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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52 Campos Tacos

52 Campos Tacos

October 22, 2010

11622 Venice Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90066

Mar Vista

This is the second I have visited this year of the approximately seven extant Campos Tacos locations, following the one on Jefferson in Culver City. Though seemingly in decline now, a result of changing tastes or demographics, perhaps, Campos is still the primary chain restaurant for cheap conventional tacos serving the greater Westside. Though it is in relatively upscale Mar Vista, this tiny and dilapidated corner strip mall with its carnicería, donut shop, and Campos outpost is a holdout from the working-class culture that still thrives in the dingbat-rich sectors of Mar Vista.

I arrived at about 11:45 for an early lunch on a Friday and found Campos to be serving a working-class clientele. The man who arrived in a white utility-bed pickup never took off his hardhat, and all of the dozen other customers I saw looked like tradesmen and laborers.

The food at Campos matched the down-to-earth environment of the restaurant – it’s precisely the kind of filling, inexpensive, hearty food that one might want after a long morning’s work. I ordered combo #1, the three soft tacos and a fountain soda, which was $7.08 including tax. Confusingly the extensive and old-school handwritten menu board listed tacos in two places, $1.25 in one place and $2.25 elsewhere. Two different size tacos are available, perhaps. My combo came with tacos that were pretty huge.

Sitting down to three of them is a righteous meal for a meat lover. They were served fairly quickly, and looking at them I didn’t have very high expectations, but my expectations were exceeded. I started with carne asada. The tortillas were pretty good, oversized and doubled, very lightly oiled and griddled. The carne asada was minimalist in its seasoning, tender and moist – better than expected. Purist, to use a word of which Diana recently reminded me. Sitting in the big, under-occupied dining room, while watching a television program on which guest Melissa Rivers poked fun at the fashion choices of celebrities, I enjoyed big, meaty bites of this taco one after the other till it was gone.

The salsa from the bar was bland, in contrast to my hopes of discovering something like the invigorating grapefruit-habanero salsa they have at Campos Famous Burritos on Venice at Motor, but the rojo on the tacos seemed a bit stronger.

Next I ate the al pastor. It is of the saucy variety, fruity and sweet with lots of grilled onions, leaving a viscous orange liquid dripping from the back of the taco. Pretty tasty. Unfortunately, Tacos Leo has ruined me by abetting my transformation into an annoying modern-jackass al pastor snob. Tacos Leo, incidentally, has now hit the big time – the new issue of Los Angeles magazine featuring local Mexican food has a paragraph that defines al pastor and cites Tacos Leo as the place to get it. Will ordinary gringos start to feel comfortable eating there? I selfishly hope not. But I digress. It’s darn hard not to digress to thoughts of Leo’s when you’re thinking about tacos.

Finally I ate the carnitas. It was of the grey and moist variety, unlike the Campos on Jefferson, but quite good for a grey and moist carnitas. I was looking at it and eating it thinking, huh, I’m actually enjoying this. It had strong pork flavor and was salty without being too salty, a bit like good luau-style kalua pork.

Surprisingly, my meal of three giant tacos at Campos left me feeling great afterwards too.

Posted: October 22nd, 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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49 El Bronco Taqueria

49 El Bronco Taquería

October 3, 2010

5427 Venice Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90019

Mid-City

Garrett, Kirsten, Damien, Carmen and I had decided to go for lunch tacos and El Bronco was nearby. Finding only three reviews on Yelp! going back to 2006 confirms one’s observation that El Bronco is not the kind of place that attracts Yelp! users. Situated in an inconspicuous, compact wedge of strip mall at the corner of Venice and Hauser next to staple businesses like a donut shop, a cleaners and a cambio de cheques, El Bronco serves its neighborhood but probably doesn’t attract many people from across town; but as we found today, their tacos are solidly above average.

We were surprised to find a spacious and sunny dining room, and though El Bronco has a deli-style counter for ordering takeout, we enjoyed table service, starting with two complimentary bowls of chips and salsa for our table. The salsa was rich and flavorful, tasting of roasted peppers and a dark chocolatyness reminiscent of Oaxacan mole. I ordered one each of the carne asada, al pastor, and carnitas tacos at $1.40 each, confirming that yes I wanted onion and cilantro; and a half-liter bottle of Mexican Coca-Cola.

