43 Tacos El Unico #12

43 Tacos El Unico #12

August 29, 2010

6650 Crenshaw Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90043

Hyde Park

Carmen and I chose to eat lunch at the Crenshaw location of Tacos El Unico, another Los Angeles minichain of taco restaurants, currently ten locations strong according to their website. The most conspicuous location might be the one at Adams and Vermont near USC. The website explains that the chain is an outgrowth of a taco truck business that started back in 1981 at the corner of Rosecrans and Atlantic in Compton where they subsequently built their first restaurant. It’s another story of the American Dream coming true.

We found decent tacos there, the kind you would eat regularly if you were in the neighborhood, but not worth driving across town for. We each had the $4.99 combo special of four tacos and a fountain drink (individual tacos, average in size, are a bargain at $1.16 each), and shared some tasty fresh French fries. I took the tour, having one each of the carne asada, al pastor, chicken and lengua tacos. I refrained from trying the cabeza.

The tiny public section of the restaurant interior has a few stainless steel tables and a counter. Ordering is alienating, taking place through steel security bars in an opening in the bulletproof glass, which did not make me feel protected, but did prevent me from pulling any stickup jobs while at Tacos El Unico. We got lucky and were awarded a table halfway through our meal, not that there is anything so ghastly about eating over a stainless steel counter while standing next to a trash can. For the record, if I lived in a loft apartment, I would have no kitchen other than a decommissioned taco truck and no table other than the stainless steel counter extended from the truck’s passenger side. And also I would sleep on a mattress in the back of a conversion van.

The tacos were totally serviceable. The tortillas were bilam’d (Carmen received a freak-of-nature taco even that was triply laminated!) and sturdy. Chicken and lengua came con todo with green salsa, and al pastor and steak with red, which consideration I appreciated.

I started with chicken, which was pretty tasty – well marinated dark meat, somewhat like slimy Del Taco chicken, but tasty. I moved on to lengua – gamy cuboid chunks of beef with a good texture. Not bad, but I still haven’t been wowed by any of the lengua I have tried this year.

Next I ate the al pastor, savory flavored and of the saucy variety. I thought it was okay. Carmen liked it so little she gave me her second al pastor taco, which for me was a great bonus worthy of Special Day celebration.

Finally I ate the steak taco, sadly the smallest of my tacos, for Carmen and I agreed that it was the best. The steak was in fairly large strips and marinated with carne asada seasonings – it reminded me of the carne asada steaks that we sometimes get at Bodega R-Ranch Market #14 supermarket for home grilling. Flap meat, maybe? It has a rewarding chewy resistance to the tooth. The red salsa is good and pretty spicy, rounding out this taco nicely.

Posted: August 29th, 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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41 Venice and La Brea Taco Truck aka “El Latino” Catering aka Leo’s Tacos

41 Venice and La Brea Taco Truck aka “El Latino” Catering aka Leo’s Tacos

August 19, 2010

Venice Blvd at La Brea Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90019

Mid-City

This taco truck is awesome.

Carmen noticed a few months ago that this truck, parked at the Unocal 76 station at the northwest corner of Venice and La Brea, was attracting big crowds, despite its proximity to the famed El Chato truck. I saw the compelling al pastor spit with my own eyes. I read Bandini’s favorable review of the place. It has been too many weeks since I last had righteous tacos, and I have been craving just that – fancy tacos and weird tacos leave me wanting for righteous tacos, those tight little doses of elegant perfection, where the tortillas are not homemade but oiled and griddled to leatheriness, the meats are savory and diced small, and the salsa is red hot.

Celebrating the end of my working week and the arrival of the weekend – tacos are to meals as weekends are to weeks – Carmen and I went up the road to Venice Boulevard. Bandini called this truck Leo’s, but I didn’t notice any name on the truck other than “El Latino” Catering. Furthermore, this truck is clearly different from the one in Bandini’s pictures from a month ago, although everything else matches up, including the staff. No matter – at the moment I am feeling too much calm reverence for this taco truck to pronounce its sainted name aloud.

