30 Tacos Tumbras a Tomas

30 Tacos Tumbras a Tomas

June 13, 2010

Grand Central Market Space A05, 317 S Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90013

Downtown

Our first visit of the year to the famed Grand Central Market started out great. The Grand Central is a fantastic place full of vendors, the timelessness of produce, neon signs that are either old or retro, and woodchips on the floor. The dining area at the north end is open to the sidewalk to the north and the market to the south, with the floor sloped and stepped on its way down to Broadway. The interior finishes are concrete and skylight. It’s a tremendous place.

Tacos Tumbras a Tomas is one of the best reputed of the three or four taco vendors in the Market, and famed in particular for the large size of its tacos. It looks just right – photogenic. Ordering at Tumbras a Tomas is like ordering at a crowded bar – you push your way to the front until one of the many taqueros behind the display case looks at you and yells “Next!”

I ordered one each of the “ranchera asada” and carnitas estilo Michoacan” tacos. Al pastor isn’t on the menu board, but they do have it – Carmen ordered one each of the carnitas and the al pastor tacos. They are $2.50 each. You will be asked your choice of green and red salsa. The taquero said that the red is hotter, so that’s what we got.

The tacos are the biggest I have ever seen. Two tacos completely cover a normal-sized paper plate. As taco authority Bandini wrote, it was like getting the meat from a carne asada plate lunch and a carnitas plate lunch along with a few tortillas. In addition to the substrate tortillas, an additional bilaminated pair was thrown on top for good measure. The chief merit of these tortillas is that they are big. That’s the chief merit of the tacos, too.

We portaged our heavy plates of tacos and found a table, where we proceeded to pick at our unpickupable tacos with the forks. The carne asada was unusual – saucy and savory and gamy, and diced into very small bits, it bore more resemblance to typical al pastor than carne asada, although it showed unmistakable beefiness. Usually I think of the classic taco meat dichotomy of as consisting of al pastor on one side, with its maximalist, tons-o’-flavor sensibility, and carne asada on the other, representing spare, elegant minimalism. So this asada was okay, but it was an octoparrot.

The grey, shreddy carnitas was impressive for the fact that it looked like meat – chunks of various shapes, sizes, colors and consistency that clearly came from many different parts of the animal. It was mostly tender and moist; we both pulled a few giant chunks of fat from our tacos, but that’s okay, as there was still an overload of pork remaining. Extremely salty and smoky flavored, this pork bore a very strong resemblance to the Kalua pork served overflowing in a Styrofoam tray, at fast-food Ohana Hawaiian BBQ in Monterey Park. This was a recipe for feeling gross, which is what I’m doing right now, and meanwhile the experience has driven Carmen to pass out on the couch in the middle of the afternoon. The al pastor might have been the best of the lot – it was of the saucy variety, savory and quite salty, but a whole taco’s worth still might mess you up.

After forking out about a third of the meat from my plate, I forked a half-measure of carne asada and carnitas onto the spare bilam-tortillas, creating a hybrid taco. These tortillas were a bit dry and had a good leathery quality. The mixture of carne asada and carnitas was odd, creating a dank salty, grungy sludge. The carnitas chunks I ate in this octoparrot taco were particularly fatty, giant chunks of soft, white, melt-in-your-mouth fat. They must slow cook this stuff for ages.

Finally there was little enough meat remaining to pick up my tacos. I picked up carne asada – folded over and hefted in the hand, it was still larger than any taco I’ve been served this year. I ate most of it, but did experience catastrophic failure of the bilam’d tortillas halfway through. Perhaps the perforations of a thousand fork stabs and the 90 minutes or so that seemed to have passed since I started had something to do with it, but the tortillas underlaying the meatpiles seemed inadequately prepped.

Finally I picked up the carnitas taco, and ate about half of it before setting it down in utter revulsion. Today I profoundly experienced the feeling that gives meaning to the Spanish word “empalagado”, that feeling of being full not because of your stomach, but because your palate cannot handle any more – although my stomach concurred with my mouth this time.

How big are the tacos? If I said they were three times as big as a normal taco, I think readers might be skeptical. How can they be that big? But I promise you, there was more than three tacos’ worth of meat on each of these monsters. Frankly, the size of these tacos is obscene. I believe that today was the first time in my entire life that I have not finished all the tacos I have been served. I am disgusted at the thought of tacos. I resolve never to eat tacos again. That’s terrible, Kenny. How ‘bout nobody win? The cincuenta taquerías project has never before been in such jeopardy.

Posted: June 13th, 2010
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25 Villa Tacos

25 Villa Tacos

May 11, 2010

10022 Venice Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232

Culver City

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
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