40 Tinga

40 Tinga

August 15, 2010

142 S La Brea Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036

Hancock Park

I heard about Tinga first from the Eater blog – a just-opened taco shop founded by longtime caterers featuring a gourmet-style menu and a designy space. Owner Jerry claimed that his enthusiasm for tacos dates to his first visit, back in 1986, to the famed Taquería la Super-Rica in Santa Barbara. Super-Rica, renowned for being praised by Julia Child herself, exceeds even Yuca’s Tacos according to my new technique for identifying the objective index of hype: the number of times the word “best” appears on the first page of Yelp! reviews. Super-Rica rates a score of 25. Super-Rica is pretty darn good, and it has the character and feel of a righteous, working-class taco shop, but one with an especially interesting and diverse menu. Tinga is clearly not cut from the same cloth, so the comparison is misleading. The more relevant comparison for Tinga is to Lotería Grill (which incidentally, scores a mere 18 on the Yelp! hype index).

Carmen and I met Jany and Chris here for lunch today. I recognized Tinga’s narrow storefront on La Brea from the photos I had seen online – narrow, painted out black, covered in trendy wall-planting pockets, and lacking any kind of signage. The cool interior seats about 20; the music was loud, and mid-meal they treated me by playing Scritti Politti.

Tacos are served in plates of two, for $5.50 to $8.50 for the pair – comparable to other gourmet-style taco shops like Lotería and CaCao – although one is compelled to order them by the pair, so if you want variety, plan to share. Each order comes with a handful of tortilla chips of the best kind – thick, oily, just fried, and extra crunchy – and a saucer of tasty, smoky rojo. Carmen and I shared orders of the papas bravas, short rib deshebrada, and cochinita pibil tacos. I had an horchata, probably the thickest, strongest horchata I’ve ever had.

When the tacos came out, I was impressed by the striking blue and purple hues, beautifully contrasting with the red of the salsa and the yellow of the tortillas and chips. Each pair is served on an eco-friendly plate made of fallen tree leaves. I was also struck that all the tacos look the same. But rest assured they don’t taste the same beneath the cool garnish.

First I ate the short rib taco. The meat was nothing like Korean barbecue short rib, but rather more like what you get when you order the braised short rib at a European-style restaurant. It was tasty, with complex meat texture, but I felt like the subtlety of its fine taste and texture was somewhat drowned out by everything else going on – the corniness of excellent handmade tortillas, the tanginess of the salty cheese, the starchy chunks of potato. These ostentatious tacos are pretty big, too. It seemed gratuitous to be eating so fine a taco as a taco per se. In contrast to the rather anemic gourmet tacos you find at Lotería Grill, these are kickass.

Next I ate the cochinita pibil. Anywhere they have pibil, it’s a major attraction and one must pay heed. Here the pibil, described on the menu as “72-hour pork”, is fine and meaty. The onions are citrus-pickled, and there is a delicious, potent citrus-habanero salsa, with big visible chunks of habaneros, guaranteed to transform your mouth into a festival. This compelling taco is a new favorite and destined to haunt my daydreams.

Finally I ate the papas bravas taco, with potatoes and peppers – a great vegetarian taco. The potato chunks, exteriors given toothy resistance by being cooked I-don’t-know-how, are satisfying. The taste is great.

I imagined a potential outcome that Tinga would annoy me by being too upscale and bourgeois, but I found it a very worthy and enjoyable addition to the world of gourmet-style tacos.

Posted: August 15th, 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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23 Taco Station

23 Taco Station

May 1, 2010

1265 E Green St, Pasadena, CA 91106

Pasadena

This place is new – there was a blurb about it on the Eater blog last week, and it sounded worthwhile and even heartwarming: family opens little taqueria in ancient, preservation-worthy filling station, serving cochinita pibil tacos on homemade tortillas for $1.50 each. So there was ample reason to head uptown for some uptown tacos.

Carmen and I got there and found a cute little filling station with some old-timey gas pumps and about eight tables where cars once would have fueled – outdoor seating near the sidewalk of quiet Green Street in Pasadena. I ordered one each of the carne asada (hold the guacamole), barbacoa de res (“shredded beef in chilli sauce” [sic]) and cochinita pibil (“marinated pork with pickle onions” [sic]) tacos. They were $1.50 each and smallish – one should order five of them.