We went to the truck at about 7:00 PM – unlike with the late-opening El Chato truck, there is no need to kill the evening boozing somewhere while waiting to eat tacos. This location on Venice Boulevard is a fine specimen of tacogeography. The absurd width and underdevelopment of this automobile-oriented stretch of Venice Boulevard provides the setting for the adaptive reuse of the edge of an overlarge gas station where half the pumps have been decommissioned. This is a transient, fugitive space, lacking all of the qualities that anyone would use to describe a nice neighborhood; but here crystallizes regularly a temporary community gathered together to share in the eating of righteous food. While you are here, it’s the greatest place on earth. It’s outside, and it’s in and of the city.

I ordered two tacos al pastor and one each of the carne asada and the carnitas, a bargain at $1.00 each for average-size tacos. Carmen, knowing something good when she sees it, ordered four al pastor tacos. The serveur directed the carne asada and carnitas orders to the truck, and the al pastor orders to the master of the spit. Carne asada and carnitas were done first – the taquero in the truck called my order and handed me a plate of undecorated tacos, just meat on bilam’d tortillas. The condiment table features the standard items, which without skill I applied to my tacos. The cilantro was diced into tiny bits, an attribute Carmen declared essential to the righteous taco, with which I agree, but I don’t know why it is so. The rojo is quite spicy, the green thick and appropriately herby.

The knife-wielding master of the al pastor spit does his work out front of the truck, out in the open. Dozens of pork filets are piled high on the spit in front of what looks like a glowing concrete breeze-block with a fire behind it. Half a pineapple sits on top. When he got the order, the taquero grabbed tortillas, dipped the edge in the puddle of hot oil and drippings beneath the spit, and flung the oil from the tortillas onto his griddle. The tortillas sat there a while, achieving the perfect leatheriness and crispening. For the next step, the taquero scooped up the bilam’d tortillas and with large knife carved slivers of pork directly from the spit into his tortilla hand. The taco full of pork went face-down back on the griddle, to crisp the edges of the meat; and finally before being served, slivers of caramelized pineapple were sliced and placed on top.

I garnished these tacos with spicy rojo and eagerly brought my paper plates to the trunk of Carmen’s car. I ate an al pastor taco first. Sweet heaven, this taco was just right, the tortillas perfectly crisped and the al pastor phenomenal. Neither saucy nor dryrubby, the meat was dense with flavor that seemed integral to the meat, both savory and fruity. The excellent pineapple complemented the pork perfectly. Pineapple is underrated, as it is surely the best tasting of all fruits – the al pastor of fruits if you will.

The other tacos were great as well, although it seems unfair to compare them against the al pastor. The splendor of al pastor crowds my brain leaving all other meats forgotten. I almost feel sorry for the taqueros who work in the truck preparing all the non-pastor items, of which they offer a good variety – every day they have to compete against the man with the spit. It’s not their fault.

The carne asada was a fine specimen of carne asada, sparely furnished, finely diced and well textured. The spicy rojo perfected this taco. The carnitas, bright orange on its exterior, is striking – when I picked up the plate, Carmen and I both looked at it and said “Ooo!” This taco was the largest – its tortilla-filling handful brought to mind its contrast with the relatively diminutive tacos up the street at El Chato’s. We nibbled and I found that the carnitas had the paradoxical oily lightness of having been just-fried, with strong pork-fat flavor. I chose the green salsa for this one, and greatly enjoyed it, although I must admit that I was distracted by memories of the al pastor taco I just ate and by visions of the second al pastor taco that I was about to eat. I was in taco heaven for quite a few minutes.

My experience this evening – eating the best meal I’ll have all month, on the trunk of a car parked in a disused gas station as the sun set over Venice Boulevard on a summer evening, for a grand total of four dollars – this for me is what tacos are all about. The euphoria of another awesome taco experience briefly brings meaning and order to the fuckedupness of everyday life. I have an urge to terminate the cincuenta taquerías project and declare it successful and completed, now that I know I have found that everything I need in this world is available at this disused gas station two miles from my home. But I will soldier on, buoyed by the hope that maybe tacos will bring me good fortune yet again.

