27 No “Q” No Taquería

27 No “Q” No Taquería

May 22, 2010

3224 Venice Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90019

Arlington Heights

Carmen and I dined at the No “Q” No Taquería, another taco shop roughly local to our neighborhood. They have an extensive and largely handmade menu spread across the wall. You can eat at one of several tables inside, where a loud jukebox keeps spirits lively, or outside in front of the parking lot on Venice Boulevard, another of Los Angeles’s great taco environments with the feel of a semi-enclosed outdoor space.

Tacos are $1.00 each, the cheapest tacos I have encountered this year, and they varied from average to well above average in size. It would really be more appropriate to charge $1.25 for tacos like these. I automatically chose one each of al pastor, carnitas, and carne asada. Despite the low prices, they serve you at your table after you order up front. First the serveuse brought us a big gratis bowl of chips and fresh red salsa; then our tacos, with an admixture in a bowl of cilantro and diced onion for our own application. The combination of nice service and a bill of less than $8 for two eaters makes you want to leave a tip.

After assembling tacos, I started in on the carne asada. It was very juicy, leaking a brown, meaty liquid out the back of the taco, and very flavorful, bringing back a strong sense of recognition of spiced beef that I couldn’t immediately place; later I decided that it tasted of carne asada seasoning, and figured that perhaps the familiarity it evoked came from a resemblance to the seasoned ground beef one makes at home on taco night. This description will surely make the taco sound unsophisticated to the reader, but I assure you it was tasty, and I recommend it to you as long as you are not a snob. But then a snob probably wouldn’t go to a place that looks like the No “Q” No Taquería anyways. I could gobble up quite a few of these tacos.

Second was the al pastor taco. It was the biggest – look at the picture and appreciate the heap of meat I received for my dollar. The al pastor was saucy and quite sweet, with good-sized and super tender chunks of pork.

Lastly I ate the carnitas. Their unusual carnitas is the pale chicken-looking taco you see in the photo. Carmen speculates that their process is to grill a pork chop, shred it, and then sauté the shreddy bits. I’ve never seen anything called “carnitas” like this before, but it was good – tender, and unmistakably porcine in flavor.

Tortillas were the normal kind; they were not bilaminated, so that I was able to take advantage of the tortilla offset method. The first two tacos had tortillas a bit clammy, but they did not fail; the third taco had nicely leathery tortillas, perhaps owing to the drier filling, but it seemed like they had been grilled longer.

After enjoying another fine taco meal, I reflected upon the fact that the cincuenta taquerías project keeps on yielding dividends – tacos are better than the stock market. Seven more months of rigorous taco-eating are spread across the horizon.

Posted: May 22nd, 2010
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26 Taquería Jalisco

26 Taqueria Jalisco

May 19, 2010

4755 W Washington Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90016

Mid-City

Carmen and I went to nearby Taqueria Jalisco for dinner, and I really enjoyed it – a fine meal from a platonic taco shop, a little place with few tables, and doors that open the whole front of the shop to the sidewalk.

I was fooled by the exterior signage program, which has caught my eye over the years. Both this place and the nearby “Washington Market” are humble little businesses with vaguely trendy-looking arial-wannabe-helvetica-medium exterior signs. I was expecting a blandly designy interior to match the signage, and had even constructed in my mind a narrative in which some Community Design Center had dispensed with a grant by providing upgraded signage and interiors for select local businesses in this gritty Washington Boulevard neighborhood. The signs out front, however, are where the design stops, thankfully. Inside, Taqueria Jalisco is 100% old-school.

The tacos are $1.15 each, and about average to just above average in size, an excellent value. Carmen and I both ordered one each of the carne asada, al pastor, and carnitas tacos. Tacos are prepared on the hot stainless plancha to order, and we waited about ten minutes to be served. The plate was delivered with garnishing carrots, jalapeno, radish and lemon. Tacos were delivered con todo with a good salsa, less hot than medium-hot.

