2011.09 Cemitas Poblanas Elvirita

2011.09 Cemitas Poblanas Elvirita

November 13, 2011

3010 E 1st St, Los Angeles, CA 90063

Boyle Heights

On a mission to experience more fine Pueblan tacos árabes, Carmen and I journeyed again to the Eastside for a tasty treat. I liked Elviritas a lot – the small Boyle Heights restaurant has a breezy, tropical feel to its casual interior.

The tacos árabes were not quite as good as those at La China Poblana, but they were still very good. Chunks of meat wrapped in a tortilla like a burrito. I am someone long accustomed to ordering foods “plain” and an enthusiast of the “all meat” burritos at old-school California Mex restaurants. I cannot go wrong with tacos árabes. The tortillas were beautifully turning golden-brown around their edges.

Posted: December 15th, 2011
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2011.08 Cemitas La China Poblana

2011.08 Cemitas La China Poblana

October 30, 2011

3568 Whittier Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90023

Boyle Heights

I have been moderately obsessed with Pueblan tacos árabes since I first heard about them late last year – cousins of the al pastor taco, the arab taco is also made from marinated pork with grilled onions and spices, and ideally roasted on a vertical spit. The chopped meat is served on a big and preferably handmade tortilla. Unlike conventional tacos, the tortilla is flour, and raw onions, cilantro and salsa are not part of the plan, but there is a heavy provision of a smoky, barbecue-like chipotle sauce.

The tacos árabes at La China Poblana are the best I have tried yet. Oh man, the pork was tender and flavorful and the smoky chipotle sauce made my head swim. I was self-conscious of my own human pleasure as I ate them.

The environs contribute to the pleasure, as the entire dining area is an indoor-outdoor hybrid space. The place has a distinctly informal character. Don’t be creeped out by the chef in the photo – it’s just a statue.

Posted: December 15th, 2011
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2011.07 Guisados

2011.07 Guisados

Saturday, September 10, 2011

2100 E Cesar Chavez Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90033

Boyle Heights

The Eastside feels accessibly hip at Guisados, the pleasantly bustling dining room crowded with diverse customers, the high-ceilinged volume activated by wall art and big chalkboards.

Spanish for “stews,” Guisados specializes in these wet and flavorful concoctions, stylistically similar to the guisado tacos Westsiders will know from Lotería Grill. The tortillas are handmade. I ordered the sampler for $6.99, which as you can see gets you a heavy plate with plenty of variety. I don’t remember which ones were good, but then they were all good. I recommend this sampler.

I was pleased by the colorful and variegated appearance of these goop tacos. They were very tasty.

Posted: December 15th, 2011
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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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51 Sam’s Tacos

51 Sam’s Tacos

October 10, 2010

715 S Soto St, Los Angeles, CA 90023

Boyle Heights

Today was the inaugural “CicLAvía” event, in which the city shut 7 ½ miles of streets to automobile traffic from 10:00 AM till 3:00 PM so that cyclists and other non-motorized road users could take over the roads. People really turned out for this – I was surprised at the density of traffic. The usually car-clogged streets had an unusually civil feel. It didn’t look like Europe, but the fact that it seemed civil brought Europe to mind anyway. The eastern terminus was Hollenbeck Park in Boyle Heights, which is to say, we had a splendid excuse to go on a long bike ride to Boyle Heights and eat tacos.

Carmen and I headed a few blocks past Hollenbeck to Sam’s Tacos on Soto near Whittier. Sam’s is evidently a near relation of Carnitas Michoacan #3 nearby. If you study the image closely, you will see that they share not only the horizontal-hearts banded graphic motif, lending the entire complex a subdued dynamism, but the supersized cheeseburger-fries-and-a-drink thing on the roof as well. Sam’s Tacos is smaller and emphasizes hot dogs. Note the hot-dogged mansard.

