2011.04 Beto’s Tacos

2011.04 Beto’s Tacos

March 26, 2011

Jefferson at Redondo, Los Angeles, CA 90016

West Adams

The other day Pierre made a visit to Beto’s Tacos, a truck that stations itself on Jefferson at Redondo a few blocks west of La Brea – pretty close to where I live – and gave it a strong recommendation. Carmen and I went there tonight for dinner, and found it to be super good.

This stretch of Jefferson next to the Expo Line tracks is industrial in nature and totally quiet at night, but near to a dense residential neighborhood to the north. We were there at about 8:00 on a Saturday night. The industrial nature of the environment contributes to a Blade Runner Urbanism sensibility – here referring to the fact that Blade Runner is supposed to depict a terrible post-apocalyptic version of the city; but to the viewer, the dense, multi-ethnic, urban downtown in which Deckard enjoys his street-vendor noodles is a pretty appealing vision of Los Angeles.

Beto’s establishes a little outpost of urbanity here in the wasteland. The truck is parked on the street, and a tarp is tied from the truck’s canopy to the steel fence of the adjacent empty parking lot, creating a low roof over the sidewalk and transforming it into a quite cozy dining room, trapping warm air and creating an intimate acoustic environment. Unlike most trucks, Beto’s is configured so that you can really see the action inside, and watch your tacos being made. The staff was friendly and quite obviously conscientious about making tacos righteously.

I ordered one each of the carne asada, al pastor, suadero, and carnitas tacos, reasonably sized and very inexpensive at $1.00 each. They were photographed before I applied cilantro, onion and salsa from the condiment bar on the counter.

The asada was finely diced and surprisingly gamey, reminding me a bit of lengua. It is boiled in a big wok-looking thing with a brownish water and some big onions. I enjoyed it. The suadero and carnitas both had a similar texture of friedness, finely diced and oily-crispy. But the big winner was definitely the al pastor. Beto’s runs a trompo inside the truck, topped with an onion. When my order came up, the taquero sliced a bit of blackened-orange exterior off the trompo into a big scoop and then did a final prep on the griddle. The al pastor purists often state that the most righteous al pastor is that cut directly off the spit and into the tortilla in which it is served, but I can’t claim definitively that the plancha finish might not add something valuable. The al pastor here was delicious, savory, with great texture and richness. It’s not as good as Tacos Leo, because you don’t get any big slices of pineapple on top, but it was better than any non-trompo pastor I’ve had.

I am made happy again to find even more awesome tacos, right here in the Blade Runner-scape, near my home, in my belly.

Posted: March 26th, 2011
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55 El Super Taco

55 El Super Taco

November 17, 2010

11499 Jefferson Blvd, Culver City, CA 90230

Culver City

El Super Taco is the fourth consecutive Westside taco shop I have visited – I’m in a slump, as the Westside is not a hotbed of fine tacos, but rather a hotbed of taco eaters too lazy to travel far enough east to get good tacos. El Super Taco is a chain of approximately three Westside locations, and this one looked terribly banal on the outside, in a generic stucco strip mall next to the 405 freeway. I was pleasantly surprised, though, and likewise I hope you, my readers, will be pleasantly surprised when you scroll down and see the photo. Four tacos, and all four meats vividly distinct in color and appearance!

Although it’s in a crap little strip mall storefront illuminated by a half-dozen lay-in 2×4 lensed fluorescent fixtures in a blue-painted acoustic panel ceiling, the unexpectedly clean and tidy interior seemed warm and welcoming, as did the serveuse who took my order and offered me complimentary chips. I ordered one each of the carne asada, al pastor, carnitas, and suadero tacos, quite reasonable at $1.25 each. I settled in with my tray of chips and sampled three of the five salsas from the salsa bar, the ones labeled “salsa roja,” “salsa verde,” and “salsa suicide”. This latter salsa filled me with a desire to live! It is a very hot habanero-grapefruit, my new favorite flavor combination that brings me back to Campos’ Burritos on Venice at Motor every week. The rojo was okay, tasting a bit like Tapatio mixed with essence of pencil graphite; and the verde was pretty spicy too, with a flavor that I spent much of the meal attempting to identify, a frequent problem of mine. In the end I decided that it tasted like one of the unidentified, weird “spice” jelly bean flavors.

The chips, oily and recently fried, were reminiscent of fried wonton strips – I don’t know why or how.

