48 El Compa Tacos y Burritos
September 30, 2010
5583 Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90019
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.
46 Candela Taco Bar
September 16, 2010
831 S La Brea Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036
Candela Taco Bar looks on the inside like the small bar that would be attached at one end of a large old-timey Mexican restaurant of the margarita-serving El Cholo or Don Somebody school. Instead it’s attached to the awesome, weird and old-timey Leonardo’s Dance Hall. Tonight was Salsa Night, and a very few people were enjoying salsa lessons in the big space. But Carmen, Mike and I were enjoying tacos and giant goblets of beer in the small bar.
After a couple 22-ounce goblets of Candela’s hefeweizen-style house beer and a shitload of tricolored tortilla chips, you might not care much about the quality of your tacos. Going to Candela is like multitasking – rather than go to a bar and stop for tacos afterwards, you can sit there at the bar, enjoying goblets of beer, and then eat tacos at the same time. Such efficiency.
For $2 each, they aren’t bad. Average in size and above average in tastiness, with serviceable doubled tortillas that performed. And on Wednesday, Taco Wednesday, they are $1 each. That is a bargain. It’s a loss leader to get you to drink beer!
I had four of their tacos, the Chile Colorado, the Carne Asada (described as skirt steak), the Barbacoa (beef) and the Al Pastor. Chile colorado was first. It did look pretty awesomely red in the dim light, and the big chunks of beef were pleasing and flavorful. Barbacoa was not too distinctive, although I enjoyed it at the time. Al pastor was pleasing, being particularly pineapple-laden. Heavenly heavenly piña – the gorgeous taste, imposing as a southern island king crowned in glory, is yours to enjoy. Carne asada struck me as decent but overly salty, although Carmen did not find them so salty.
Mike upon consideration pronounced the tacos to be in the 65th percentile. This level of specificity is convincing.
33 El Chato
June 29, 2010
W Olympic Blvd at S La Brea Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036
We finally made it to El Chato, after a few failed attempts to go there when the truck was either absent or not open (they seem to get started serving at 8:30 or 9:00). Carmen has driven by this place for months and seen long, telltale lines out front. I had read Bandini’s glowing, credible report on The Great Taco Hunt and had high expectations. By the way, Bandini has admirably renewed his ambitious goal of eating at all of the taco trucks in Los Angeles, of which there are reportedly over 10,000. To put that in perspective, that’s one a day for 28 years. That is epic.
I shakily drove us to the corner of Olympic and La Brea where we saw that the truck was already busy. We were in business. And The Chato proved to be the awesome.
It is a good-looking truck with cartoon Cantinflas painted on it and bright, dazzling lights inside and out. Four taqueros were in the little trailer, busy making tacos and burritos. If you look closely at my photo, you might be able to make out the al pastor spit just behind the window. The Chato has a platonic taco truck location, after-hours on the lot of a car repair shop on a busy street corner.
I knew from advance research that the tacos would be a bit small, so I ordered five – two each of al pastor and carne asada, and one of chorizo. They are $1.00 each and on the small side, but five of them left me satisfied.
We waited for our number to be called. The crowd here is a true Los Angeles melting pot – Latinos, Koreans, African-Americans, Caucasians, and douchebags all visited the Chato while we were there.
We got our tacos. My plate, with five tacos con todo, felt heavy. The tacos were nicely arranged, decorated with preapplied onions, cilantro and salsa, and then the plate was topped with a pile of radish slices, juicy key lime tetrahedrons, a big grilly jalapeño, and a heap of tasty grilled onions.
I picked up the topmost taco, which happened to be the chorizo. The petite, doubled tortillas had a very pleasing feel – they had been liberally oiled and grilled on a hot plancha. The texture was tough and resilient, not soggy; oily and not dry (as my favorite tortilla descriptor “leathery” implies). The light friedness imparted a slight crispness to these tortillas upon biting into them. They were excellent. And although the whole approach to tortilla preparation used here seems so obvious, so intuitive, this kind of tortilla performance is truly uncommon.