Tacos were in about the 65th percentile for size. The tortillas were well prepared – doubled, slightly leathery without being oily, showing some browning marks from griddling. Served without salsa, I spooned some on from the bowls provided with the chips. I ate the carnitas first (listed generically as “puerco/pork” on the menu) – it was atypical, small cubes of deep-fried pork with crisp and sizzle. It is similar to the “Popeye’s Chicken” carnitas at Chulada Grill, and reminiscent of the pork that comes with yuca con chicharrón at a Salvadorean restaurant – a tasty pleasure to be enjoyed in moderation.

Next I ate the al pastor (per the menu, “pork w/ condiments”, which FYI is not the best way to sell it to people like me). It’s pretty good – tender, neither grilly nor saucy, and thoroughly marinated. I detected a hint of fruit flavor which seemed familiar but I could not place – Garrett correctly identified it as apple. I don’t know if it really was apple, but that’s what it resembled.

Last I ate the carne asada. Moist and steaky, this had a reasonable quantity of the garlic-and-onion-powdery carne asada seasoning known to inspire the kind of cravings that make you finish a whole bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos that you were foolish enough to open. One has to consider use of this stuff as kind of a cheap tactic to make tacos have crack-like addictiveness; but there exist many varieties of delicious.

Posted: October 3rd, 2010
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48 El Compa Tacos y Burritos

48 El Compa Tacos y Burritos

September 30, 2010

5583 Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90019

Mid-Wilshire

El Compa feels instantly familiar, probably because it used to be a Campos, according to interweb folklore on Yelp. Carmen and I ended up here this evening in our search for a nearby quick taco meal. As the Yelp! reviewers observed, El Compa is in a tiny strip mall possessed of a “shady” and/or “seedy” character by virtue of the discount Thai Massage joint and the crowds of people loitering outside; but El Compa itself is not shady, it’s the platonic, and platonically forgettable, neighborhood taco shop.

We drove past the corner of La Brea and Venice on the way, the corner of the famed Tacos Leo, where until recently the best al pastor tacos I’ve ever had were served directly from the trompo in a gas station parking lot. A couple of weeks ago the LA Weekly’s “Squid Ink” food blog published an article about Leo’s, and (coincidentally?) the fuzz came and shut down the article and confiscated the trompo. Tasting Table’s account of the story. Fingers were pointed at the Weekly’s blogger – had the mainstream attention to the humble taco truck scene in a disused Unocal station brought on persecution? Is taco blogging in fact a form of gentrification, an inadvertent means of helping white douchebags and hipsters take over and deplete the authenticity of undiscovered institutions?

Ten years ago I moved guiltily out of the alleged “artist’s district” of Santa Ana, swearing never to be a gentrifier again. I would hate to think that taco reporting is a sin against authenticity, but there was still no trompo on display at the corner of Venice and La Brea. I wonder if the folks at Leo’s would like to have Kogi-like lines of hipsters out front, waiting half an hour for $3.00 tacos? They might love that, but it would make me sad. If I may express this graphically:

:(

There are some methods you can use to avoid being a gentrifier. You can choose to live in places that are already middle-class or mixed-race in character, for example, or choose neighborhoods inherently gentrification-resistant by virtue of their character. You can write about taco shops that are in no danger of having their authenticity corrupted by hordes of hipsters. Like El Compa, which fed me a mediocre but satisfying meal, three tacos and a good horchata.

The inside still looks like a Campos, with a Campos menu board and Campos menu items. The acoustic panel ceiling is painted out to look like a beautiful cloudy sky. The dining room is humble, pleasant enough. I ordered three tacos, one each of the al pastor, carne asada, and a hard shell taco with ground beef. El Compa looks like the kind of old-school place where the crispy tacos are an important part of the menu, and this fact must be respected. The soft tacos were $1.35 each and the hard taco $1.95, if I recall correctly.

I ate the hard shell taco first, which was probably correct, as I received therefore maximum sensation of its hot, oily, fresh-from-the-fryer crispiness. The meat was sludgy like at Jack in the Box. The tomato sauce-like salsa combined with the shredded cheese reminded me of pizza, which is not a bad thing. A tasty crispy taco.