I took a first bite of the carne asada taco. Very tasty, juicy, hot, almost perfect. Memories of my first taco experiences in Santa Ana flooded my mind. The bilaminated normal tortillas were piping hot and nicely leathery. The meat had perfect coverage on the tortillas, and the onion, cilantro and salsa were all supplied in the perfect ratio to the taco. Carmen commented that there was a harmony between the size of the diced onion and the diced meat. These tacos were absolutely unpretentious, but crafted with the utmost care – the classic taco prepared by a master artisan. One must respect and appreciate such craftsmanship when one encounters it.

I ate the al pastor taco next. It was the charriest, crunchiest pork al pastor I’ve ever encountered. I enjoyed the sensation, although I must admit it was too charred. Last I ate the carnitas taco. Their carnitas is excellent, brown with a dry, crispy, varied texture.

Taqueria Jalisco provides the proper taqueria experience, and is absolutely taco-righteous.

Posted: May 19th, 2010
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25 Villa Tacos

25 Villa Tacos

May 11, 2010

10022 Venice Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232

Culver City

Villa Tacos opened about a month ago, taking over a space in a little corner strip mall in Culver City that was previously occupied, for a brief period in taco history, by Diablo Tacos. Villa did not look promising from the outside. It has the kind of graphic identity that seems to imitate amateurishly the look of fast-food chains, reminiscent of what you see at a university food court that thinks it needs to appeal to 18-year-olds who have grown up in such a way that they are most comfortable in branded environments. That look does not cater to my insatiable and arbitrary desire for Authenticity. Villa Tacos does nevertheless appear to be an independently owned little startup by an enterprising taco-man, and does possess the great virtue of being five minutes’ walk from my Culver City office, so there I went, for my 25th taco meal of 2010. And it was pretty good, so I wish them fortune, customers, and profits.

Villa Tacos has a streamlined menu and what a popular website “Yelp!” reviewer termed Chipotle-style ordering – you choose taco, burrito, &c., and then specify one of six “meat options” (including “fish” and “vegetarian”, which if taken literally means they are serving the cannibal flesh of vegetarian humanoids, so I didn’t order that), and then have your choice of various toppings. Tacos are $1.95 each and quite large. I asked for three, and the serveuse plopped three large bumpy tortillas into the heaty iron press. Then she removed them and filled them with my chosen meats, ranchera (equal to carne asada), carnitas, and lengua. Then we came to the toppings. I asked for cilantro, onions and salsa, naturally eschewing such goof toppings as cheese, pico de gallo, and sour cream. I chose the red “medium hot” on steak and carnitas, and the green “very hot” salsa on the lengua. My serveuse warned me that the green was very hot, and I responded positively.

No doubt many unassuming taco eaters would be pleased to be offered so many choices with which to fine-tune their taco. I submit to you on the contrary, that this is not a virtue. At a true taquería, you are choosing eg. al pastor not as a filling, but rather you are choosing an al pastor taco. The only question asked of you is likely to be, “With everything?” meaning onions, cilantro and salsa. This elegant, diagrammatic simplicity constitutes all that a taco is and all that a taco should be. A virtuous taquero will have his or her opinion about how that taco is best served, such as what type of salsa and how much of it. The taco should be a gesamtkunstwerk – a coherent design from top to bottom. Relinquishing so much control to the customer reflects a tangible lack of commitment on the part of the taquero. Who do you trust – the bartender who asks you how much vermouth should go in a martini, or the one in possession of his own unspoken convictions? And if that’s not enough, remember Devo’s argument: “In ancient Rome, there was a poem / About a dog who found two bones….”

The foregoing was a discussion about ethics, which inevitably leads back to tacos. I ate first the lengua, for the same reason that I requested the hottest salsa with this taco – I was apprehensive. This was my first lengua taco, and I’m typically squeamish about eating guts and parts. I expected lengua to be chewy, pink, squishy, and lean, like my own tongue, I suppose; but this was not so. It was brown, moist, and tender and had a strong beefy, almost gamy, flavor. It was very good and neither gross nor disgusting. The green salsa was pretty hot (not compared to the Taurino, of course). The big, bumpy single-ply tortilla, although not leathery, was resilient and high-functioning.