I ate the suadero first – compelled to order this rare option. The meat was quite good, juicy and tender but with a bit of tooth resistance at first bite. Leanly seasoned, it had a strong gamy, beefy flavor. I don’t know how they prepare it, but the texture and taste reminded me of braised short ribs.

The tortillas were hot, and seemed to be steamed rather than griddled – doubled, but not laminated, they performed correctly. So many tacos suffer from watery meats that saturate and destroy their tortillas and drip dirty meaty squirts out their backsides, but these meat fillings were appropriately dry in character.

I ate the carnitas next, dressed with the salsa verde. It was a particularly dry, stringy, fried and textural carnitas with a nice golden brown hue. It seems dry at first but when you compress a mouthful of it a porky liquid magic seems to lurk in its core.

The carne asada was fine, elegant and proper, although fairly inconspicuous after I applied a distracting mixture of Salsa Roja and Salsa Suicide.

The al pastor looks a bit like orange chicken from a Chinese Food and Donuts shop, but was dry-rubby in character, with cinnamon and clove notes. Griddled to a gracious orange-and-black color scheme, it had a good texture, although in the middle of this taco I encountered one of those unfortunate chunks of cartilaginous flesh that you can barely chew through. I tend to enjoy the dry-rubby stuff, although this was really no better than the cheap preparada al pastor you can get at the Bodega R-Ranch Market #14 supermarket for home grilling.

Posted: November 17th, 2010
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34 Metro Balderas

34 Metro Balderas

July 3, 2010

5305 N Figueroa St, Los Angeles, CA 90042

Highland Park

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.

Posted: July 3rd, 2010
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24 El Taurino

24 El Taurino

May 7, 2010

2306 W 11th St, Los Angeles, CA 90006

Pico-Union

A few weeks ago friend and colleague Zinayda recommended El Taurino, and then when I looked it up, I discovered that the whole internet likes it as well, and that El Taurino is a sibling of King Taco, which recently I so enjoyed. Carmen and I decided to go there this Friday evening for dinner – I couldn’t help it, I was craving al pastor.

We drove to their Pico-Union location and found a taco truck serving tacos in their parking lot, apparently supplementing the action in the restaurant proper; but it seemed like going inside for the restaurant experience was the thing to do. We might have spent 15 minutes waiting in line, though. I tried not to think about how I would have been eating already had we gone with the truck.

The interior is classic Mexican restaurant style, with a spacious dining room, in which the experience is marred only by the constant calling of order numbers over the loudspeaker. The dining experience is greatly augmented by the wall-to-wall bullfighting decorations, and actual taxidermy trophy bull heads mounted on the walls. And it’s called “El Taurino”. This place wants you to know that cattle aren’t just something you happen to be eating, but also a mighty and honorable beast cruelly taunted and murdered for sport! Click here to see my photo of the restaurant interior on Flickr.

Tacos were $1.25 each, and the menu similar to that at King Taco. I chose one each of carne asada, al pastor, carnitas, and suadero, and responded affirmatively when asked if I wanted them spicy. They are somewhat small to average in size, so four make a good meal. The tortillas are the normal kind, fully bilam’d.

First I ate suadero, delivered with a tasty peppery green salsa. This was my favorite of the four – the strips of beef filled the tortillas well and offered great texture and beefy flavor. Next I ate carne asada, which was coated in a smooth red salsa. I took a couple bites and found the steak moist and tasty, fairly spare in its treatment but citrusy. By the third bite, the heat of that smooth red salsa had gone into effect. The green salsa on the suadero was unusually hot, but the rojo on the asada is potent. It’s Franka Potente. I’m pretty sure this was the hottest taco I’ve ever eaten. Is this heaty taco the reason that the majority of the clientele at El Taurino appeared to be Korean? Everything I tasted after this moment was mediated by that heat.

I ate carnitas next, which was delivered with the less hot verde, but through the veil of the hot afterburn of the red, it could have been soggy cardboard and I would scarcely have noticed. It seemed okay, but I won’t presume to judge it.

The al pastor was delivered with the now-legendary rojo as well. I eyed it warily. Carmen encouraged me to scoop off that rojo, but I’m not the kind of man who would do any such thing – this taco needed to be eaten the way it was meant to be eaten. But I did take a bite of al pastor at fork’s end before I got into the taco per se. It was very good, cut from a real rotating spit that you can look at, orange and black, and very sweet, caramelly. Then I ate the rest of the taco and was plunged back into the land of heat and fire.

El Taurino was awesome. It’s not so hot that tears run down the face, but the heat still shows you who’s boss. What it lacks in subtlety is obscured by the visceral experience of fiery rojo.