The soft tacos were okay. I ate the carne asada taco next. The tortillas were leathery and resilient, not laminated, bigger than average (as were the tacos), a bit dry, but that’s better than soggy or failing. The steak, finely diced and, well, steak-flavored, at first made a good impression. It was thoroughly seasoned with carne asada seasoning. But by the time I was halfway through, all I could discern was that it was too salty. I was empalagated. It would work better in a burrito, tempered with a bunch of other stuff. The onions were diced to a pleasing fineness, the cilantro appropriate, but the red salsa (served on the side in a plastic cup) disappointed – too much tomato, no spiciness. I resorted to the Tapatio.

The al pastor tasted like the al pastor they used to serve at the Campos that was on Venice Boulevard and is now a Pancho’s. Sweet, bright red, rather saucy. Good enough to eat, and would be even more enjoyable had my standards not been raised by the stimulating and superior al pastors I’ve been exposed to this year. At an old school place like El Compa, you will do well to order the hard shell taco, and savor the knowledge that you are not acting as a shock-trooper of gentrification.

Posted: September 30th, 2010
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47 Pinche’s Tacos

47 Pinche’s Tacos

September 25, 2010

8665 Washington Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232

Culver City

I didn’t think I would like Pinche’s Tacos very much, and indeed I did not. It isn’t personal. The staff seemed friendly. I felt that they made an effort to take care of me and Carmen, their customers for dinner this evening, and to give us the best food they could. It wasn’t bad. But I don’t like Pinche’s Tacos.

The Supreme Court Justice of taco bloggers, Bandini, rates his taco experience on a scale of one to five. When setting out to survey the tacoscape one must commit early to whether or not will adopt a quantitative rating system. I opted not to follow this precedent, so I have to rely on mere words to express my dissatisfaction with Pinche’s Tacos. But I don’t think Bandini would like Pinche’s Tacos either.

There used to be an outpost of the small Campos Burritos chain in this small freestanding restaurant next to the Helms Bakery complex, and the contrast between the Campos that was, and the Pinche’s that is, exemplifies the transformation of Culver City from a fairly modest community into a destination for dining so allegedly hip that even the New York Times deigned to raise its monocle and take notice. Those who know me will confirm that I am a Campos Burritos partisan, and I mean that figuratively as well as literally. The unassuming, inexpensive, authentic, unselfconscious, and tasty Campos Burritos sensibility pleases me greatly. The overpriced, self-referential, and cute Pinche’s is as if formulated to offend me – a farce of a taquería in the place where the real thing once stood. Check out the reviews on Yelp! and you’ll see that most of the favorable reviews sound like they were written by douchebags.

Pinche’s took Campos late-midcentury-generic taco building and painted the outside bright pink and purple; put up a sign with their cheeky name, and topped it with the word “tacos” in glorious Comic Sans; and filled the inside with an admixture of kitsch and camp: real Lotería cards, humorous satirical Lotería cards, authentic Day of the Dead memorabilia, a faux-vintage “Wanted” poster for the bandit Emiliano Zapata. They were playing Gael Garcia Bernal’s ironical cover of “I Want You to Want Me” when we walked in (which was a nice touch).

I ordered one each of the carne asada, al pastor, and carnitas tacos. Price for each was between $2 and $3. Sounds reasonable enough, but then do the math: our order of six tacos, a Jarritos, and a fountain Coke came to $21.79. At a taco truck, this order would have cost about $9 and tasted better.

Our food was kindly brought to us. I noticed that each taco had a different salsa – a good sign that the tacos are being thoughtfully curated. I noticed the interesting single-ply homemade tortillas – they have a sort of spongy thickness that reminded me of that bread at Ethiopian restaurants. They lack tensile strength. These tortillas did fine through the first taco but tore on the second taco and failed catastrophically on the third.

I ate the carnitas taco first, and enjoyed the meat – it had some substantial toothiness to it that one might even call tough, but which to me only enhanced enjoyment; and the meat was flavorful, tasting of citrus and pork. But I did not like the salsa – very chunky and watery, very cold, dominated by tomatoes. A constant stream of dirty salsa water dripped from my taco onto my plate, threatening to drown the carne asada taco. In my opinion, a taco should be a non-leaking and dry thing. Leaking tacos are about as cool as leaking diapers. I washed my hands vigorously after I came home.