Posted: August 19th, 2010
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39 Yuca’s Tacos

39 Yuca’s Tacos

August 7, 2010

2056 Hillhurst Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90027

Los Feliz

Yuca’s on Hillhurst in Los Feliz is one of those places people rave about. The word “best” is used on the first page of Yelp! reviews 23 times. Many of those reviews are obviously written by morons. Russ and I discussed how Yuca’s character and geographic location are an ideal combination for appealing to the class of people likely to rave about it on sites like Yelp! As I saw it, the question to be solved today was not, “Is Yuca’s overrated?” but rather, “How overrated is Yuca’s?” The answer to those questions are “Yes” and “Somewhat”.

Carmen and I at first got lost, which is something I do most every time I head into the big, vague hipster zone in between Griffith Park and Dodger Stadium. Yuca’s presence was highlighted by a crowd on the sidewalk in front of it. A shack-like taco stand in a parking lot, Yuca’s may be the smallest occupied building I have ever seen, exclusive of security guard and toll-taker huts. It’s in the same genre as the locksmith booths you sometimes see in strip mall parking lots. You can see it in the picture – the kitchen of Yuca’s is about 6’ by 6’, with a canopy to north over an indoor-outdoor-hybrid dining area, and a ramshackle awning over the sidewalk to the west. The signs on the roof match the footprint of the building and effectively extend its presence upward. It’s a fantastically humble space. Even though Yuca’s is anchored to the pavement, its kitchen is much smaller than that found on a typical taco truck.

I had one each of the four tacos on offering – the carne asada at $2.25, and the carnitas, machaca (shredded beef), and cochinita pibil tacos at $2.00 each. We didn’t wait long. Our order was put in “for here”, which meant that the foil-wrapped tacos were served on a paper plate rather than in a paper bag. The indoor-outdoor-hybrid dining zone being occupied, we found two extra chairs and set ourselves up in the driveway south of Yuca’s in front of an upturned milk crate. On such a fine-weathered day, it doesn’t get much better than this. I saw a Buick up close as it drove by!

I opened and ate the tacos one at a time, which is why I have employed a high-tech, Andy-Warhol-like photo collage created digitally from four separate photos of tacos. The plate felt heavy. The tortillas are oversized and thick. Unusually, all the tacos at Yuca’s employ an unspicy pico de gallo-style salsa made with tomato chunks – maybe this fact has something to do with tomatoes being a staple of the Yucatecan cuisine (the name “Yuca’s” refers to the Yucatán). Carmen saw a bottle of the fine XXX El Yucateco Habanero hot sauce, which I was too lazy to fetch, but that would have picked up the pace.

I started with the carne asada taco. The meat looked great, a nice dark brown. It tastes great too, with just the right steaky tooth resistance, and modest seasoning that lets the steakiness through. The quantity of steak was decent, and would have filled a normal-sized tortilla, but the large, thick tortillas here rather overwhelmed the contents. This makes for a filling, carbo-loading taco, but the ratios are not right for maximum enjoyment – imagine the displeasure of taking a big bite of a raw corn tortilla, because that’s kind of what you get competing with the meaty goodness.

Next I ate the carnitas taco. Shreddy carnitas was tasty, porky, with good flavor and texture. Again competing with the meat I encountered the unusual aspect of the tomato salsa and the tortilla-mouth of excessive tortilla. This pattern was repeated again and again with the cochinita pibil, and then the machaca. Carmen and I observed that the three shredded meat tacos all have a similar look (refer to photograph #1) and similar texture.