Next I ate carnitas. Considering all of these meats came out of a fast-food-Chinese-style steam tray, it wasn’t bad, although not too thrilling – moist with little textural variation. Finally I was left alone with the ranchera, which seemed to be simply a more evocative name for carne asada. This was the best of the bunch as well as the biggest – tender and flavorful; and it will be my choice next time.

Posted: May 11th, 2010
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24 El Taurino

24 El Taurino

May 7, 2010

2306 W 11th St, Los Angeles, CA 90006

Pico-Union

A few weeks ago friend and colleague Zinayda recommended El Taurino, and then when I looked it up, I discovered that the whole internet likes it as well, and that El Taurino is a sibling of King Taco, which recently I so enjoyed. Carmen and I decided to go there this Friday evening for dinner – I couldn’t help it, I was craving al pastor.

We drove to their Pico-Union location and found a taco truck serving tacos in their parking lot, apparently supplementing the action in the restaurant proper; but it seemed like going inside for the restaurant experience was the thing to do. We might have spent 15 minutes waiting in line, though. I tried not to think about how I would have been eating already had we gone with the truck.

The interior is classic Mexican restaurant style, with a spacious dining room, in which the experience is marred only by the constant calling of order numbers over the loudspeaker. The dining experience is greatly augmented by the wall-to-wall bullfighting decorations, and actual taxidermy trophy bull heads mounted on the walls. And it’s called “El Taurino”. This place wants you to know that cattle aren’t just something you happen to be eating, but also a mighty and honorable beast cruelly taunted and murdered for sport! Click here to see my photo of the restaurant interior on Flickr.

Tacos were $1.25 each, and the menu similar to that at King Taco. I chose one each of carne asada, al pastor, carnitas, and suadero, and responded affirmatively when asked if I wanted them spicy. They are somewhat small to average in size, so four make a good meal. The tortillas are the normal kind, fully bilam’d.

First I ate suadero, delivered with a tasty peppery green salsa. This was my favorite of the four – the strips of beef filled the tortillas well and offered great texture and beefy flavor. Next I ate carne asada, which was coated in a smooth red salsa. I took a couple bites and found the steak moist and tasty, fairly spare in its treatment but citrusy. By the third bite, the heat of that smooth red salsa had gone into effect. The green salsa on the suadero was unusually hot, but the rojo on the asada is potent. It’s Franka Potente. I’m pretty sure this was the hottest taco I’ve ever eaten. Is this heaty taco the reason that the majority of the clientele at El Taurino appeared to be Korean? Everything I tasted after this moment was mediated by that heat.

I ate carnitas next, which was delivered with the less hot verde, but through the veil of the hot afterburn of the red, it could have been soggy cardboard and I would scarcely have noticed. It seemed okay, but I won’t presume to judge it.

The al pastor was delivered with the now-legendary rojo as well. I eyed it warily. Carmen encouraged me to scoop off that rojo, but I’m not the kind of man who would do any such thing – this taco needed to be eaten the way it was meant to be eaten. But I did take a bite of al pastor at fork’s end before I got into the taco per se. It was very good, cut from a real rotating spit that you can look at, orange and black, and very sweet, caramelly. Then I ate the rest of the taco and was plunged back into the land of heat and fire.

El Taurino was awesome. It’s not so hot that tears run down the face, but the heat still shows you who’s boss. What it lacks in subtlety is obscured by the visceral experience of fiery rojo.

Posted: May 8th, 2010
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22 Chulada Grill

22 Chulada Grill

April 25, 2010

5607 San Vicente Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90019

Mid-Wilshire

On a Sunday afternoon the taco enthusiast might feel daunted by having to choose just one place to eat lunch, but today Carmen and I decided correctly to go to Chulada Grill. Sharing the smallest of corner strip malls with a cleaners and a launderette, Chulada is inconspicuous at the unprominent intersection of San Vicente and Hauser, but it’s also exactly the kind of neighborhood Mexican restaurant that you should know about, and even drive a long way to get to. Small and cozy inside with only about ten tables, Chulada Grill’s specialty is serving you food. They take quality seriously, offering handmade tortillas for their tacos and tortilla chips fried fresh (no longer gratis but you should still consider ordering a bowl), and a bottle of XXXtra hot-as-the-sun El Yucateco hot sauce on each table. I ate dozens of delicious machaca burritos here between 2005 and 2007. Besides tacos and the many burrito options, their menu includes Oaxacan specialty plates. Today their stereo played several songs by the Smiths, which choice I would like to think was inspired by my appearance.

