34 Metro Balderas
July 3, 2010
5305 N Figueroa St, Los Angeles, CA 90042
Carmen and I visited Damien and Ragen in Highland Park this evening and we dined at nearby Metro Balderas. This is our third taco stop in Highland Park this year, and all three have been outstanding.
Metro Balderas is a freestanding restaurant on Figueroa Street with a diverse menu and vintage-style booths where both the tables and benches are covered in textured orange laminate. There is a loud TV that was airing Sabado Gigante and a salsa bar with four types of salsa. A column in the very center of the space is wrapped tightly in nautical-esque rope; what would ordinarily be seen as an architectural problem was so easily transformed into an architectural opportunity.
The specialty here is antojitos – food in the style of the DF. “Metro Balderas” is the name of a transit station in Mexico City; the business card is printed on the backside to resemble a metro ticket, but instead of reading “Sistema de Transporte Colectivo”, the card reads “Sistema de Comida Chilanga”. Chilango is a slangy term indicating origin in Mexico City with a complex history and meaning. The DF-style items on the menu at Balderas are a bit different from your average Los Angeles taquería, and you may see things you don’t recognize like “pambazos” and “huaraches”. I can’t tell you too much about those, since I came for tacos. But I can tell you that this place offers DF-style carnitas on the weekends in eight different varieties. I didn’t get any of those, but I should have, because I should have read Jonathan Gold on the subject of Metro Balderas before I went there.
What I did get is one each of the carne asada, al pastor, and suadero tacos. At $1.25 each, they were average to just above average size. The tortillas are small, doubled, unlaminated, homemade-style, corny, and with good hand-feel. Tacos were served with onions and cilantro, but no salsa – I tried a couple from the salsa bar, each of which was medium-spicy but the flavors varied greatly.
The taco on top was the al pastor. The orange bits of pork had great flavor and were diced into varied chunks and little slivers, just as were the onions. It is a mystery how they effortlessly make such a mixture of cubish chunks and longitudinal slivers – some kind of dangerous, advanced surgical robot, perhaps. There were numerous identifiable chunks and slivers of pineapple scattered amongst the pork bits, nicely charred at the edges and caramelized. The pork was neither dry-rubby nor saucy – it seemed as if the flavors had been absorbed into the ingredients themselves rather than applied to the outside. This taco was a delight.
The next taco was the suadero. I thought I knew what suadero was after enjoying the suadero tacos at King Taco and El Taurino, but this was something altogether different – quite pale in color, diced into regular small cubes, and fried to extreme crispiness on one edge. It resembled carnitas far more than any beef with which I am familiar, and had a great texture. I could hardly convince myself it wasn’t pork, but it must not have been. I enjoyed this taco very much, but not as much as the al pastor.
Lastly I ate the carne asada taco, which contained yet more surprise – the bits of steak that made up this taco were chopped from the thinnest cut of steak I’ve ever seen used for this purpose, about a millimeter in thickness. The grilling rendered these little bits of thin steak slightly resilient without being tough. The flavor was elegant, just beef, salt and black pepper – an absolutely righteous taco. All three of my tacos here reveal that behind the scenes, a considerate taquero is crafting tacos with much thoughtfulness and attention.
19 La Estrella #3 Tacos
April 11, 2010
6103 N Figueroa St, Los Angeles, CA 90042
It was a fine cloudy Sunday, and Carmen and I planned to stop at La Estrella #3 Tacos in Highland Park on the way to a MOCA symposium called “Ugly and Ordinary” at the Pacific Design Center about Venturi-Scott Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas studio. La Estrella is the kind of throwaway, makeshift commercial space which Venturi and Scott Brown might have self-consciously tried to appreciate architecturally, and which Ed Ruscha might have photographed in black-and-white out the window of his car for the book he never produced that might have been called FIFTY LOS ANGELES TACO SHOPS. It’s a perfect, platonic taco stand.
The site is an isosceles triangle, cut along the hypotenuse by the tracks of the Gold Line. If a parcel of this size and shape were created today, the city wouldn’t let you build anything on it at all. Digging a little deeper, we learn that Parcel Number 549-202-5001, also known as “Ralph Rogers’ Resubdivision of Part of Block ‘50’ and Change in Block ‘J’ Garvanza”, is 1,083 square feet. The 664-square-foot building was constructed in 1962. There is no parking. According to public records, the last sale amount for the property was $9, but I think it’s worth quite a bit more than that. La Estrella is a triumph of efficiency, the kind of exploitation of marginal space that you would expect to find in Tokyo or New York, but seldom in Los Angeles.