The tastes of the meats were distinctive, although Carmen was particularly disappointed by their relative blandness and similarity. She liked Yuca’s less than I did. The pibil had a good moistness and a slight flavor of cola that I have recognized in cochinita pibil before but don’t know to what it can be attributed. We missed the citrus-pickled onions with which pibil has been served elsewhere. The machaca was tasty – it’s righteous, tender, moist shredded beef, and how can you go wrong? But it’s not remarkable, was in places too soft from long cooking, and was not up to the same high level as the other three meat choices.

The built infrastructure of this stretch of Hillhurst looks like a working-class Los Angeles neighborhood, but it was occupied by many hipsters and rich people with nice cars. Despite this setback, and despite the “best taco” hype, I did enjoy experiencing the tiny building, the dining in a driveway, and a very filling lunch at Yuca’s.

For further reading, see Bandini’s review at The Great Taco Hunt.

Posted: August 7th, 2010
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38 El Rey Tacos

38 El Rey Tacos

August 2, 2010

1358 W Martin Luther King Jr Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90037

Vermont Square

Sometimes you go to a taco shop because you think the tacos will be good. Sometimes you think the tacos will suck but you go for some other reason. I was attracted to El Rey Tacos because of its compelling architecture, or more specifically, its Googie rooftop architectural signage. The super-sized sign expertly brings together multiple Googie tropes – a triangular pylon upright of structural steel infilled with textured sheet metal; “El Rey” in a great script face on an elongated orange hourglass; “Drive-Thru” to express convenience and modernity; and “T A C O S” in a blocky letterface on five discrete rectangles supported by another triangle, a horizontal version of the upright, but this time in orange; a steel rod starburst crowns the pylon. The potent space-age imagery is at odds with the Missionizing architecture below of tile mansard and off-white stucco – perhaps the building suffered an unfortunate makeover at some point in its history.

The menu board claims El Rey has been operating here since 1961. Considering the short timeline of the taco in United States culture, 1961 is prehistoric. There are very few taco shops this old. Taco Bell dates to 1962 and Del Taco to 1964. Wikipedia traces hard shell tacos, likely the first type of taco encountered by average American gringos, only back to the late 1940s. El Rey was a pioneer, and perhaps it is due to nothing more than the unpredictability of history that Taco Bell grew ubiquitous while El Rey stayed true to its form, at the corner of Normandie and what is now called Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

El Rey did not look like a place that would even serve tacos of the corn tortilla-meat-onion-cilantro-salsa variety, and when I saw that they did serve them, I certainly didn’t expect them to be any good. The prominent legend “HOME OF THE GARBAGE BURRITO” was also not encouraging. With suitably lowered expectations, I ordered three tacos – one each carnitas, carne asada, and “regular”, and an horchata. Tacos were $1.39 each and served fairly quickly. I pulled them from their bag and unwrapped them for inspection.

First I ate the Regular – this taco had first priority, as I considered it to be my passport on this journey into taco history. The Regular, as the serveuse told me, featured ground beef, lettuce, cheese, and “mild sauce”. This taco was the lord of the old school – the shells are machine-made, and maybe they come from a supermarket or something, but seemed to have been recently re-fried for a fresh crispiness. The ground beef was rather watery, and tasted like McCormick taco seasoning. The “mild sauce” resembled the sweet condiment furnished with Jack in the Box or Burger King tacos. The overall impression of this taco is of what you might get if you tried to reproduce a regular Taco Bell taco at home – categorically like Taco Bell, but lacking the precision. I would recommend this taco to nobody, and yet, being a crunchy taco, it was still tasty and wonderful, although less so than what you can get at a Taco Bell.

The taco time machine did not really take me very far. I moved on next to the carnitas taco, which resembled a real taco except for being fitted with a pico de gallo-type salsa of tomato chunks rather than customary liquid salsa. The carnitas was quite serviceable, particularly in light of my low expectations – it was brown, and the texture had body, and it tasted like pork.

Next I ate the carne asada taco. The steak was reasonably good, competitive with the carnitas. Eating it with the pico de gallo reminded me of something one would eat at a Baja Fresh. I think I should have asked for some hot sauce to enhance the taco, but all told, both soft tacos were satisfying. El Rey Tacos gave me great architectural signage and a decent meal.

