2011.06 Carnitas Los Gordos aka Erika’s Tacos

2011.06 Carnitas Los Gordos aka Erika’s Tacos

Saturday, August 20, 2011

3818 E Cesar Chavez Ave, East Los Angeles, CA 90063

East Los Angeles

Kyle and I were on a bike ride through East Los Angeles on a Saturday morning and Kyle suggested we eat breakfast. I knew that we would encounter something good if we headed down Cesar Chavez, and of course we did – in fact, pulled a quick u-turn after seeing and smelling wonderful smoking chickens on a home-made halved-drum grill. Smoky goodness.

We both ordered one each of the carnitas (one must go with the namesake), chorizo (in honor of breakfast – it wasn’t yet 10:00 AM) and carne asada tacos. They were large, and probably were $1.25 each (the total was $10 for six tacos including two juice drinks). Well prepared, with leathered tortillas; after she handed me my plate, the taquera asked if I wanted grilled onions too. What a lovely question. Later the other taquera came by and brought us each a grilled jalapeño, delivered with a warning. The salsas were rich and spicy.

The carnitas was the champ but the others were great too – befitting a place called “Carnitas Los Gordos,” it was prepared with rigor and care, cooked slow to bring out the natural porkiness. Eating these righteous tacos, this was a fantastic meal, the sort that puts you in a happy place mindful of how good life can be, and life in Los Angeles in particular. The environmental aspects contribute.

Los Gordos has that tiny building, but the action is outside. One sits in a parking lot in front of a house, next to two easy-ups, the space bounded on three sides by small buildings and on the fourth by a wall of chicken smoke. It would be tough to sit down at one’s drafting table and come up with a design for a more pleasant informal space.

Posted: August 24th, 2011
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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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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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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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