The chorizo was delicious, the best taco chorizo I’ve ever had by far. The taco featured crumbly sausage bits salty, spicy, absolutely full-flavored, but not greasy. I might even say that I enjoyed this taco even more than the al pastor, but a little chorizo does go a long way, whereas al pastor is sustainable, good for the long haul.
I had the al pastor tacos next, and they were excellent – spicy; good textural variation with resilient bits after a plancha-frying as well as tenderness; pineapple flavor; and a deep porky-flavored subtext. With fine tortillas, good salsa, and fresh grilled onions, these are stellar tacos, genre-defining, honorable.
Finally I ate the carne asada tacos. These were great too, although not the standout of the night. The steak is moist and full-flavored, and diced very finely. I found myself picking up tiny little scraps of tasty spare taco meat from my plate after I had finished the fifth taco.
El Chato is so praiseworthy that it gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling just thinking about how it’s there, not far away, providing righteous tacos, like true professionals, all evening long for its happy customers.
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.
22 Chulada Grill
April 25, 2010
5607 San Vicente Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90019
On a Sunday afternoon the taco enthusiast might feel daunted by having to choose just one place to eat lunch, but today Carmen and I decided correctly to go to Chulada Grill. Sharing the smallest of corner strip malls with a cleaners and a launderette, Chulada is inconspicuous at the unprominent intersection of San Vicente and Hauser, but it’s also exactly the kind of neighborhood Mexican restaurant that you should know about, and even drive a long way to get to. Small and cozy inside with only about ten tables, Chulada Grill’s specialty is serving you food. They take quality seriously, offering handmade tortillas for their tacos and tortilla chips fried fresh (no longer gratis but you should still consider ordering a bowl), and a bottle of XXXtra hot-as-the-sun El Yucateco hot sauce on each table. I ate dozens of delicious machaca burritos here between 2005 and 2007. Besides tacos and the many burrito options, their menu includes Oaxacan specialty plates. Today their stereo played several songs by the Smiths, which choice I would like to think was inspired by my appearance.
Soft tacos are $2.75 each, not inexpensive, but the quality justifies the price. I ordered one each of the carne asada, carnitas, and al pastor tacos. Look at those big cuboid chunks of carnitas – that’s what Carmen and I did when the tacos came out, and then obligingly each ate this taco first. This was the best carnitas I have enjoyed this year. Still hot and fresh out of the fryer, it had a genuine crispiness to it, reminiscent of the crispy fried pork you might get at a Thai or Cantonese restaurant. Each piece was crisp on the outside and moist on the inside – biting into a piece cracks it open to reveal juicy, full-flavored porkiness contained within. The appearance is fantastic. The cubes of pork look exactly like diced animal flesh, exhibiting in section a range of color and fattiness from one edge to the other. The richness of flavor was undoubtedly porky, and yet Carmen’s observation that it tasted like Popeye’s fried chicken was accurate – the carnitas had the same butterfatty quality that great fried chicken provides. The carnitas taco was so good that Carmen ordered another one after we had cleaned our plates.
The fine handmade tortillas didn’t hurt, either. They are thick and bubbly, leathery, with mild corniness and great resilience.
Next I ate carne asada. It hit the spot, providing exactly what a carne asada fan would be seeking in a taco – the steak charry and subtly flavored so that the buttery-fatty beef flavor comes through most strongly. It seemed as if the rojo provided on this taco was hotter than that supplied with the others, which if true reflects well on the taquero’s commitment to taco curating.
The al pastor also proved to be a high-performing taco. The pork was dryish and dry rubby, lubricated by salsa, generated an experience of contrast between moisture-sucking dryrubbiness and dryness-drenching salsa roja. The bite is met with good al-dente tooth feel, and preceding the marinated pork taste was the dominant cinnamon flavor of the spice rub. I was left wanting more. Still am. What’s for dinner?