2012.01 Henry’s Tacos

2012.01 Henry’s Tacos

January 28, 2012

11401 Moorpark St, Los Angeles, CA 91602

Studio City/North Hollywood

My report on this “gringo” taco stand belongs more appropriately on my other blog project, The Lower Modernisms: http://lomo.architectureburger.com/?p=692 Follow the link for the full report and more photographs.

Posted: January 29th, 2012
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53 Tito’s Tacos

53 Tito’s Tacos

October 31, 2010

11122 Washington Pl, Culver City, CA 90230

Culver City

Tito’s Tacos is a truly old-school place serving up tacos of the crunchy variety, since 1959 according to the Tito’s website. It’s a taco time machine. The crunchy “gringo-style” taco familiar to us all thanks to Taco Bell is not really in the scope of the cincuenta taquerías project, yet no survey of Los Angeles taco stands would be complete without mention of this popular landmark stand, an atavistic throwback to another part of the evolutionary family tree of the taco. Tito’s is a remarkably polarizing element in the Los Angeles taco dialogue, a lightning rod for both overstated praise and vitriol. A perusal of the remarkable 1241 reviews on Yelp! will display an equal measure of 5-star and 1-star votes.

The thoughtful taco eater, however, will find a middle path. While it’s clearly nuts to claim that their tacos are “the best” as so many Yelpers have done, the haters tend to criticize Tito’s not on its own terms but rather for the typology it belongs to, that of the crunchy shell, shredded beef, shredded lettuce, and shredded cheese. This typology may never achieve the heights of the more refined and subtle taco of the Righteous variety, but it certainly has some charms, and Tito’s does it pretty well.

Carmen and I rode our bikes there for lunch on this pleasant Halloween day, and ordered three tacos each. Tacos are $1.75 each, and it is vital to request they come with cheese, which is an extra $.50 each. If you consume more than three, you may prefer to lie down in the gutter after eating rather than ride home.

The Tito’s ordering system is unusual. Each window is served by two or three servers, and whoever is next available will take your order when you get to the front of the line. You must memorize the appearance of your server at the risk of facing embarrassment. When the server has gathered your tacos, he or she writes the total on the top of the cardboard box in which your food is served, and then collects your money and takes it to a cashier. The system is similar to that at Philippe’s French Dips. The menu board is a masterpiece of Late-Modern graphic design, a true design snack.

The cardboard box is accompanied by chips, way more chips than you want; and a giant tub of the wicked O.G. Tito’s salsa, a watery tomato puree that I don’t like much at all, but which some customers adore.

The meat filling does not resemble the small roundish chunks that commonly make up ground beef, nor the stringy fibers of ostensible muscle that compose shredded beef; rather it’s a dense mesh of fine protein fibers, unique among tacos, with some tooth resistance that makes it more rewarding than the soft-serve sludge that fills a Jack in the Box taco. It is moist without being watery; and it tastes like meat, in the most generic sense of the concept of flesheating, with little seasoning added. The meat is folded into a tortilla, these placed into baskets, and consequently fried in a bath of oil; after the frying, lettuce and then bright, shreddy, cheesy cheese are stuffed into the aperture.

One can sometimes get a craving for such a taco, although it’s obviously been at least a year since I answered such a craving. I was looking forward to Tito’s. Their tacos are utterly consistent. I took a bite and enjoyed the contrast between the deep thick crunch of the shell and the rewarding moist yield of the filling; the lettuce probably serves some valuable purpose, although I don’t know what, and the cheese is like a fat- and salt-flavored taco lubricant that makes the thing go down easy.

I was satisfied eating at Tito’s. Only hours later, after I looked close up at this photo of the Tito’s taco in section, did I start to think that Tito’s tacos are pretty gross.

Posted: October 31st, 2010
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48 El Compa Tacos y Burritos

48 El Compa Tacos y Burritos

September 30, 2010

5583 Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90019

Mid-Wilshire

El Compa feels instantly familiar, probably because it used to be a Campos, according to interweb folklore on Yelp. Carmen and I ended up here this evening in our search for a nearby quick taco meal. As the Yelp! reviewers observed, El Compa is in a tiny strip mall possessed of a “shady” and/or “seedy” character by virtue of the discount Thai Massage joint and the crowds of people loitering outside; but El Compa itself is not shady, it’s the platonic, and platonically forgettable, neighborhood taco shop.

We drove past the corner of La Brea and Venice on the way, the corner of the famed Tacos Leo, where until recently the best al pastor tacos I’ve ever had were served directly from the trompo in a gas station parking lot. A couple of weeks ago the LA Weekly’s “Squid Ink” food blog published an article about Leo’s, and (coincidentally?) the fuzz came and shut down the article and confiscated the trompo. Tasting Table’s account of the story. Fingers were pointed at the Weekly’s blogger – had the mainstream attention to the humble taco truck scene in a disused Unocal station brought on persecution? Is taco blogging in fact a form of gentrification, an inadvertent means of helping white douchebags and hipsters take over and deplete the authenticity of undiscovered institutions?

Ten years ago I moved guiltily out of the alleged “artist’s district” of Santa Ana, swearing never to be a gentrifier again. I would hate to think that taco reporting is a sin against authenticity, but there was still no trompo on display at the corner of Venice and La Brea. I wonder if the folks at Leo’s would like to have Kogi-like lines of hipsters out front, waiting half an hour for $3.00 tacos? They might love that, but it would make me sad. If I may express this graphically:

:(

There are some methods you can use to avoid being a gentrifier. You can choose to live in places that are already middle-class or mixed-race in character, for example, or choose neighborhoods inherently gentrification-resistant by virtue of their character. You can write about taco shops that are in no danger of having their authenticity corrupted by hordes of hipsters. Like El Compa, which fed me a mediocre but satisfying meal, three tacos and a good horchata.

The inside still looks like a Campos, with a Campos menu board and Campos menu items. The acoustic panel ceiling is painted out to look like a beautiful cloudy sky. The dining room is humble, pleasant enough. I ordered three tacos, one each of the al pastor, carne asada, and a hard shell taco with ground beef. El Compa looks like the kind of old-school place where the crispy tacos are an important part of the menu, and this fact must be respected. The soft tacos were $1.35 each and the hard taco $1.95, if I recall correctly.

I ate the hard shell taco first, which was probably correct, as I received therefore maximum sensation of its hot, oily, fresh-from-the-fryer crispiness. The meat was sludgy like at Jack in the Box. The tomato sauce-like salsa combined with the shredded cheese reminded me of pizza, which is not a bad thing. A tasty crispy taco.

The soft tacos were okay. I ate the carne asada taco next. The tortillas were leathery and resilient, not laminated, bigger than average (as were the tacos), a bit dry, but that’s better than soggy or failing. The steak, finely diced and, well, steak-flavored, at first made a good impression. It was thoroughly seasoned with carne asada seasoning. But by the time I was halfway through, all I could discern was that it was too salty. I was empalagated. It would work better in a burrito, tempered with a bunch of other stuff. The onions were diced to a pleasing fineness, the cilantro appropriate, but the red salsa (served on the side in a plastic cup) disappointed – too much tomato, no spiciness. I resorted to the Tapatio.

The al pastor tasted like the al pastor they used to serve at the Campos that was on Venice Boulevard and is now a Pancho’s. Sweet, bright red, rather saucy. Good enough to eat, and would be even more enjoyable had my standards not been raised by the stimulating and superior al pastors I’ve been exposed to this year. At an old school place like El Compa, you will do well to order the hard shell taco, and savor the knowledge that you are not acting as a shock-trooper of gentrification.

Posted: September 30th, 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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