Next I ate the steak taco. This was truly a taco of steak, as it was impressively above average in size, and the steak chunks were big and cuboid and unmistakeably steaky in flavor and texture, with the serious chewiness you find in American-style steaks. The meat seemed to be of the same chewy cut often found in Peruvian “Lomo Saltado” dishes. The steak was smoky from grilling and seasoned with plenty of cumin. Pretty good stuff, although not what one expects in a “carne asada” taco. The salsa verde was good and peppery, but left me wishing for some spiciness.

The al pastor was acceptable, dry rubby in character, with clove and cinnamon conspicuous in the mix. The tender pork bits were sliced thin. The red salsa on this taco didn’t do much for me. This taco’s final act was catastrophic tortilla failure halfway through consumption. These spongiform tortillas need some serious attention.

Aside from the supersweet chicken mole octoparrot taco that Carmen ordered, upon consideration, I have to acknowledge that the meats at Pinche’s Tacos were reasonably good, and my account of what I experienced there doesn’t seem to justify the strong feelings of disappointment that Pinche’s inspired. Maybe half-hour’s writing about Pinche’s has mellowed my ire. Maybe I should recant the oath I made two hours ago to stop eating bad tacos and only eat good tacos from now on. I don’t know, but I do know that if I go back to Pinche’s, I’m going for the burrito. Ooh, burn.

Posted: September 25th, 2010
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46 Candela Taco Bar

46 Candela Taco Bar

September 16, 2010

831 S La Brea Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036

Mid-Wilshire

Candela Taco Bar looks on the inside like the small bar that would be attached at one end of a large old-timey Mexican restaurant of the margarita-serving El Cholo or Don Somebody school. Instead it’s attached to the awesome, weird and old-timey Leonardo’s Dance Hall. Tonight was Salsa Night, and a very few people were enjoying salsa lessons in the big space. But Carmen, Mike and I were enjoying tacos and giant goblets of beer in the small bar.

After a couple 22-ounce goblets of Candela’s hefeweizen-style house beer and a shitload of tricolored tortilla chips, you might not care much about the quality of your tacos. Going to Candela is like multitasking – rather than go to a bar and stop for tacos afterwards, you can sit there at the bar, enjoying goblets of beer, and then eat tacos at the same time. Such efficiency.

For $2 each, they aren’t bad. Average in size and above average in tastiness, with serviceable doubled tortillas that performed. And on Wednesday, Taco Wednesday, they are $1 each. That is a bargain. It’s a loss leader to get you to drink beer!

I had four of their tacos, the Chile Colorado, the Carne Asada (described as skirt steak), the Barbacoa (beef) and the Al Pastor. Chile colorado was first. It did look pretty awesomely red in the dim light, and the big chunks of beef were pleasing and flavorful. Barbacoa was not too distinctive, although I enjoyed it at the time. Al pastor was pleasing, being particularly pineapple-laden. Heavenly heavenly piña – the gorgeous taste, imposing as a southern island king crowned in glory, is yours to enjoy. Carne asada struck me as decent but overly salty, although Carmen did not find them so salty.

Mike upon consideration pronounced the tacos to be in the 65th percentile. This level of specificity is convincing.

Posted: September 16th, 2010
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45 Tacos El Primo

45 Tacos “El Primo”

September 7, 2010

Alley just north of Adams Blvd at Redondo Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90016

West Adams

Carmen and I ventured out for Tuesday evening tacos, seeking trompo. On Saturday night we had seen a giant sidewalk trompo right on the sidewalk in front of a Tacos Guadalajara truck, now occupying the spot on Adams in front of the R-Ranch Bodega, where the Tortas Ahogadas truck used to park. We drove by and espied no trompo, so we figured to head up to Venice and La Brea, my new favorite taco intersection, and not because that’s where the combination Taco Bell and Pizza Hut is either. We didn’t get past the corner of Adams and Redondo before we spotted another truck, however, and lo and behold, they had a trompo in the window. Trompo fortune.

