14 CaCao Mexicatessen
March 27, 2010
1576 Colorado Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90041
There are several Gourmet-Style taco vendors around town. When I worked near the Farmers Market, I made frequent enjoyable trips to Loteria Grill, usually for burritos containing specialties like cochinita pibil, chicken in red pipian, or chicken tinga. There is Border Grill. There is also the Kogi truck, and the fad for the Korean Barbecue taco. This is the tasty context of tacos in the $3 to $4 range, which is where CaCao is positioned; and Jonathan Gold liked them, too. So Carmen and I trekked out to Eagle Rock with high expectations for fancy tacos and a qualitatively different experience from the unpretentious taco shops we’ve visited thus far.
CaCao has a lineup of nearly twenty tacos from which to choose. Obligated to choose the standards, I ordered the carne asada, the carnitas, and the cochinita pibil (“smoked pork in achiote & citrus”). These were $2.75-$2.85 each. Carmen made more exotic choices – the calabacitas (squash); the duck carnitas; the tocino enchocolatado (“house cured bacon, salsa de cacao crema, bean puree, serrano chiles, w/ a handmade flour tortilla” (yes, you read that right, bacon and chocolate)); and the taco of the day, which contained pork chop and applewood-smoked bacon.
I felt the sting of paying $28.14 for seven tacos and two Mexican cokes while we waited for our meals, but my hard feelings softened when the plates arrived. The tacos are above average in size, especially the impressive cochinita pibil. The tortillas are yellowish, thick, quite corny, and were conspicuously being hand-made a few feet from where we ate.
First I ate the carne asada. This was a fine example of a carne asada taco, but it didn’t knock my socks off. I blame the context – I knew it was expensive, and it’s hard for the elemental carne asada to compete with its flashier neighbors carnitas and pibil. I was eating the asada and my eyes wandered to the pibil. Sorry, asada, I feel I was unfaithful to you, but you really were quite excellent. You did everything so well. Your tortilla was corny and resilient, and your salsa spicy and delicious. If I have to find fault with this taco, I say this – the taco leaked liquid out its backside upon my first bite; and the tortillas seem like they could benefit from being grilled a bit longer.
Next I ate the carnitas. It’s an excellent, fundamental carnitas, juicy and tender. It did not have the crunchy bits and textural variation I have used as a benchmark; but it didn’t need it. What it had was awesome porky flavor. The long, slow cooking was evident in the tastiness of the fatty bits – these seemed to melt in one’s mouth. Carmen and I discussed meat fat on the way home from CaCao, concluding that, though fattiness may be correlated with cheap meat, and though only the truly ill-informed would repeat that old canard that fat is inherently gross, it is more challenging to render fat into deliciousness. Thus I must now and in future evaluate carnitas through this measure, and my previous favorite criterion of textural variation seems almost juvenile, sophomoric. Though this taco had the fine tortilla, as well as onions, cilantro and salsa, I felt like the universe consisted of nothing but me and slow-roasted pork. It was good, an elegant and effective solution to the carnitas taco problem.
But the cochinita pibil was best. It was the biggest, but also winningly intense. Check out that pink heap of citrus-pickled onions on top, potent with citrus and chile, not so vinegary as at Loteria Grill. The meat as well was so overwhelmingly flavorful that a tiny bit fills the mouth with sensation. This is not a taco of subtlety or refinement, but a magnificent tour de force that punches you in the tongue with its boxing glove of flavor-pow-BAM! It’s a new favorite.
Carmen liked her meal too, unable to decide whether the calabacitas or the duck carnitas was her favorite. She said the latter, but only because she knew I would never believe that a squash and corn taco could be better than a crispy duck carnitas taco. The bacon and chocolate taco was, as Jonathan Gold had forecast, not as exciting as it sounds. Be warned that it’s drizzled with white sauce. The porkchop and bacon taco tasted predominantly of applewood-smoked bacon, a fine flavor, but suffered from the porkchop strips being a bit fatty and grisly, with some pieces difficult to bite through.
Although gourmet taco venues are not the intended focus of the Cincuenta Taquerías project, CaCao was a delicious experience and I will enjoy returning again to try some of their other offerings, such as the filet mignon, the turkey in green pipian, the chorizo and potato, the extra spicy grilled steak, and the chicken mole. Next time the misery of daily life gets you down, ponder the potential inherent in that list.