Soft tacos are $2.75 each, not inexpensive, but the quality justifies the price. I ordered one each of the carne asada, carnitas, and al pastor tacos. Look at those big cuboid chunks of carnitas – that’s what Carmen and I did when the tacos came out, and then obligingly each ate this taco first. This was the best carnitas I have enjoyed this year. Still hot and fresh out of the fryer, it had a genuine crispiness to it, reminiscent of the crispy fried pork you might get at a Thai or Cantonese restaurant. Each piece was crisp on the outside and moist on the inside – biting into a piece cracks it open to reveal juicy, full-flavored porkiness contained within. The appearance is fantastic. The cubes of pork look exactly like diced animal flesh, exhibiting in section a range of color and fattiness from one edge to the other. The richness of flavor was undoubtedly porky, and yet Carmen’s observation that it tasted like Popeye’s fried chicken was accurate – the carnitas had the same butterfatty quality that great fried chicken provides. The carnitas taco was so good that Carmen ordered another one after we had cleaned our plates.

The fine handmade tortillas didn’t hurt, either. They are thick and bubbly, leathery, with mild corniness and great resilience.

Next I ate carne asada. It hit the spot, providing exactly what a carne asada fan would be seeking in a taco – the steak charry and subtly flavored so that the buttery-fatty beef flavor comes through most strongly. It seemed as if the rojo provided on this taco was hotter than that supplied with the others, which if true reflects well on the taquero’s commitment to taco curating.

The al pastor also proved to be a high-performing taco. The pork was dryish and dry rubby, lubricated by salsa, generated an experience of contrast between moisture-sucking dryrubbiness and dryness-drenching salsa roja. The bite is met with good al-dente tooth feel, and preceding the marinated pork taste was the dominant cinnamon flavor of the spice rub. I was left wanting more. Still am. What’s for dinner?

Posted: April 25th, 2010
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21 King Taco #15

21 King Taco #15

April 19, 2010

4300 E Olympic Blvd, East Los Angeles, CA 90023

East Los Angeles

If not for happenstance and King Taco, there would never have been a “Cincuenta Taquerías” project. Happenstance sent me out to work in East Los Angeles. Searching out the most efficient commuting roads led me to East Olympic Boulevard, the artery of an area Great Taco Hunt’s Bandini has termed the “Taco Mecca”. East Olympic Boulevard hosts an eye-catching preponderance of taco vendors, and after a hundred trips down East Olympic Boulevard, I could not escape taco captivation.

Perched beneath a roughly 400-foot-tall sign that towers over Interstate 5 is the most eye-catching taco stand of all. You’ve probably seen it from the freeway. Tonight on my way home I finally stopped at King Taco #15, a classic outdoor-seating taco stand at the heart of Taco Mecca. I did so with low expectations – King Taco is a chain restaurant with 20 locations and its own Visual Corporate Identity program; and although its Mexican-style soft tacos have nothing in common with Taco Bell or Del Taco, I had been to a King Taco once before a year earlier (King Taco #27 in Long Beach) and been disappointed by small, boring tacos with bad tortillas. Tonight, however, I experienced nothing but taco bliss. I don’t know what went wrong that other time.

For the urban cyclist, a classic taco stand has one obvious advantage – you can order and eat outside without locking up your bike. It was about 68 degrees when I sat down next to my bicycle at the taco table, a slight breeze and a lowering sun both coming at me from the west, and the gentle whoosh of the Santa Ana Freeway 50 yards to the east. The environment of King Taco #15 felt perfect, like a taco holy land. Eating there alone I felt the same brand of solemnity one feels at, for example, the Zen Garden at the Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto. Only a couple other customers shared this contemplative moment with me, no doubt lost in their own experiences. I wonder whether the taquero smiled at me when he handed over the goods because he knew what awaited me.