Posted: August 2nd, 2010
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37 Plancha: A Taco Joint

37 Plancha: A Taco Joint

July 31, 2010

8250 W 3rd St, Los Angeles, CA 90048

Beverly Grove

Carmen and I had an errand to run in this neighborhood called, according to the Los Angeles Times’ Mapping LA project, “Beverly Grove”. It was the right time to go to “Plancha: A Taco Joint”. The doubly self-referential name of this place is kind of a turn-off. I had read about it on Eater LA when it opened and knew that it was the product of some gringo apparently part of the “Poquito Más” burrito-serving empire; but the good people who write things on Yelp! Seem to like it. Furthermore, they have a crunchy taco called the “Jimmy Taco”, something I wouldn’t mind being called myself.

Parking in this DB-filled neighborhood sucked. We walked a couple blocks, passing by Doughboys; several restaurants that look too nice for me to want to go to; then a palpable rotten-fish stench-cloud; then the strife-torn corner at La Jolla and 3rd where opposing dry cleaners Sloan’s and Frederick are locked in eternal battle for cleaner supremacy.

We came to Plancha. The customer in front of us in line asked the serveur, “What is al pastor?” That is truly a mystical koan. I ordered two “Street Tacos”, one each of steak and al pastor; and one crunchy “Jimmy Taco”. The former were $1.99 each and the later, $2.75.

While waiting for our number, I sat down and thought that the Plancha dining area was quite pleasant. A long bar with tall chairs surrounded the kitchen zone, but went unused. We sat at a table in a corner near the front entry. Indirect sunlight through the surrounding glass storefront bathed the space in a cool light. The temperature was cool, just right. The stereo was loud, and the song “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” by the peerless Phil Collins and Genesis – Phil Collins, the renowned Lord of the Cool, for whom no jacket is ever required. It was nothing but Cool, as I nursed a candy-like Mango Jarritos whilst we waited for our tacos. I thought of the pathosy genius novel American Psycho and then of the atrocious movie version that ruined the novel for me.

My tacos were served and I examined them, somewhat perplexed – the steak looked lovely, but the alleged al pastor looked like stringy shredded chicken. The Jimmy Taco didn’t even look like a taco. I started with al pastor. I forked a piece of the shreddy meat into my mouth, confirming that it probably wasn’t accidental chicken but pork after all. Moist, fairly restrained in seasoning but good, it more strongly resembled the grey, shreddy variety of carnitas than anything called al pastor. I generously applied the smoky, pretty good rojo from the salsa bar. I enjoyed it, but categorically, this did not resemble a taco al pastor. The tortillas were bilaminated and sufficient.

Next I ate the steak. The chunks were in various sizes – one particularly big chunk stared out at me and gave me a good impression. The lean meat seemed almost too high quality for tacos, and I wished there were more of it – the taco was about average in size. The texture was right on, and the meat had been marinated and tasted lightly of carne asada seasoning salt.

The Jimmy Taco came next. After months of diligently, professionally eating soft tacos, I must be having a midlife crisis, as I find myself perversely attracted to things like burritos, quesadillas and crunchy tacos. Not to mention pizzas. The Jimmy Taco looked like a flat tortilla disk covered in a pile of multiple lettuce varieties. According to the description, it featured three cheeses, although only two caught my notice – crumbly white cheese on top and some melty cheese adjacent to the ground beef. The melty cheese offered a pleasing counterpoint to the savory meat and the crunchy, just-fried tortillas. The taco was pretty good, and with so much lettuce, left me with a relatively wholesome feeling for a crunchy taco. Plancha lived up to its promise – self-referential, inauthentic, high quality taco food – definitely a boon to those fated to spend time in this miserably too-nice neighborhood.

