43 Tacos El Unico #12
August 29, 2010
6650 Crenshaw Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90043
Carmen and I chose to eat lunch at the Crenshaw location of Tacos El Unico, another Los Angeles minichain of taco restaurants, currently ten locations strong according to their website. The most conspicuous location might be the one at Adams and Vermont near USC. The website explains that the chain is an outgrowth of a taco truck business that started back in 1981 at the corner of Rosecrans and Atlantic in Compton where they subsequently built their first restaurant. It’s another story of the American Dream coming true.
We found decent tacos there, the kind you would eat regularly if you were in the neighborhood, but not worth driving across town for. We each had the $4.99 combo special of four tacos and a fountain drink (individual tacos, average in size, are a bargain at $1.16 each), and shared some tasty fresh French fries. I took the tour, having one each of the carne asada, al pastor, chicken and lengua tacos. I refrained from trying the cabeza.
The tiny public section of the restaurant interior has a few stainless steel tables and a counter. Ordering is alienating, taking place through steel security bars in an opening in the bulletproof glass, which did not make me feel protected, but did prevent me from pulling any stickup jobs while at Tacos El Unico. We got lucky and were awarded a table halfway through our meal, not that there is anything so ghastly about eating over a stainless steel counter while standing next to a trash can. For the record, if I lived in a loft apartment, I would have no kitchen other than a decommissioned taco truck and no table other than the stainless steel counter extended from the truck’s passenger side. And also I would sleep on a mattress in the back of a conversion van.
The tacos were totally serviceable. The tortillas were bilam’d (Carmen received a freak-of-nature taco even that was triply laminated!) and sturdy. Chicken and lengua came con todo with green salsa, and al pastor and steak with red, which consideration I appreciated.
I started with chicken, which was pretty tasty – well marinated dark meat, somewhat like slimy Del Taco chicken, but tasty. I moved on to lengua – gamy cuboid chunks of beef with a good texture. Not bad, but I still haven’t been wowed by any of the lengua I have tried this year.
Next I ate the al pastor, savory flavored and of the saucy variety. I thought it was okay. Carmen liked it so little she gave me her second al pastor taco, which for me was a great bonus worthy of Special Day celebration.
Finally I ate the steak taco, sadly the smallest of my tacos, for Carmen and I agreed that it was the best. The steak was in fairly large strips and marinated with carne asada seasonings – it reminded me of the carne asada steaks that we sometimes get at Bodega R-Ranch Market #14 supermarket for home grilling. Flap meat, maybe? It has a rewarding chewy resistance to the tooth. The red salsa is good and pretty spicy, rounding out this taco nicely.
31 Tacos el Compita
June 18, 2010
4477 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90019
After a week of intensive burrito therapy, I was sufficiently recovered from last Sunday’s meat nightmare to eat tacos once again. Yesterday visiting taco enthusiasts Tyler and Dacia, and burgeoning taco enthusiast Althea, accompanied me to a fine luncheoning at nearby Tacos el Compita. In 2010, the magic of Google Street View allows us to scout local taquerías in advance, and thereby I determined that the Compita is a pleasing A-frame taco stand, and thus would be worth visiting on architectural grounds alone.
Diagrammatically, the A-frame building is the upside-down of the taco. In both the A-frame and the taco, structure and envelope, as a single element, are folded over to contain and protect the juicy programmatic contents.
The small Compita stand still provides a choice among distinct seating areas, several tables both inside and outside. The addition of a glass wall partially encloses and protects the exterior dining area from the noise of Pico Boulevard without detracting from the feeling of connection to the street. The rolling hills of this stretch of the city yield scenic vistas both up and down the street – mid-century cement-plaster walls against blue skies.
I ordered one each of the carne asada, al pastor, and lengua tacos. They were somewhat above average in size and a good value at $1.25 each. When we had all placed our orders with the serveur, I heard him say “nueve” to the taquero, who then placed nine pairs of tortillas on the griddle, to create the leathery, proper, bilaminated structure-cum-envelope backbone of the tacos we would soon enjoy.
After excavating them from the garnish of jalapeños, radishes and carrots, I proceeded to eat my tacos in the order implied by their arrangement on the plate. On top was lengua, my second lengua taco ever, and thus now I’m getting a better picture of what lengua comprises. The meat was grey and very moist and tender, with strong beefy flavors. Very good with the green salsa; but so far lengua has not proved to be a favorite. I was craving something more al dente.
