54 Pili’s Tacos

54 Pili’s Tacos

November 6, 2010

11924 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90025

Sawtelle

I first heard of Pili’s years ago when UCLA architecture schoolmate Antonio recommended it for its righteous tacos, obviously a rarity west of the 405. It is a cozy little storefront connected to an adjoining gift shop, offering fine tacos until late at night. Carmen and I found an excuse to head out here for lunch today.

The word “Pili’s” has great ear-feel to my gringo ears.

I ordered one each of the al pastor, carnitas, and carne asada tacos, Westside-priced at $1.50 each for slightly smallish tacos. They were plated nicely, the three tacos aligned on a plate, tortillas leaning into one another, implying the roundish cross section of a taco curled in the hand on its way to the mouth.

I started with the steak. This taco felt good from the start, with the small, bilaminated tortillas nicely leathered but not oily. The steak had a great flavor and texture, sparely seasoned and a bit gamy due to relatively fatty meat – fatty in a good way.

Next I ate the carnitas taco, my least favorite. The meat had a good texture with enough resistance to satisfy the tooth, but rather dry in a way that leaves your tongue feeling desiccated. The flavor isn’t bad – it’s definitely pork – but it’s neither strong nor compelling enough.

Lastly I ate the al pastor taco. It’s well above-average al pastor meat, not the typical stuff, but small cuboid chunks of pork apparently deep-fried to a near-crunchy resilience, with some orange savory flavor added for good effect. It has a winning porky-oily flavor that made me ponder whether I needed another one.

Posted: November 6th, 2010
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18 Tacos La Flama

18 Tacos La Flama

April 4, 2010

2404 S Barrington Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90064

Sawtelle

Tucked into the corner of the platonic low-rent Los Angeles corner strip mall, between the Mattress Clearance Center and the Indian Fast Food, beneath the billboard and flappy flags, Tacos La Flama might easily be overlooked. Outside, it has about 10’ of frontage, but inside you find a fine neighborhood taco shop, augmented with a case full of pan dulce and a busy butcher’s counter too. A glass case is stacked to the rim with about a cubic yard of chicharrones.

I ordered one each of the carne asada, al pastor, and carnitas tacos, about average in size and $1.25 each. After a run of rather exotic tacos, I was relieved to come back to the world of the modest, humble taco – without pretension or putting on airs, these tacos simply want to follow their directive and bring you straightforward pleasure and nutrition, in accordance with the taco code of honor. Empalagado after so many Heroic tacos, I’ve returned to the virtues of the Ugly and Ordinary taco.

First I ate the carnitas, with a liberal application of the orangey “hot” salsa from the salsa bar. The salsa is not very hot, but has a good citrusy fruity flavor backing up peppery goodness. This was a good taco in the ordinary way – the carnitas rather grey in color, but with a good textural variation. An early bite was dry and almost crunchy in character, and a later bite was juicy and moist. The flavor had smoke and porkiness. The alignment of this taco was Lawful Good – a stand-up taco, a straightshooter all the way.

Tortillas were normal, doubled but not laminated. This afternoon was the first time this year I could use the Offset Tortilla strategy – when tortillas are unlaminated, slide the top tortilla 20% off the lower tortilla. After you fold and lift your tortilla, you have a 20% extension out the back of your taco with no topping in it. This can be folded over to prevent the “dumping syndrome” loss of taco meat out the back; and as you eat the taco from front to back, the gradual pushing on the contents will fill up that 20% taco tail with taco runoff and overflow. I learned this trick back in the Depression.

Next I ate carne asada. The Great Taco Hunt’s Bandini was right that the steak is way heavy on lemon juice, but I found this unusual sensation rather compelling. The little juicy steak bits so strongly flavored with citrus, salt, garlic, and the really good red salsa (which is pepper-smoky and fairly hot) had that perverse quality you find in Cool Ranch Doritos where the taste in your mouth makes you want more and more until it’s all gone.

Finally I ate al pastor. It was pretty normal stuff – good, but not intense, spiced fairly mildly, but this allowed the pork flavor to shine on through. A good every-day al pastor, I wish I could buy it in a big box in the cereal aisle and eat it out of a bowl every morning.

Posted: April 4th, 2010
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