Posted: May 8th, 2010
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21 King Taco #15

21 King Taco #15

April 19, 2010

4300 E Olympic Blvd, East Los Angeles, CA 90023

East Los Angeles

If not for happenstance and King Taco, there would never have been a “Cincuenta Taquerías” project. Happenstance sent me out to work in East Los Angeles. Searching out the most efficient commuting roads led me to East Olympic Boulevard, the artery of an area Great Taco Hunt’s Bandini has termed the “Taco Mecca”. East Olympic Boulevard hosts an eye-catching preponderance of taco vendors, and after a hundred trips down East Olympic Boulevard, I could not escape taco captivation.

Perched beneath a roughly 400-foot-tall sign that towers over Interstate 5 is the most eye-catching taco stand of all. You’ve probably seen it from the freeway. Tonight on my way home I finally stopped at King Taco #15, a classic outdoor-seating taco stand at the heart of Taco Mecca. I did so with low expectations – King Taco is a chain restaurant with 20 locations and its own Visual Corporate Identity program; and although its Mexican-style soft tacos have nothing in common with Taco Bell or Del Taco, I had been to a King Taco once before a year earlier (King Taco #27 in Long Beach) and been disappointed by small, boring tacos with bad tortillas. Tonight, however, I experienced nothing but taco bliss. I don’t know what went wrong that other time.

For the urban cyclist, a classic taco stand has one obvious advantage – you can order and eat outside without locking up your bike. It was about 68 degrees when I sat down next to my bicycle at the taco table, a slight breeze and a lowering sun both coming at me from the west, and the gentle whoosh of the Santa Ana Freeway 50 yards to the east. The environment of King Taco #15 felt perfect, like a taco holy land. Eating there alone I felt the same brand of solemnity one feels at, for example, the Zen Garden at the Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto. Only a couple other customers shared this contemplative moment with me, no doubt lost in their own experiences. I wonder whether the taquero smiled at me when he handed over the goods because he knew what awaited me.

I ordered four tacos, one each of carne asada, suadero, carnitas and al pastor. They are $1.25 each and a little smaller than average. My order had been entered as “to-go” and was therefore given to me as a plastic bag containing a cuplet of red salsa and a tidy rectangle of taut aluminum foil that looked way too small to contain so much satisfaction – I was fear-stricken that I might have received only one taco. Upon opening, the four modestly sized tacos looked good, though. I nibbled a piece of suadero before I could get the camera out. So good.

So therefore I had to eat the suadero first – beefy brisket with the slightly edgy quality of meat fried in oil, mildly sweet, great texture, so flavorful. I generously applied the rojo and found it to be remarkably spicy – those of you who fear the spice, take note. This taco made quite a first impression. The tortillas were hot, bilaminated, just right.

I moved on to carnitas. They take it seriously here – it had the textural variation of great carnitas, comprising both the moist and the toothy-dry together. They have mastered the alchemy by which slow-cooked pork fat is transformed into porky gold.

Next, carne asada presented a contrasting aspect. Greyish, finely diced and very moist and tender, the flavors were relatively restrained, with plenty of lemon and detectable salt and pepper. The spicy rojo makes this steak taco into a real powerhouse.

I saved the best for last, it turned out – the al pastor was magically delicious. I picked up a piece between my fingers and studied it closely. The irregular little bit of pork was about half orange and half grill-blackened. Each little bit of pork seemed to contain a universe of flavor, waiting to be unleashed. I think I experienced a small nuclear reaction when I took a big bite. The al pastor is saucy, not dry-rubby, although not overly wet. The textural contrast within it was unusual, both tender and near-crispy. It is very sweet and very savory too. I struggled to think of what it reminded me of – the spicy mint beef at Thai BBQ? Experientially, I think it most resembled a really good plate of sautéed Tangerine Beef or Orange Beef at the kind of nice Chinese restaurant that’s in Chinatown but largely serves a gringo crowd. I would call this my new favorite al pastor, but after such a trauma I’m still in the denial stage – can King Taco #15’s al pastor really always be this good? My taco must have been a fluke.

If I had to award a gold medal today for the taco all-around competition, it would go to King Taco hands-down – these four tacos were so distinct from one another, and yet all superb. King Taco #15’s lineup is now known as the Murderer’s Row, and all its members elected to the Hall of Fame. I award them the Stanley Cup, the Hugo Award, and the Nobel Peace Prize.

Posted: April 19th, 2010
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