Sam’s Tacos is a bit like Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, a flexibly enclosed indoor-outdoor-hybrid space defined by a floating-roof plane and ground plane rather than enclosing walls. The main roof, cantilevered in all directions, spans a drive-thru pass-through with a smaller service or storage room across. To the north, a trellis extends the roofline over an outdoor dining area, and supports a giant cheeseburger-fries-and-a-drink sculpture. The dining trellis frames a view across a reflecting pool of black asphalt toward a contrapposto lamppost-signpost. The marble tables beneath the trellis make for an elegant, cool surface on which to dine.

I ordered one each of the al pastor and carne asada tacos, cheap at $1.09 each. Not surprisingly, the tacos were unsurprising and hewed close to the platonic taco standard. The tortillas were bilaminated, nicely leathered with a slight oiling and grilling. The al pastor was orange and black, in pleasingly irregular strips – somewhat saucy, with a good toothy texture and cinnamon and other spice flavors prominent. The red salsa provided with both tacos is pretty hot and really good. The carne asada is somewhat grayish in appearance but tastes exactly like carne asada taco. The seasoning is spare and the beef flavor somewhat buttery. The quintet of tortilla, steak, salsa, onion and cilantro weave together a timeless and essential harmony. Sam’s Tacos is 100% a taco stand.

Posted: October 10th, 2010
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42 Antojitos Carmen

42 Antojitos Carmen

August 22, 2010

2510 E Cesar E. Chavez Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90033

Boyle Heights

My streak of taco good luck continues, not that there was anything lucky about either choosing to go to Antojitos Carmen or finding that it was awesome. Carmen and I wanted to show visitors Tim and Lauri some righteous tacos, and heading to the East Side to a place widely raved about that serves D.F. specialties was a Sure Thing.

Finding righteous tacos seemed extra-important today because Tim and Lauri came from Toronto. Of course Toronto is a cosmopolitan place and in this day and age you can find good food anywhere; but I still had to imagine that Toronto is beset by inferior tacos. Canadian food. We snobby Angelenos like to think of Canadian food as sad and provincial – like American food, only slightly worse even. What comes to mind when one ponders the phrase “Toronto Taco”? Canadian bacon, maple syrup, and poutine splashed with vinegar and folded inside a smashed glazed donut. After conceiving that vindictive but somewhat intriguing image I googled “toronto taco” to see if I could prove myself wrong. The first hit is an interesting taco blog torontotaco.com, subtitled “Reviwing the best tacos in Toronto. Most suck, but some are pretty good.” The third hit is a list of “The best Toronto Taco Shops” on urbanspoon.com. On this list of seven taco shops, numbers 4. and 7. are both Taco Bells. Case closed.

But I poke fun because I love you, Toronto, not just because I harbour spiteful jealousy of your publicly subsidised healthcare system.

We had heard about Antojitos Carmen both from the LA Times and Jonathan Gold in the LA Weekly, where the portrait was painted of a street-food operation coerced from their location in a parking lot who then took up residence in a real storefront on Cesar Chavez earlier this year, with street cred still intact. The joy of eating in parking lots notwithstanding, the bricks-and-mortar Antojitos Carmen we visited is pretty much the perfect restaurant for any occasion. They feature table service, but maintained the low prices you would expect to find eating in a parking lot. The interior is cozy and the service friendly, the menu long and full of surprises. The salsa bar is the best I have encountered, and the manager brought us a bowl of something special he described as an old family recipe – an addictive mixture of roasted sesame seeds, spices and dried chile bits, more reminiscent to me of Southeast Asian flavors than of any Mexican food I have encountered.

I ordered one each of the carne asada, carnitas, chorizo, and al pastor tacos, for $1.25 each. They are somewhat above average in size. The tortillas are handmade, doubled, and lightly oiled and grilled – fantastic. “With everything” means with onion and cilantro – eaters apply their own salsa from the salsa bar. The salsa bar includes an avocado salsa; a pretty spicy, smoky red; an herby green and a peppery green; and a wicked-hot habanero, probably the hottest salsa ounce-for-ounce I have found at any taco shop.