First I ate the carne asada, which comes by default with guacamole, but came to me unadorned even with cilantro and onion. Taco Station cleverly provides their red and green salsas in refillable squeeze bottles, so I reached for the rojo and applied liberally. It’s fairly spicy, and reminded me greatly of rooster sauce, or maybe a mix of rooster sauce and rooster chili-garlic paste, which mix would probably be great on any beef taco. The carne asada was good, moist and fairly subtle with some slight overtones of buttery fat flavor. The first impression was dominated by the handmade tortilla, however – amiable and strongly corny in flavor. Unfortunately, this taco was the smallest of the three, and one of the smallest heretofore this year.

The next candidate was the cochinita pibil. It looked just right, and the citrus-pickled onions were good, although it could have used a little more of them. Carmen was disappointed by the pork’s blandness, but I thought it had some charm – there was a slight cola flavor. The tortilla was fantastic, nicely griddled and a little crispy.

The barbacoa de res was Carmen’s favorite, and probably mine too. It was juicy and flavorful, although a little overly watery, dampening the tortilla. If I had a do-over, I would eat this one first to limit saturation.

Afterwards I was still a bit hungry, and was thinking about patty melts. Fast-forward to the late afternoon. Picture the scene: I am listening to the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack and internet-search-engining “Taco Station Pasadena” to find its address and vital statistics. I find its entry on popular website “Yelp!” and read the first review, four stars from Mr. Aaron F., who claims:

“Last summer this little plot of land was empty save the old style gas pumps (note it was NOT an old gas station, those pumps were never operational, they haven’t been there for more than a year. They were bought and put there for a store which used to be located next door, which is no longer there.). My girlfriend and I actually did a photo shoot there. Then last week the sign went up and the place became Taco Station.”

Aaron F. is raising serious questions about the authenticity of this Taco Station. If Taco Station is not an adaptive reuse of a gasoline filling station into a belly-filling station, but rather a phoney facsimile thereof, has the integrity-having and authenticity-seeking customer been betrayed or misled? Just what the hell is Taco Station, some kind of sanitized, theme-park rendition of the classic gritty L.A. image of the taco truck parked under the canopy of an abandoned service station? Not sure what to think, head tumbling in a ball of confusion, I access the Google Street View for clarification. The shocking result is here: http://tinyurl.com/27ncepd

Aaron F. contented that a year ago the lot had been empty, save for the old-timey gas pumps. Google Street View’s window on some unknown date in the past shows us, irreconcilably to the contrary, that the filling station building existed, but the pumps weren’t there! Instead of gas pumps there was, what is that, a blurry Karmann Ghia? The irreconcilability of these “facts” unearthed on the internet calls into doubt the very possibility of Truth in these rickety times. By what standard, then, can we presume to adjudge the “authenticity” of Taco Station? While writing this, I am simultaneously confronted by another conundrum of (in)authenticity, as by this time I am listening to Neil Diamond cover a Leonard Cohen song. I plunge into an unfelt, cerebral pseudo-despair.

Posted: May 2nd, 2010
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17 Loteria Grill

17 Loteria Grill

April 2, 2010

6333 W Third St stall #322, Los Angeles, CA 90036

Fairfax

Although The Grove next door is more famous, the Original Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax is one of the true great pseudo-public places in Los Angeles, comprising dozens of great eateries within a dense mat of pleasing indoor, outdoor, and covered open spaces. The physical grain of its spaces is small and intimate, and the impression the Market gives is that of an organic, bottom-up conglomeration rather than a top-down, master-planned-by-a-genius-architect whole (which it probably was 75 years ago). Architects may not know how to create spaces like this, but neither would any client build such a place today.

Loteria Grill is my favorite place to eat in the Farmers Market, and I went there every couple of weeks back when I worked in the neighborhood. Today was my first visit this year to the Market, where with lunch I enjoyed the company of Carmen and an old friend from UCLA Architecture, Olivia Ku.