Tacos “El Primo” is a small taco trailer pulled by an awesome two-tone tan-and-brown F350 “Dually” pickup truck. It is parked in a potholed alley parallel to and north of Adams Boulevard, next to an empty corner lot and in between a humble four-unit apartment building and the back of A&C Appliances – a spontaneous taco community appears regularly in this gritty interstitial space. I found Bandini’s review of Tacos “El Primo” from September 2006, where the photographic evidence reveals the same truck and the same trailer parked in the same place four years ago to the day. Tacos “El Primo” might look to the observer like an exemplification of the ephemeral nature of taco supply and demand in Los Angeles, but it is a surprisingly permanent fixture. Eating here is a veritable flashback in time to four years ago, when the economy boomed and it seemed like the party would never stop. Everything turned to shit, but Tacos “El Primo” remained.

I ordered two tacos al pastor and one carne asada, cheap at $1.00 each. Horchatas are also $1.00 each. It’s like 2006 all over again! Tacos are served plain, and there are large bins containing salsa and a premixed mixture of onion and cilantro. I applied the red to the steak and one al pastor taco, and the green to the other. The tortillas are nicely oiled and griddled to effective leatheriness.

Carmen loved these tacos. Carmen raved about the steak, which I found very juicy and moist – Carmen glimpsed the steak being boiled briefly in a dark liquid filled with grilled onions before being griddled. But the red salsa bollixed up my taco. It was pretty spicy, but it tasted like soap. The green salsa was far better.

The al pastor was good, but not among the best – I’m not even sure it came from the trompo, since it looked like they were only just firing it up, and we might have come to early for the righteous pork treat. It was tender and thoroughly marinated, but saucy and quite sweet with chunks of fruit and onion in the sauce; good enough for me to give it the endorsement of pronouncing it taco-righteous.

Posted: September 7th, 2010
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44 Tacos El Paisano

44 Tacos El Paisano

September 4, 2010

5301 Venice Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90019

Mid-City

One month ago, Hamburglar Hadley reported in Grub Street the important news of a new taco shop opened in Mid-City on Venice Boulevard. I have a strong, personal identification with that particular boulevard! I was looking forward to it.

This little shop was home to Hoagies & Wings, and then it became Wing Shack, which according to unreliable internet website Yelp! was really good. Wing Shack closed in May of this year to make way for a taquería, a sign of the times. If you compare this “before” picture, you can see what it takes to transform a Wing Shack into a Tacos El Paisano: you add some Hispanicizing puffy stucco around the top. The tiny building with about four dining tables is a fine environment in which to enjoy the simple pleasures of a taco meal.

The menu isn’t too long, which is an asset in a taquería, because it highlighted what we needed – $1.25 tacos and Mexican sodas. Carmen smartly ordered two carne asada tacos and one each of al pastor and chorizo, so I followed her lead. The friendly serveur poked fun at me in English for not speaking Spanish as Carmen had.

We had to drive past the nearby Venice and La Brea truck with its awesome trompo (literally a children’s toy spinning top, this word designates the vertical revolving spit of al pastor pork that resembles such a top). I remembered a line from Bandini’s recent review of Daniel’s Tacos: “al pastor that doesn’t come from the trompo only has so high of a ceiling.” True enough. Recent revelatory trompo experiences may be turning me into a serious trompo snob. For non-trompo pastor, the tacos at El Paisano are quite good – thoroughly marinated and quite strongly flavored, with good texture; savory rather than sweet.

Tacos were average in size, with satisfactory bilaminated tortillas, and served topped with onion and cilantro. Salsa was provided on the side in two bowls, red and green, both fairly spicy. Carne asada was good – I preferred the al pastor, but Carmen thought the steak was better. The steak had the butteriest flavor I have ever encountered, which Carmen likened to movie theater popcorn. That simile probably doesn’t make it sound very good, and in fact the taste is kind of freaky. I have previously noted a buttery flavor in good steak tacos which I attributed to the fattiness of the beef, but this time, we wondered if actual butter (or more likely the butter-flavored oil pumped onto popcorn at movie theaters) played a role.

The chorizo pleased me too – this taco was the biggest, with chorizo in big charred-orange chunks; very salty, but a welcome counterpoint to the other tacos.

The most distinctive aspect of our taco plates was the grilled onion – a medium entire onion served whole, but made sweet and delicious on the grill. One could eat such onions by themselves like bits of candy. I pulled Grilly apart and divided his remains amongst my tacos to spread out the joy.

Tacos El Paisano provided a taco-righteous meal and dining experience. I don’t know how they are going to compete with the pork artisans down the street at the Venice and La Brea truck, but I always root for the underdog.

Posted: September 4th, 2010
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