Posted: July 31st, 2010
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35 Tacos El Gavilan

35 Tacos El Gavilan

July 12, 2010

1900 S Central Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90011

Central-Alameda

It’s not often that I can tell you the name of the architect that designed the taquería I visited, but I can today: Stanley Meston designed this building. El Gavilan (“The Hawk”) inhabits this former McDonald’s franchise, built on the 1950s pattern when McDonald’s stands were Googie and awesome. Have a look at these photos of Meston’s McDonald’s outlet in Downey and it is unmistakable. Be careful looking at that website, though – it may give you a totally useless nostalgia for McDonald’s.

Only a year or two back, the Gavilan removed the conspicuous golden arches that made its historical origins obvious; this deliberate effort to wipe out history disappoints me. I arrived at a hypothesis that the palimpsest of McDonald’s was obscured to protect the owners from the threat of historical preservationists.

The remodel did improve the place by semi-enclosing the large dining area with ugly plastic sheets, creating an authentic Los Angeles indoor-outdoor dining experience. There is also a giant dining room inside an adjacent building, empty tonight but perhaps useful when late-night crowds are large, which does happen according to reports on the interwebs. Carmen and I went there for dinner on this Monday night, placing our orders at 8:14 PM, while the indoor-outdoor dining room was half full.

I ordered one each of the carne asada, al pastor, and carnitas tacos, which varied from average to above-average in size, and cost $1.25 each. Tacos are served plain; cilantro-onion mixture and red and green salsas are available at a well-stocked salsa bar, also featuring juicy limons, beans, jalapeños, radishes, and so forth. The small, doubled tortillas were pleasingly oiled and griddled, exhibiting a surprising yellow hue, and performed admirably.

I applied cilantro-onion mixture and rojo to my al pastor taco and commenced. The al pastor was my favorite of the three. More savory than sweet, the al pastor is not overly saucy, with something of a dry-rubby character. Grilled onions do their part too. The flavor of the pork came through loud and clear, and the orange and black bits offered good texture. Gavilan’s al pastor is a fine example. The rojo was pretty spicy and had a nice smoky flavor. Carmen ordered a quesadilla al pastor – the meat tastes great with melted cheese and griddled flour tortilla, and it was impressively big and meaty. I would prescribe it for hangovers.

Next was the carnitas taco, another winner. Good-sized cuboid chunks had a nice brown color and a rewarding fried texture. I applied the green salsa, somewhat spicy and very herby.

The carne asada taco came last. It was pretty good, and the biggest taco of the lot. The steak chunks had a good texture, although a few pieces were a bit tough, and tasted of carne asada seasoning. I think that stuff has crack in it – I don’t know if it’s onion powder or crack cocaine or what, but some part of that seasoning gets you hooked, like when you eat a Dorito and then find that you cannot stop eating Doritos until the bag has been emptied.

Posted: July 12th, 2010
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34 Metro Balderas

34 Metro Balderas

July 3, 2010

5305 N Figueroa St, Los Angeles, CA 90042

Highland Park

Carmen and I visited Damien and Ragen in Highland Park this evening and we dined at nearby Metro Balderas. This is our third taco stop in Highland Park this year, and all three have been outstanding.

Metro Balderas is a freestanding restaurant on Figueroa Street with a diverse menu and vintage-style booths where both the tables and benches are covered in textured orange laminate. There is a loud TV that was airing Sabado Gigante and a salsa bar with four types of salsa. A column in the very center of the space is wrapped tightly in nautical-esque rope; what would ordinarily be seen as an architectural problem was so easily transformed into an architectural opportunity.

The specialty here is antojitos – food in the style of the DF. “Metro Balderas” is the name of a transit station in Mexico City; the business card is printed on the backside to resemble a metro ticket, but instead of reading “Sistema de Transporte Colectivo”, the card reads “Sistema de Comida Chilanga”. Chilango is a slangy term indicating origin in Mexico City with a complex history and meaning. The DF-style items on the menu at Balderas are a bit different from your average Los Angeles taquería, and you may see things you don’t recognize like “pambazos” and “huaraches”. I can’t tell you too much about those, since I came for tacos. But I can tell you that this place offers DF-style carnitas on the weekends in eight different varieties. I didn’t get any of those, but I should have, because I should have read Jonathan Gold on the subject of Metro Balderas before I went there.