I ordered four tacos, one each of carne asada, suadero, carnitas and al pastor. They are $1.25 each and a little smaller than average. My order had been entered as “to-go” and was therefore given to me as a plastic bag containing a cuplet of red salsa and a tidy rectangle of taut aluminum foil that looked way too small to contain so much satisfaction – I was fear-stricken that I might have received only one taco. Upon opening, the four modestly sized tacos looked good, though. I nibbled a piece of suadero before I could get the camera out. So good.

So therefore I had to eat the suadero first – beefy brisket with the slightly edgy quality of meat fried in oil, mildly sweet, great texture, so flavorful. I generously applied the rojo and found it to be remarkably spicy – those of you who fear the spice, take note. This taco made quite a first impression. The tortillas were hot, bilaminated, just right.

I moved on to carnitas. They take it seriously here – it had the textural variation of great carnitas, comprising both the moist and the toothy-dry together. They have mastered the alchemy by which slow-cooked pork fat is transformed into porky gold.

Next, carne asada presented a contrasting aspect. Greyish, finely diced and very moist and tender, the flavors were relatively restrained, with plenty of lemon and detectable salt and pepper. The spicy rojo makes this steak taco into a real powerhouse.

I saved the best for last, it turned out – the al pastor was magically delicious. I picked up a piece between my fingers and studied it closely. The irregular little bit of pork was about half orange and half grill-blackened. Each little bit of pork seemed to contain a universe of flavor, waiting to be unleashed. I think I experienced a small nuclear reaction when I took a big bite. The al pastor is saucy, not dry-rubby, although not overly wet. The textural contrast within it was unusual, both tender and near-crispy. It is very sweet and very savory too. I struggled to think of what it reminded me of – the spicy mint beef at Thai BBQ? Experientially, I think it most resembled a really good plate of sautéed Tangerine Beef or Orange Beef at the kind of nice Chinese restaurant that’s in Chinatown but largely serves a gringo crowd. I would call this my new favorite al pastor, but after such a trauma I’m still in the denial stage – can King Taco #15’s al pastor really always be this good? My taco must have been a fluke.

If I had to award a gold medal today for the taco all-around competition, it would go to King Taco hands-down – these four tacos were so distinct from one another, and yet all superb. King Taco #15’s lineup is now known as the Murderer’s Row, and all its members elected to the Hall of Fame. I award them the Stanley Cup, the Hugo Award, and the Nobel Peace Prize.

Posted: April 19th, 2010
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20 Cemitas Originales Angelica’s

20 Cemitas Originales Angelica’s

April 13, 2010

Venice Blvd between Jasmine Ave and Vinton Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90034

Palms

Twenty taco shops deep into 2010, I revisit my taco roots. I luncheoned today at Angelica’s, or as my friends call it, “Cemitas Poblanas” or simply “Taco Truck”. This truck specializes in the Puebla-style sandwich known as the cemita, which seems to be their biggest seller, but the tacos are still taken seriously. Angelica’s was the first ever taco truck from which I ate, and the first place I discovered the magic of Al Pastor, way back in 2004. Their al pastor is not the best in the city, but it’s still dang delicious, and it remains the benchmark by which I judge all others.

Angelica’s parks in front of the Smart & Final on Venice Boulevard in Palms, one of the only trucks regularly parked in this diverse, dingbat-filled neighborhood.

Today I ordered three tacos, the carne asada, al pastor, and carnitas. They were $1.25 each, slightly larger than average, and served after just a couple of minutes’ wait. I proceeded logically from left to right, first eating carne asada. This taco was such a normal carne asada taco (and keep in mind that normal=delicious in the case of tacos) that I struggle to comment on it – by the time it had cooled down enough to pick up in the hand, it went by in a flash of light, heat and taste that seems to have wiped my memory clean of all thought and anxiety. Tortillas were the normal type, bilaminated. I did suffer a partial tortilla failure on this first taco, but the others withstood. The salsa is thick, pretty spicy and quite strong. The steak was chopped finely and was very beefy, with good texture and the good kind of buttery fatty flavor.

