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.