What I did get is one each of the carne asada, al pastor, and suadero tacos. At $1.25 each, they were average to just above average size. The tortillas are small, doubled, unlaminated, homemade-style, corny, and with good hand-feel. Tacos were served with onions and cilantro, but no salsa – I tried a couple from the salsa bar, each of which was medium-spicy but the flavors varied greatly.

The taco on top was the al pastor. The orange bits of pork had great flavor and were diced into varied chunks and little slivers, just as were the onions. It is a mystery how they effortlessly make such a mixture of cubish chunks and longitudinal slivers – some kind of dangerous, advanced surgical robot, perhaps. There were numerous identifiable chunks and slivers of pineapple scattered amongst the pork bits, nicely charred at the edges and caramelized. The pork was neither dry-rubby nor saucy – it seemed as if the flavors had been absorbed into the ingredients themselves rather than applied to the outside. This taco was a delight.

The next taco was the suadero. I thought I knew what suadero was after enjoying the suadero tacos at King Taco and El Taurino, but this was something altogether different – quite pale in color, diced into regular small cubes, and fried to extreme crispiness on one edge. It resembled carnitas far more than any beef with which I am familiar, and had a great texture. I could hardly convince myself it wasn’t pork, but it must not have been. I enjoyed this taco very much, but not as much as the al pastor.

Lastly I ate the carne asada taco, which contained yet more surprise – the bits of steak that made up this taco were chopped from the thinnest cut of steak I’ve ever seen used for this purpose, about a millimeter in thickness. The grilling rendered these little bits of thin steak slightly resilient without being tough. The flavor was elegant, just beef, salt and black pepper – an absolutely righteous taco. All three of my tacos here reveal that behind the scenes, a considerate taquero is crafting tacos with much thoughtfulness and attention.

Posted: July 3rd, 2010
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33 El Chato

33 El Chato

June 29, 2010

W Olympic Blvd at S La Brea Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036

Mid-Wilshire

We finally made it to El Chato, after a few failed attempts to go there when the truck was either absent or not open (they seem to get started serving at 8:30 or 9:00). Carmen has driven by this place for months and seen long, telltale lines out front. I had read Bandini’s glowing, credible report on The Great Taco Hunt and had high expectations. By the way, Bandini has admirably renewed his ambitious goal of eating at all of the taco trucks in Los Angeles, of which there are reportedly over 10,000. To put that in perspective, that’s one a day for 28 years. That is epic.

I shakily drove us to the corner of Olympic and La Brea where we saw that the truck was already busy. We were in business. And The Chato proved to be the awesome.

It is a good-looking truck with cartoon Cantinflas painted on it and bright, dazzling lights inside and out. Four taqueros were in the little trailer, busy making tacos and burritos. If you look closely at my photo, you might be able to make out the al pastor spit just behind the window. The Chato has a platonic taco truck location, after-hours on the lot of a car repair shop on a busy street corner.

I knew from advance research that the tacos would be a bit small, so I ordered five – two each of al pastor and carne asada, and one of chorizo. They are $1.00 each and on the small side, but five of them left me satisfied.

We waited for our number to be called. The crowd here is a true Los Angeles melting pot – Latinos, Koreans, African-Americans, Caucasians, and douchebags all visited the Chato while we were there.

We got our tacos. My plate, with five tacos con todo, felt heavy. The tacos were nicely arranged, decorated with preapplied onions, cilantro and salsa, and then the plate was topped with a pile of radish slices, juicy key lime tetrahedrons, a big grilly jalapeño, and a heap of tasty grilled onions.

