted acoustic panel ceiling, the unexpectedly clean and tidy interior seemed warm and welcoming, as did the serveuse who took my order and offered me complimentary chips. I ordered one each of the carne asada, al pastor, carnitas, and suadero tacos, quite reasonable at $1.25 each. I settled in with my tray of chips and sampled three of the five salsas from the salsa bar, the ones labeled “salsa roja,” “salsa verde,” and “salsa suicide”. This latter salsa filled me with a desire to live! It is a very hot habanero-grapefruit, my new favorite flavor combination that brings me back to Campos’ Burritos on Venice at Motor every week. The rojo was okay, tasting a bit like Tapatio mixed with essence of pencil graphite; and the verde was pretty spicy too, with a flavor that I spent much of the meal attempting to identify, a frequent problem of mine. In the end I decided that it tasted like one of the unidentified, weird “spice” jelly bean flavors.

The chips, oily and recently fried, were reminiscent of fried wonton strips – I don’t know why or how.

I ate the suadero first – compelled to order this rare option. The meat was quite good, juicy and tender but with a bit of tooth resistance at first bite. Leanly seasoned, it had a strong gamy, beefy flavor. I don’t know how they prepare it, but the texture and taste reminded me of braised short ribs.

The tortillas were hot, and seemed to be steamed rather than griddled – doubled, but not laminated, they performed correctly. So many tacos suffer from watery meats that saturate and destroy their tortillas and drip dirty meaty squirts out their backsides, but these meat fillings were appropriately dry in character.

I ate the carnitas next, dressed with the salsa verde. It was a particularly dry, stringy, fried and textural carnitas with a nice golden brown hue. It seems dry at first but when you compress a mouthful of it a porky liquid magic seems to lurk in its core.

The carne asada was fine, elegant and proper, although fairly inconspicuous after I applied a distracting mixture of Salsa Roja and Salsa Suicide.

The al pastor looks a bit like orange chicken from a Chinese Food and Donuts shop, but was dry-rubby in character, with cinnamon and clove notes. Griddled to a gracious orange-and-black color scheme, it had a good texture, although in the middle of this taco I encountered one of those unfortunate chunks of cartilaginous flesh that you can barely chew through. I tend to enjoy the dry-rubby stuff, although this was really no better than the cheap preparada al pastor you can get at the Bodega R-Ranch Market #14 supermarket for home grilling.

Posted: November 17th, 2010
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54 Pili’s Tacos

54 Pili’s Tacos

November 6, 2010

11924 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90025

Sawtelle

I first heard of Pili’s years ago when UCLA architecture schoolmate Antonio recommended it for its righteous tacos, obviously a rarity west of the 405. It is a cozy little storefront connected to an adjoining gift shop, offering fine tacos until late at night. Carmen and I found an excuse to head out here for lunch today.

The word “Pili’s” has great ear-feel to my gringo ears.

I ordered one each of the al pastor, carnitas, and carne asada tacos, Westside-priced at $1.50 each for slightly smallish tacos. They were plated nicely, the three tacos aligned on a plate, tortillas leaning into one another, implying the roundish cross section of a taco curled in the hand on its way to the mouth.

I started with the steak. This taco felt good from the start, with the small, bilaminated tortillas nicely leathered but not oily. The steak had a great flavor and texture, sparely seasoned and a bit gamy due to relatively fatty meat – fatty in a good way.

Next I ate the carnitas taco, my least favorite. The meat had a good texture with enough resistance to satisfy the tooth, but rather dry in a way that leaves your tongue feeling desiccated. The flavor isn’t bad – it’s definitely pork – but it’s neither strong nor compelling enough.

Lastly I ate the al pastor taco. It’s well above-average al pastor meat, not the typical stuff, but small cuboid chunks of pork apparently deep-fried to a near-crunchy resilience, with some orange savory flavor added for good effect. It has a winning porky-oily flavor that made me ponder whether I needed another one.

Posted: November 6th, 2010
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53 Tito’s Tacos

53 Tito’s Tacos

October 31, 2010

11122 Washington Pl, Culver City, CA 90230

Culver City

Tito’s Tacos is a truly old-school place serving up tacos of the crunchy variety, since 1959 according to the Tito’s website. It’s a taco time machine. The crunchy “gringo-style” taco familiar to us all thanks to Taco Bell is not really in the scope of the cincuenta taquerías project, yet no survey of Los Angeles taco stands would be complete without mention of this popular landmark stand, an atavistic throwback to another part of the evolutionary family tree of the taco. Tito’s is a remarkably polarizing element in the Los Angeles taco dialogue, a lightning rod for both overstated praise and vitriol. A perusal of the remarkable 1241 reviews on Yelp! will display an equal measure of 5-star and 1-star votes.

The thoughtful taco eater, however, will find a middle path. While it’s clearly nuts to claim that their tacos are “the best” as so many Yelpers have done, the haters tend to criticize Tito’s not on its own terms but rather for the typology it belongs to, that of the crunchy shell, shredded beef, shredded lettuce, and shredded cheese. This typology may never achieve the heights of the more refined and subtle taco of the Righteous variety, but it certainly has some charms, and Tito’s does it pretty well.

Carmen and I rode our bikes there for lunch on this pleasant Halloween day, and ordered three tacos each. Tacos are $1.75 each, and it is vital to request they come with cheese, which is an extra $.50 each. If you consume more than three, you may prefer to lie down in the gutter after eating rather than ride home.

The Tito’s ordering system is unusual. Each window is served by two or three servers, and whoever is next available will take your order when you get to the front of the line. You must memorize the appearance of your server at the risk of facing embarrassment. When the server has gathered your tacos, he or she writes the total on the top of the cardboard box in which your food is served, and then collects your money and takes it to a cashier. The system is similar to that at Philippe’s French Dips. The menu board is a masterpiece of Late-Modern graphic design, a true design snack.

The cardboard box is accompanied by chips, way more chips than you want; and a giant tub of the wicked O.G. Tito’s salsa, a watery tomato puree that I don’t like much at all, but which some customers adore.

The meat filling does not resemble the small roundish chunks that commonly make up ground beef, nor the stringy fibers of ostensible muscle that compose shredded beef; rather it’s a dense mesh of fine protein fibers, unique among tacos, with some tooth resistance that makes it more rewarding than the soft-serve sludge that fills a Jack in the Box taco. It is moist without being watery; and it tastes like meat, in the most generic sense of the concept of flesheating, with little seasoning added. The meat is folded into a tortilla, these placed into baskets, and consequently fried in a bath of oil; after the frying, lettuce and then bright, shreddy, cheesy cheese are stuffed into the aperture.

One can sometimes get a craving for such a taco, although it’s obviously been at least a year since I answered such a craving. I was looking forward to Tito’s. Their tacos are utterly consistent. I took a bite and enjoyed the contrast between the deep thick crunch of the shell and the rewarding moist yield of the filling; the lettuce probably serves some valuable purpose, although I don’t know what, and the cheese is like a fat- and salt-flavored taco lubricant that makes the thing go down easy.

I was satisfied eating at Tito’s. Only hours later, after I looked close up at this photo of the Tito’s taco in section, did I start to think that Tito’s tacos are pretty gross.

Posted: October 31st, 2010
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