As we approached, we heard “Smells like Teen Spirit” blaring from inside the kitchen. You stand on the sidewalk to order, and sit on the other sidewalk to eat at one of three primary-colored fiberglass-and-steel tables under a plank-and-beam roof in front of a mural depicting the taqueria itself. If you look close, you’ll see a hog with the word “lust” appropriately tattooed on its rear end.
Carmen and I each ordered the triumvirate – one carne asada, one al pastor, and one carnitas; and I an horchata, and Carmen a piña. The total came to $11.94 – working backwards, I think the tacos must have been $1.25 each. The piña tasted like pure, liquid candy! The serveuse picked up on the fact that Carmen could speak Spanish, and asked where she was from. Carmen said Panama. “You are a lucky guy,” the young, rock and roll-loving serveuse then said to me. “Latin-American women are better than normal women.” Yes, I thought about how true that is. I feel sorry for all those inferior women bravely bearing the burden of their normalcy.
We were quite pleased with the tacos we received, on a plate with radishes and giant juicy lemon slices. First I ate the carnitas. One of the better carnitas tacos I have had this year, the pork was diced into nice little rectilinear bits and had fried character (rather than the juicy stewy character), with good tooth resistance and a smooth porky flavor. La Estrella’s thick, strong salsa roja was a pleasing accompaniment. Tortillas were the normal kind, doubled and semi-bilaminated, but well prepared.
My next mouth-guest was the taco al pastor. So good! Whereas the carnitas taco had been about average in size, the al pastor was fuller and good-sized, due to its bulk forming more of a cylinder-shape than a folded-in-half taco shape when picked up. The meat texturally resembled the carnitas, as Great Taco Hunt’s Bandini commented in a 2006 review. But this meat was bathed in a delicious fruity-chile-spice sauce, and quite flavorful – a totally good, solid taco.
Last, but still appreciated, I ate the carne asada taco. The grilled steak was chopped into unusually tiny bits that reminded me of crumbled sausage – I didn’t mind. The flavoring is streamlined, probably not much more than salt and pepper used here, and beef power is thus set free to dazzle the inside of your mouth. The salsa roja was actually quite hot, and seemed well hotter here than on the previous tacos – was it a different salsa, or did I imagine? Thinking about this taco 11 hours later, while staring at a photo of it, I’m making myself darned hungry.
Sipping my horchata at the end of this lunch, I remarked to Carmen that the presence of La Estrella #3 Tacos might seriously make me consider moving to Highland Park. It’s open 24 hours. It’s open right now, no matter when you are reading this. If it were within a mile, maybe even two miles, from home, I would walk there right now in the rain in my stocking feet for another plate of tacos.
02 El Huarache Azteca
January 3, 2010
5225 York Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90042
Damien, Ragen, Carmen and I went to El Huarache Azteca, near Ragen and Damien’s home and at their suggestion. They were right, it was delicious. I had three tacos, one each of carne adobada (aka al pastor), carne asada, and chicken, along with a Jarritos Mandarina. The tacos are good sized, not quite as big as Sanchez’s. They are $1.50 each if you don’t get the combo special.
All three were quite tasty. The al pastor is very savory, with smoky flavors, and has a pleasing contrast being chewy meat bits and crunchiness at the roasted edges. I had a green salsa from their salsa bar that had a good flavor. The carne asada was also excellent. I applied the red salsa, which has a roasted pepper flavor and is not immediately hot, but then has a long, slow afterburn, pretty good. I described this steak as having a buttery flavor, just as I had at Sanchez, and Carmen thought that this was an odd and fairly ridiculous description, but I’m going to stand by it for now. The chicken was also good, better than Sanchez, and in my opinion probably would make a very good burrito. It is dark meat and tastes marinated and grilly.
The tortillas were great, thick and doubled up, with good toothiness, slightly but not so leathery as Sanchez. In lieu of diced onions there were long slivers of red onions, and this was a nice change of pace from the usual finely diced raw onions that can overpower a taco.