I moved on next to the taco al pastor. It was my favorite. The meat is cut into small pieces, and it’s orange except where it’s been charred to near black, with more textural variation than is typical of al pastor. It’s saucy but also seems a little dry-rubby somehow. The intensity of flavor – a chorizo-like garlic-chile-onion, with salt and citrus pouncing on it – is truly overwhelming, and would be so even without the addition of red salsa on the top. There are plenty of chunks of fat in the meat. Sometimes I find some gristly bits, but not today. It really was a wonderful taco.

Al pastor is a funny thing. I know what it’s hypothetically supposed to be – sliced from a revolving spit with a slice of pineapple sitting on top – but most of the time, I don’t know where it comes from or how they have made it. It’s different every time. I don’t have the vocabulary or the power of discernment to analyze the competing flavors, and I can’t define it in such a way that all examples would be covered. I will not be the author of the Unified Field Theory of Al Pastor. All I can do is taste it and humbly appreciate its stage presence, its tall, dark and brooding good looks and winning charisma.

A lesson: “al pastor” is Spanish for “shepherd-style”. Jesus was a shepherd. By the transitive property, the Taco al Pastor is the taco that answers the question, WWJD? Carmen and I are making a small effort to popularize the phrase “al pastor” as a universal term for praise: as in, “Check out that hot-rodded Honda Ruckus! That shit is al pastor!” or, “The new Herzog & de Meuron project has a really al pastor façade.”

The carnitas taco was third in the lineup. I enjoyed it, but the meat is not remarkable – it’s the grey carnitas of uniform texture and moist stringy tenderness that you find when carnitas is not a specialty. The green salsa was more extraordinary, being a very potent salsa verde, spicy and intensely cilantro-centered. It reminded me of the aji verde I enjoy at Peruvian restaurants.

Posted: April 13th, 2010
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19 La Estrella #3 Tacos

19 La Estrella #3 Tacos

April 11, 2010

6103 N Figueroa St, Los Angeles, CA 90042

Highland Park

It was a fine cloudy Sunday, and Carmen and I planned to stop at La Estrella #3 Tacos in Highland Park on the way to a MOCA symposium called “Ugly and Ordinary” at the Pacific Design Center about Venturi-Scott Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas studio. La Estrella is the kind of throwaway, makeshift commercial space which Venturi and Scott Brown might have self-consciously tried to appreciate architecturally, and which Ed Ruscha might have photographed in black-and-white out the window of his car for the book he never produced that might have been called FIFTY LOS ANGELES TACO SHOPS. It’s a perfect, platonic taco stand.

The site is an isosceles triangle, cut along the hypotenuse by the tracks of the Gold Line. If a parcel of this size and shape were created today, the city wouldn’t let you build anything on it at all. Digging a little deeper, we learn that Parcel Number 549-202-5001, also known as “Ralph Rogers’ Resubdivision of Part of Block ‘50’ and Change in Block ‘J’ Garvanza”, is 1,083 square feet. The 664-square-foot building was constructed in 1962. There is no parking. According to public records, the last sale amount for the property was $9, but I think it’s worth quite a bit more than that. La Estrella is a triumph of efficiency, the kind of exploitation of marginal space that you would expect to find in Tokyo or New York, but seldom in Los Angeles.

As we approached, we heard “Smells like Teen Spirit” blaring from inside the kitchen. You stand on the sidewalk to order, and sit on the other sidewalk to eat at one of three primary-colored fiberglass-and-steel tables under a plank-and-beam roof in front of a mural depicting the taqueria itself. If you look close, you’ll see a hog with the word “lust” appropriately tattooed on its rear end.

Carmen and I each ordered the triumvirate – one carne asada, one al pastor, and one carnitas; and I an horchata, and Carmen a piña. The total came to $11.94 – working backwards, I think the tacos must have been $1.25 each. The piña tasted like pure, liquid candy! The serveuse picked up on the fact that Carmen could speak Spanish, and asked where she was from. Carmen said Panama. “You are a lucky guy,” the young, rock and roll-loving serveuse then said to me. “Latin-American women are better than normal women.” Yes, I thought about how true that is. I feel sorry for all those inferior women bravely bearing the burden of their normalcy.