I picked up the topmost taco, which happened to be the chorizo. The petite, doubled tortillas had a very pleasing feel – they had been liberally oiled and grilled on a hot plancha. The texture was tough and resilient, not soggy; oily and not dry (as my favorite tortilla descriptor “leathery” implies). The light friedness imparted a slight crispness to these tortillas upon biting into them. They were excellent. And although the whole approach to tortilla preparation used here seems so obvious, so intuitive, this kind of tortilla performance is truly uncommon.

The chorizo was delicious, the best taco chorizo I’ve ever had by far. The taco featured crumbly sausage bits salty, spicy, absolutely full-flavored, but not greasy. I might even say that I enjoyed this taco even more than the al pastor, but a little chorizo does go a long way, whereas al pastor is sustainable, good for the long haul.

I had the al pastor tacos next, and they were excellent – spicy; good textural variation with resilient bits after a plancha-frying as well as tenderness; pineapple flavor; and a deep porky-flavored subtext. With fine tortillas, good salsa, and fresh grilled onions, these are stellar tacos, genre-defining, honorable.

Finally I ate the carne asada tacos. These were great too, although not the standout of the night. The steak is moist and full-flavored, and diced very finely. I found myself picking up tiny little scraps of tasty spare taco meat from my plate after I had finished the fifth taco.

El Chato is so praiseworthy that it gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling just thinking about how it’s there, not far away, providing righteous tacos, like true professionals, all evening long for its happy customers.

Posted: June 29th, 2010
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32 Campos Tacos

32 Campos Tacos

June 27, 2010

10814 Jefferson Blvd, Culver City, CA 90230

Culver City

Campos Tacos is a mini-chain of five or ten restaurants scattered mainly around the Westside. There was one on Venice Boulevard in Palms that became Pancho’s recently; they used to have some giant tasty al pastor tacos that you could wash down with a Negra Modelo. There is also a Campos Famous Burritos on Venice Boulevard at Motor Avenue that I visit frequently, but when I go to a place called “Famous Burritos”, I order a burrito. I’m not a troublemaker, so why would I deliberately defy such an explicit guideline contained within the name of the restaurant?

Be advised that all these Camposes serve completely different food. The Burrito place has a very savory, chorizo-like al pastor that I enjoy in burrito format; but Campos Tacos on Jefferson in Culver City, where Carmen and I had lunch today, surprised me with a diametrically opposed al pastor of super fruity sweetiness.

We found this suburban-looking taco shop in the middle of the big strip mall with the Target store. The television let us watch Argentina beat Mexico at the big sportsball tournament. I ordered one each of the al pastor, carne asada, and carnitas tacos, which were well above average in size and $1.75 each. They were served con todo, with a couple different kinds of salsa preapplied, and a handful of storebought-seeming chips that I nonetheless enjoyed with the spicy verde salsa from the salsa bar.

I started off with the carne asada. The ordinary tortillas were hot, steamed, but not laminated, so I performed the tortilla offset maneuver on this big taco. My first bite was very satisfying. I tasted onions, cilantro and salsa in proper balance with a beefy steak flavor sparely seasoned with salt and pepper, and citrus from the lime I had squeezed above my tacos; but on subsequent bites, I was disappointed to find much of the steak too tough, resisting one’s ability to bite through it. Flavor was good, but texture was subpar.

Next I ate the carnitas taco, the best of the bunch. Unlike the moist, grey carnitas at Famous Burritos, the carnitas here had a nice brown color and a dry consistency with good al-denteness. The addition of spicy green from the salsa bar helped round out this taco.

Finally I ate the al pastor. Despite the very peppery-looking salsa, this taco surprised me by being the fruitiest, sweetest al pastor experience of the year, with a taste reminiscent of brown sugar. I liked it, but the carnitas was better, and I have to admit it was not better than the median of al pastor meats.

Carmen ordered a hard shell taco with beef, which she declared “Better than Tito’s”. I took a bite and found it very tasty, with the crispy taco shell offering all the satisfactions of oily, freshly-deep-fried starches. A sign in the restaurant claimed that they have the best crispy tacos in town. That would be a fun project to verify.

Posted: June 27th, 2010
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