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.
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.
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.
08 Tacos El Korita
February 8, 2010
S Herbert Ave at E Olympic Blvd, East Los Angeles, CA 90023
East Los Angeles
Taking advantage of a pleasant evening, I stopped off at another great East Los Angeles taco truck on my way home from work. The Tacos El Korita truck was another that had a good reputation on the interwebs, and I knew to expect fine handmade tortillas. I was not disappointed. The tortillas have that quality I have termed leathery – resilient and slightly denty to the tooth, the tortillas soak up some taco juices without saturating or getting clammy, and have a good finger feeling as you hold them in your hand.
I ordered three tacos for $1.25 each – carne asada, al pastor, and carnitas. They were somewhat above average in size, and perfectly proportioned. They came on the plate sans salsa, cilantro and raw onions, but with that beautiful pile of grilled onions instead; a full compliment of salsas and toppings was available on the stainless steel countertop. The picture shows my handiwork prior to scooping the grilled onions on top.
These were all superdelicious. I ate the al pastor first, and this is what I would consider a classic al pastor – the flavor is very potent, and it’s reminiscent of the pastor at a truck from which I’ve eaten dozens of times, the Cemitas Poblanas truck on Venice near Clarington in front of Smart and Final. The fine, leathery tortillas and grilled onions made a superior taco.
Next I ate carnitas. Finally, I have found delicious carnitas at a taco shop! The meat was a rich brown instead of the stringy grey stewy meat one frequently encounters, and it had the delightful combination of textures that good carnitas provides – crunchy bits, tender mouth-melting bits, chewy bits. The bits were good-sized chunks, and some of them give you that enjoyable feedback you get when you bite into something chewy like a caramel. And also, it tasted very good.
Then I ate carne asada. The meat was very dark and, I dare say it, sweet and flavorful, varied in texture, reminding me a bit of beef jerky in the best possible way.
Each of these tacos was so good that I can pick no favorite. When I return to El Korita for another deeply moving $3.75 meal, I will again order one of each of carnitas, al pastor, and carne asada.
06 La Flor de Sahuayo
February 1, 2010
4601 E Olympic Blvd, East Los Angeles, CA 90022
East Los Angeles
I feel born again, basking in taco-given grace, after my stop at this ordinary-looking East LA taco truck on my way home from work, my first taco truck of the year. After reading a review of this truck on the Great Taco Hunt blog, I had high expectations from La Flor de Sahuayo, but I was rewarded! Unwrapping my two tacos and after snapping a photo taking that first bite, I felt like a taco virgin once again.
Yes, despite the fact that I was raised in California, I don’t think I had a real taco, or knew what a taco was, until after I finished college. Moving to Santa Ana in my early twenties, I gradually became aware of the gift that was all around me – cheap, delicious tacos! Not crunchy, cheesy, sour-creamy, sludgymeaty things, but elegant little concoctions of meat, cilantro, onion and tortilla. As diagrammatically pure as the noble Hamburger or Pizza Pie. Taking my first bite of my Flor de Sahuayo al pastor taco, I remembered how I felt a decade ago when I first discovered the taco. A revelation!
I ordered one al pastor and one carne asada taco, at $1.50 each. These tacos are huge – I think the photo gives a sense of the scale, as that’s pretty much a normal-sized plate. I was satisfied by two tacos (although I would have eaten a dozen more if they had been in front of me, shortly before expiring). As Rem “Cabbagerabbit” Koolhaas reminds us, size is in and of itself a kind of quality; so it is with tacos. After that first big bite, so much taco remains, and you revel in the fact that it’s going to just keep on coming at you. You take the next big bite, no need to take a small one to savor the moment. The luxury of so much meat warms your soul and guts.
And with the al pastor, at Flor de Sahuayo they have perfected an alchemy wherein they transform flesh into gold, tasty tasty gold. The meat is juicy, spicy, fruity, savory, grilledoniony, with a rich chewy texture and a pleasing oiliness. The meat was matched by the awesomeness of the tortillas, unlike any I have encountered – bilaminated, very yellow, thick, and strongly corn-flavored. They reminded me of the corny outside of taquitos in flavor, but not crispy.
The carne asada was next, and contrasted wonderfully with the al pastor. The al pastor was a complex mystery, the carne asada a pure expression of lightly seasoned and grilled flesh. It tasted exactly like carne asada.
When you’ve finished your tacos, the sadness is tempered by the fact that overflow meat, spilled out the end of a taco onto your plate, is waiting to be picked up with oily fingers and shoved into mouth. A delight.
Now I’m wondering what else East LA’s taco trucks and taco stands hold for me. Will it all be this good? A life without tacos is a life less lived, brothers and sisters.