We were quite pleased with the tacos we received, on a plate with radishes and giant juicy lemon slices. First I ate the carnitas. One of the better carnitas tacos I have had this year, the pork was diced into nice little rectilinear bits and had fried character (rather than the juicy stewy character), with good tooth resistance and a smooth porky flavor. La Estrella’s thick, strong salsa roja was a pleasing accompaniment. Tortillas were the normal kind, doubled and semi-bilaminated, but well prepared.

My next mouth-guest was the taco al pastor. So good! Whereas the carnitas taco had been about average in size, the al pastor was fuller and good-sized, due to its bulk forming more of a cylinder-shape than a folded-in-half taco shape when picked up. The meat texturally resembled the carnitas, as Great Taco Hunt’s Bandini commented in a 2006 review. But this meat was bathed in a delicious fruity-chile-spice sauce, and quite flavorful – a totally good, solid taco.

Last, but still appreciated, I ate the carne asada taco. The grilled steak was chopped into unusually tiny bits that reminded me of crumbled sausage – I didn’t mind. The flavoring is streamlined, probably not much more than salt and pepper used here, and beef power is thus set free to dazzle the inside of your mouth. The salsa roja was actually quite hot, and seemed well hotter here than on the previous tacos – was it a different salsa, or did I imagine? Thinking about this taco 11 hours later, while staring at a photo of it, I’m making myself darned hungry.

Sipping my horchata at the end of this lunch, I remarked to Carmen that the presence of La Estrella #3 Tacos might seriously make me consider moving to Highland Park. It’s open 24 hours. It’s open right now, no matter when you are reading this. If it were within a mile, maybe even two miles, from home, I would walk there right now in the rain in my stocking feet for another plate of tacos.

Posted: April 12th, 2010
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18 Tacos La Flama

18 Tacos La Flama

April 4, 2010

2404 S Barrington Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90064

Sawtelle

Tucked into the corner of the platonic low-rent Los Angeles corner strip mall, between the Mattress Clearance Center and the Indian Fast Food, beneath the billboard and flappy flags, Tacos La Flama might easily be overlooked. Outside, it has about 10’ of frontage, but inside you find a fine neighborhood taco shop, augmented with a case full of pan dulce and a busy butcher’s counter too. A glass case is stacked to the rim with about a cubic yard of chicharrones.

I ordered one each of the carne asada, al pastor, and carnitas tacos, about average in size and $1.25 each. After a run of rather exotic tacos, I was relieved to come back to the world of the modest, humble taco – without pretension or putting on airs, these tacos simply want to follow their directive and bring you straightforward pleasure and nutrition, in accordance with the taco code of honor. Empalagado after so many Heroic tacos, I’ve returned to the virtues of the Ugly and Ordinary taco.

First I ate the carnitas, with a liberal application of the orangey “hot” salsa from the salsa bar. The salsa is not very hot, but has a good citrusy fruity flavor backing up peppery goodness. This was a good taco in the ordinary way – the carnitas rather grey in color, but with a good textural variation. An early bite was dry and almost crunchy in character, and a later bite was juicy and moist. The flavor had smoke and porkiness. The alignment of this taco was Lawful Good – a stand-up taco, a straightshooter all the way.

Tortillas were normal, doubled but not laminated. This afternoon was the first time this year I could use the Offset Tortilla strategy – when tortillas are unlaminated, slide the top tortilla 20% off the lower tortilla. After you fold and lift your tortilla, you have a 20% extension out the back of your taco with no topping in it. This can be folded over to prevent the “dumping syndrome” loss of taco meat out the back; and as you eat the taco from front to back, the gradual pushing on the contents will fill up that 20% taco tail with taco runoff and overflow. I learned this trick back in the Depression.

Next I ate carne asada. The Great Taco Hunt’s Bandini was right that the steak is way heavy on lemon juice, but I found this unusual sensation rather compelling. The little juicy steak bits so strongly flavored with citrus, salt, garlic, and the really good red salsa (which is pepper-smoky and fairly hot) had that perverse quality you find in Cool Ranch Doritos where the taste in your mouth makes you want more and more until it’s all gone.