Loteria qualifies as a gourmet taco shop – instead of the usual suspects like carne asada and al pastor, a variety of rich regional Mexican stews are offered. I chose three tacos from a roster of 13: chicken in pipián rojo; albóndigas en chipotle; and cochinita pibil. When they arrived, I realized I had ordered three taco fillings all the same color, a saturated and ideal dark-orange/light-brown, and all three were leaking an oily orange sauce resembling that pepperoni juice that you should avoid the temptation to sponge from your slice of pizza. Expensive at $2.95 each, the tacos varied from rather small to average. The tortillas are handmade and very good, thick, irregular, bubbly, leathery, resilient.

Moving from left to right, I started with the cochinita pibil, slow-roasted marinated pork. It’s juicy and super tasty, sweet with strong citrus and hot pepper flavors, and the citrus-pickled onions on top vinegary and providing a strong counterpoint. It went by all too fast.

I moved on to the albóndigas en chipotle, three meatballs in a tomato-chipotle sauce. While I wouldn’t say that this is not Mexican food, it felt like I was eating some kind of Italian-food/taco fusion mash-up. The meebos were tasty and full of flavor, as was the sauce, with strong smoky chipotle flavor. I couldn’t help but think of Ikea meatballs, which I now realize could be successfully transformed at home into a magical burrito (with tomato sauce, Sriracha rooster chili-garlic paste, parmesan cheese, grilled onions, and let’s say, some gnocchi).

Finally, I hit the pollo en pipián rojo, chicken in a pumpkin-peanut sauce. The dark-meat chicken is stewed and smoky, with a very strong and unmistakably chickeny flavor. The sauce is spicy and indeed tastes of both pumpkin and peanut – exotic. The taco is a super flavor mouthful. In that past life where I came often to the Farmers Market, my typical order was the pipián rojo burrito.

I enjoyed my tacos, but a meal of three of them was not so filling. I will continue to advocate the burritos (to invoke the name of the taco’s natural rival) at Loteria Grill. They come with chips and are altogether a better value, if you have the single-mindedness and discipline to shun the variety made possible by tacos and eat only one thing.

Posted: April 2nd, 2010
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14 CaCao Mexicatessen

14 CaCao Mexicatessen

March 27, 2010

1576 Colorado Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90041

Eagle Rock

There are several Gourmet-Style taco vendors around town. When I worked near the Farmers Market, I made frequent enjoyable trips to Loteria Grill, usually for burritos containing specialties like cochinita pibil, chicken in red pipian, or chicken tinga. There is Border Grill. There is also the Kogi truck, and the fad for the Korean Barbecue taco. This is the tasty context of tacos in the $3 to $4 range, which is where CaCao is positioned; and Jonathan Gold liked them, too. So Carmen and I trekked out to Eagle Rock with high expectations for fancy tacos and a qualitatively different experience from the unpretentious taco shops we’ve visited thus far.

CaCao has a lineup of nearly twenty tacos from which to choose. Obligated to choose the standards, I ordered the carne asada, the carnitas, and the cochinita pibil (“smoked pork in achiote & citrus”). These were $2.75-$2.85 each. Carmen made more exotic choices – the calabacitas (squash); the duck carnitas; the tocino enchocolatado (“house cured bacon, salsa de cacao crema, bean puree, serrano chiles, w/ a handmade flour tortilla” (yes, you read that right, bacon and chocolate)); and the taco of the day, which contained pork chop and applewood-smoked bacon.

I felt the sting of paying $28.14 for seven tacos and two Mexican cokes while we waited for our meals, but my hard feelings softened when the plates arrived. The tacos are above average in size, especially the impressive cochinita pibil. The tortillas are yellowish, thick, quite corny, and were conspicuously being hand-made a few feet from where we ate.

First I ate the carne asada. This was a fine example of a carne asada taco, but it didn’t knock my socks off. I blame the context – I knew it was expensive, and it’s hard for the elemental carne asada to compete with its flashier neighbors carnitas and pibil. I was eating the asada and my eyes wandered to the pibil. Sorry, asada, I feel I was unfaithful to you, but you really were quite excellent. You did everything so well. Your tortilla was corny and resilient, and your salsa spicy and delicious. If I have to find fault with this taco, I say this – the taco leaked liquid out its backside upon my first bite; and the tortillas seem like they could benefit from being grilled a bit longer.