The taco al pastor came next. It was a great taco. The al pastor has good texture with black charry bits from the griddle. Tyler admired the irregularity of size and shape of the chopped onions. The delicious red salsa is one of the hottest I’ve met this year, giving the taco a real kick that contrasts with the sweet, fruity flavors of the pork. I appreciated that the taqueros had provided green salsa on the lengua taco and red on the al pastor and asada tacos – they care enough about the singularity of each particular taco to have determined which salsa is appropriate, and serve their tacos accordingly.
I enjoyed the carne asada taco last. The power of the spicy rojo was in the driver’s seat, but the meat was very good, with some unusual characteristics. Blackened in areas on the griddle and diced very finely, the steak had winning textural variation and offered resistance to the tooth. I concluded my meal by sampling the garnish. The jalapeño was both sweet and spicy. The radish slices were blasé, nonchalant, a little R&R for the mouth.
25 Villa Tacos
May 11, 2010
10022 Venice Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232
Villa Tacos opened about a month ago, taking over a space in a little corner strip mall in Culver City that was previously occupied, for a brief period in taco history, by Diablo Tacos. Villa did not look promising from the outside. It has the kind of graphic identity that seems to imitate amateurishly the look of fast-food chains, reminiscent of what you see at a university food court that thinks it needs to appeal to 18-year-olds who have grown up in such a way that they are most comfortable in branded environments. That look does not cater to my insatiable and arbitrary desire for Authenticity. Villa Tacos does nevertheless appear to be an independently owned little startup by an enterprising taco-man, and does possess the great virtue of being five minutes’ walk from my Culver City office, so there I went, for my 25th taco meal of 2010. And it was pretty good, so I wish them fortune, customers, and profits.
Villa Tacos has a streamlined menu and what a popular website “Yelp!” reviewer termed Chipotle-style ordering – you choose taco, burrito, &c., and then specify one of six “meat options” (including “fish” and “vegetarian”, which if taken literally means they are serving the cannibal flesh of vegetarian humanoids, so I didn’t order that), and then have your choice of various toppings. Tacos are $1.95 each and quite large. I asked for three, and the serveuse plopped three large bumpy tortillas into the heaty iron press. Then she removed them and filled them with my chosen meats, ranchera (equal to carne asada), carnitas, and lengua. Then we came to the toppings. I asked for cilantro, onions and salsa, naturally eschewing such goof toppings as cheese, pico de gallo, and sour cream. I chose the red “medium hot” on steak and carnitas, and the green “very hot” salsa on the lengua. My serveuse warned me that the green was very hot, and I responded positively.
No doubt many unassuming taco eaters would be pleased to be offered so many choices with which to fine-tune their taco. I submit to you on the contrary, that this is not a virtue. At a true taquería, you are choosing eg. al pastor not as a filling, but rather you are choosing an al pastor taco. The only question asked of you is likely to be, “With everything?” meaning onions, cilantro and salsa. This elegant, diagrammatic simplicity constitutes all that a taco is and all that a taco should be. A virtuous taquero will have his or her opinion about how that taco is best served, such as what type of salsa and how much of it. The taco should be a gesamtkunstwerk – a coherent design from top to bottom. Relinquishing so much control to the customer reflects a tangible lack of commitment on the part of the taquero. Who do you trust – the bartender who asks you how much vermouth should go in a martini, or the one in possession of his own unspoken convictions? And if that’s not enough, remember Devo’s argument: “In ancient Rome, there was a poem / About a dog who found two bones….”
The foregoing was a discussion about ethics, which inevitably leads back to tacos. I ate first the lengua, for the same reason that I requested the hottest salsa with this taco – I was apprehensive. This was my first lengua taco, and I’m typically squeamish about eating guts and parts. I expected lengua to be chewy, pink, squishy, and lean, like my own tongue, I suppose; but this was not so. It was brown, moist, and tender and had a strong beefy, almost gamy, flavor. It was very good and neither gross nor disgusting. The green salsa was pretty hot (not compared to the Taurino, of course). The big, bumpy single-ply tortilla, although not leathery, was resilient and high-functioning.
Next I ate carnitas. Considering all of these meats came out of a fast-food-Chinese-style steam tray, it wasn’t bad, although not too thrilling – moist with little textural variation. Finally I was left alone with the ranchera, which seemed to be simply a more evocative name for carne asada. This was the best of the bunch as well as the biggest – tender and flavorful; and it will be my choice next time.
Posted: May 11th, 2010
, Culver City
Comments: 1 Comment