Finally I ate al pastor. It was pretty normal stuff – good, but not intense, spiced fairly mildly, but this allowed the pork flavor to shine on through. A good every-day al pastor, I wish I could buy it in a big box in the cereal aisle and eat it out of a bowl every morning.

Posted: April 4th, 2010
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16 Antojitos Denise’s

16 Antojitos Denise’s

March 29, 2010

4060 E Olympic Blvd, East Los Angeles, CA 90023

East Los Angeles

Envious readers, Let me tell you how I stopped on my way home for my fourth taco meal in five days, at famed East LA pork specialist Antojitos Denise’s. At Denise’s, you stand on the sidewalk and order through a barred window, and then eat in a covered dining room space with a front open to the traffic of Olympic Boulevard – perfect taco ambience; a melding of indoor-outdoor-taco space. Some people may not appreciate this kind of environment. The benefit of this characteristic (analogous to the wearing of Ed Hardy shirts) is that it makes it obvious to discern that those people suck, and I hope you figure that out early in your relationship with such sucky people. Denise’s is a perfect taco spot, down to the loud classic Mexican pop music on their radio. I reflected briefly on the good ol’ days when Nate and I would eat at the patio overlooking the freeway at the Del Taco in Santa Ana, another kind of true Southern California experience.

I asked for three tacos, the carne asada, carnitas, and al pastor. Al Pastor was unavailable! This means I will have to go back again. I semi-adventurously substituted chicharron, remembering Jonathan Gold’s praise for it (“numbingly rich, a 1,500-calorie taco”). Tacos were $1.40 each and a little larger than average. You order, get served, and don’t pay until after you eat, lending the experience a sense of graciousness.

The tortillas were thick, bubbly, quite yellow and corny-flavored. Handmade? A single tortilla per taco performed admirably. First I ate the carnitas. I had high expectations – Denise’s is said to be one of the great sources of slow-roasted carnitas in town; you can go there and buy a giant thing of carnitas to take home for the family. If you really loved your family, you would do this for them. Disappointingly, my carnitas taco was not magnificent, but it showed potential. It was not very warm and a bit dry; but it had the crunchy/chewy textural variation I admire, and an excellent gamy pig flavor. You can tell it cooked for a long time. It showed potential!

Next, I ate the chicharron, my first time eating a chicharron taco. I looked at it up close, eyeing it warily. I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t this – there was a single big floppy strip of breaded fried something, softened by a moisturizing sauce. I took a big bite. It was weird – softened fried goodness on the outside, with a slightly chewy 2mm thick inner layer of what must have been pork skin. Not chewy like a gummy bear, but chewy like gnocchi, maybe. The taste of fat mingled with the taste of fried breaded goodness and salsa. Taste was good, but the unusual texture dominated the experience for me. I pondered the compelling weirdness of it – I wanted to pronounce it gross, but it totally wasn’t. I knew I would dream of that chicharron taco for days to come, my desire and longing for it rising to new heights until satisfied.

As an architect, I became conscious of the fact only a few years ago that a failed work of architecture, if unusual, is just as or more interesting than a successful one – the “objective” view, from the architect’s biased perspective, can derive interest in that work despite, or even because of, spectacular ugliness or unintended programmatic wackiness. And what do you get out of a building that is merely pretty?

Without much examination, I have always thought of food as something that I liked when it tasted good, and disliked when it tasted bad. A lifelong picky eater, I have been overlooking the excitement of food that doesn’t necessarily taste good, but is weird and different; and I most certainly have overlooked the benefits of things that taste bad, like vegetables. This was my taco epiphany for the day. I hope it changes my life.

So the carne asada taco had a tough act to follow, but it was very good. The steak was good quality meat, finely diced, juicy but not oversaturated, well seasoned, served with a tasty red salsa. One of the challenges of writing a taco blog is that the majority of tacos are above average – the math doesn’t work out. It feels like you’re writing every time about how your taco was delicious. That is only a problem to the extent you’re compelled to be a critical, objective observer, so never turn pro.

Posted: March 29th, 2010
Categories: Uncategorized
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