Next I ate the carnitas. It’s an excellent, fundamental carnitas, juicy and tender. It did not have the crunchy bits and textural variation I have used as a benchmark; but it didn’t need it. What it had was awesome porky flavor. The long, slow cooking was evident in the tastiness of the fatty bits – these seemed to melt in one’s mouth. Carmen and I discussed meat fat on the way home from CaCao, concluding that, though fattiness may be correlated with cheap meat, and though only the truly ill-informed would repeat that old canard that fat is inherently gross, it is more challenging to render fat into deliciousness. Thus I must now and in future evaluate carnitas through this measure, and my previous favorite criterion of textural variation seems almost juvenile, sophomoric. Though this taco had the fine tortilla, as well as onions, cilantro and salsa, I felt like the universe consisted of nothing but me and slow-roasted pork. It was good, an elegant and effective solution to the carnitas taco problem.

But the cochinita pibil was best. It was the biggest, but also winningly intense. Check out that pink heap of citrus-pickled onions on top, potent with citrus and chile, not so vinegary as at Loteria Grill. The meat as well was so overwhelmingly flavorful that a tiny bit fills the mouth with sensation. This is not a taco of subtlety or refinement, but a magnificent tour de force that punches you in the tongue with its boxing glove of flavor-pow-BAM! It’s a new favorite.

Carmen liked her meal too, unable to decide whether the calabacitas or the duck carnitas was her favorite. She said the latter, but only because she knew I would never believe that a squash and corn taco could be better than a crispy duck carnitas taco. The bacon and chocolate taco was, as Jonathan Gold had forecast, not as exciting as it sounds. Be warned that it’s drizzled with white sauce. The porkchop and bacon taco tasted predominantly of applewood-smoked bacon, a fine flavor, but suffered from the porkchop strips being a bit fatty and grisly, with some pieces difficult to bite through.

Although gourmet taco venues are not the intended focus of the Cincuenta Taquerías project, CaCao was a delicious experience and I will enjoy returning again to try some of their other offerings, such as the filet mignon, the turkey in green pipian, the chorizo and potato, the extra spicy grilled steak, and the chicken mole. Next time the misery of daily life gets you down, ponder the potential inherent in that list.

Posted: March 27th, 2010
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04 Mayas Tacos

04 Mayas Tacos

January 17, 2010

1600 N Alvarado St, Los Angeles, CA 90026

Echo Park

Garrett, Kirsten, Carmen and I went over to Russ’s side of town, and at his suggestion the five of us went to Mayas Tacos in Echo Park. Russ revealed himself to be fond of the Cochinita Pibil taco (“dirty little piggy”, a savory stewed shredded pork). I ordered three soft tacos, one each with the cochinita pibil, the steak (“tasajo”), and chicken, along with a half-liter bottle of Mirinda orange soda. Carmen ordered the pibil taco as well as one each with wet chicharron and dry chicharron. Tacos were above average in size, and $1.25 each – an excellent value.

Mayas provides a smattering of freshly-fried tortilla chips with your plate of tacos, and a small dish of a habanero-based salsa that is hot as the sun, and should be taken sparingly. The tortillas are quite unusual – they are handmade, and about 3mm thick, and served single-ply. They have a nice bumpy texture, but are soft and pliable rather than leathery.

The pibil was deliciously savory, and topped with citrus-pickled pink onion strings. I took a bite of the avocado and then removed it from my taco. The downside to this taco is that the soupiness of the meat soaked through the tortilla, and the underside of the tortilla felt wet and clammy as I picked it up. Russ tells me that, with respect to this pibil-soaking-tortilla phenomenon, the tacos vary.

Then I moved on to the steak, which they called Tasajo. There was plenty of meat on this taco, and it was delicious, savory, salty, slightly buttery, cooked just right. The chunks were of good and varied size, and there was so much meat that its bulk spilled a few chunks from the ends of my taco when I picked it up. But rest assured, those pieces did not go to waste.

Finally, I ate the chicken taco. I put on two spoonfuls of the habanero salsa, which made my mouth and face burn for a decade. This was the best chicken taco I’ve ever had – in long, stringy bits, strongly flavored, and not soupy, it was Taco Appropriate and Taco Righteous, unlike the chicken at many taquerias which seems like it would do better instead as a burrito, paired with a flour tortilla, rice and beans.

Posted: January 17th, 2010
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