I started with the carne asada taco, adding some rojo and squeezing some lime juice. The taco here is a splendid rendition of the carne asada taco, not showy but so good. The steak was tender, sparely seasoned with salt and pepper, and had that buttery flavor you find in the best carne asada. It was JUST RIGHT.

Next I ate the chorizo taco. The crumbled chorizo is so potent and pungent without being offensively oversalty. It’s the best chorizo I’ve ever had.

Then I ate the carnitas taco, with the herby green salsa. It’s a fine carnitas with a slow-cooked porky depth to it, but was my least favorite among its standout brother tacos.

I ate the al pastor last, with a healthy helping of the fiery habanero salsa. My smiling mouth burned with habanero and joy as I savored this last treasure from flavor country. It’s tender and flavorful without being saucy or dryrubby.

These four smashing tacos have now replaced King Taco #15 as my choice for this year’s taco all-around gold medal. It is exhausting to encounter so much taco goodness to be enthusiastic about, but one must grin and bear it.

Posted: August 22nd, 2010
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29 Carnitas Michoacan #3

29 Carnitas Michoacan #3

June 5, 2010

741 S Soto St, Los Angeles, CA 90023

Boyle Heights

My field assignment at East Los Angeles College ended three weeks ago, so now I have to travel to the Eastside purposefully to eat tacos, which I will gladly do. And pobrecita Carmen has been to so few of these Eastside taquerías with me. We trekked out to Boyle Heights for dinner at conspicuous Carnitas Michoacan #3 on Whittier Boulevard, an eye-attractor for many reasons – it has both a giant hamburger and a giant dinosaur on the roof; it has “carnitas” in the name of the restaurant; car-lot-style flapping flags overhead; and the sign out front claims boldly of their tacos “OVER 5 ZILLION SOLD”. This latter fact is quite dubious, although the quantity in a zillion cannot be verified by press time. By making such a claim Michoacan #3 is throwing down the gauntlet at their competitors down the street – you’ve got to be pretty confident to take on McDonald’s.

Michoacan #3 has the look and feel of a neighborhood institution and hangout. Open 24 hours, it has a dining area featuring arcade games, jukebox, and a candy-filled vending machine. Best of all, it’s a perfect indoor/outdoor space, under a roof but separated from the parking lot only by fence. Putting on one’s deerstalker cap and pondering while waiting for them to call order #9, one imagines that a taco stand came first; the canopy out front added later; and the fencing still later, resulting organically in the pleasing space that exists today. You would have to be pretty cynical not to be charmed by the informal collection of ad hoc signs and graphics on display here.

Carmen took her cue from the name of the restaurant and ordered three carnitas tacos, while I hedged my bets characteristically, ordering one each of the carnitas, carne asada, and al pastor tacos. These were $1.25 each and a little above average in size. I felt obliged to eat them in a predetermined order, because the three tacos slightly overlapped on my plate like a Venn diagram, and it seemed correct to eat whichever taco that was on top. Tortillas were the normal kind, bilaminated.

The al pastor was delicious, carved off a revolving spit, and with nicely contrasting orange bits and blackened grilly bits. The meat exhibits both some sauciness and some dryrubbiness somehow, and overall sweet, fragrant, and tasting of many spices; it did not emphasize the savory chile/garlicky/oniony aspect that often comes across so strongly in non-spitted al pastor varieties. The house red salsa is really good and pretty hot, and complimented the al pastor well.

Next up was the house specialty, a fine and platonic carnitas with nicely variable texture and a strong smoky, porky flavor. In tandem with the red salsa this made for a truly righteous taco – these tacos really get to the essence of what Taco-ness is all about. The same must be said of the carne asada, which was moist, flavorful, very beefy – really good. I would like to become a frequenter of the Michoacan #3.

Posted: June 5th, 2010
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