39 Yuca’s Tacos

39 Yuca’s Tacos

August 7, 2010

2056 Hillhurst Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90027

Los Feliz

Yuca’s on Hillhurst in Los Feliz is one of those places people rave about. The word “best” is used on the first page of Yelp! reviews 23 times. Many of those reviews are obviously written by morons. Russ and I discussed how Yuca’s character and geographic location are an ideal combination for appealing to the class of people likely to rave about it on sites like Yelp! As I saw it, the question to be solved today was not, “Is Yuca’s overrated?” but rather, “How overrated is Yuca’s?” The answer to those questions are “Yes” and “Somewhat”.

Carmen and I at first got lost, which is something I do most every time I head into the big, vague hipster zone in between Griffith Park and Dodger Stadium. Yuca’s presence was highlighted by a crowd on the sidewalk in front of it. A shack-like taco stand in a parking lot, Yuca’s may be the smallest occupied building I have ever seen, exclusive of security guard and toll-taker huts. It’s in the same genre as the locksmith booths you sometimes see in strip mall parking lots. You can see it in the picture – the kitchen of Yuca’s is about 6’ by 6’, with a canopy to north over an indoor-outdoor-hybrid dining area, and a ramshackle awning over the sidewalk to the west. The signs on the roof match the footprint of the building and effectively extend its presence upward. It’s a fantastically humble space. Even though Yuca’s is anchored to the pavement, its kitchen is much smaller than that found on a typical taco truck.

I had one each of the four tacos on offering – the carne asada at $2.25, and the carnitas, machaca (shredded beef), and cochinita pibil tacos at $2.00 each. We didn’t wait long. Our order was put in “for here”, which meant that the foil-wrapped tacos were served on a paper plate rather than in a paper bag. The indoor-outdoor-hybrid dining zone being occupied, we found two extra chairs and set ourselves up in the driveway south of Yuca’s in front of an upturned milk crate. On such a fine-weathered day, it doesn’t get much better than this. I saw a Buick up close as it drove by!

I opened and ate the tacos one at a time, which is why I have employed a high-tech, Andy-Warhol-like photo collage created digitally from four separate photos of tacos. The plate felt heavy. The tortillas are oversized and thick. Unusually, all the tacos at Yuca’s employ an unspicy pico de gallo-style salsa made with tomato chunks – maybe this fact has something to do with tomatoes being a staple of the Yucatecan cuisine (the name “Yuca’s” refers to the Yucatán). Carmen saw a bottle of the fine XXX El Yucateco Habanero hot sauce, which I was too lazy to fetch, but that would have picked up the pace.

I started with the carne asada taco. The meat looked great, a nice dark brown. It tastes great too, with just the right steaky tooth resistance, and modest seasoning that lets the steakiness through. The quantity of steak was decent, and would have filled a normal-sized tortilla, but the large, thick tortillas here rather overwhelmed the contents. This makes for a filling, carbo-loading taco, but the ratios are not right for maximum enjoyment – imagine the displeasure of taking a big bite of a raw corn tortilla, because that’s kind of what you get competing with the meaty goodness.

Next I ate the carnitas taco. Shreddy carnitas was tasty, porky, with good flavor and texture. Again competing with the meat I encountered the unusual aspect of the tomato salsa and the tortilla-mouth of excessive tortilla. This pattern was repeated again and again with the cochinita pibil, and then the machaca. Carmen and I observed that the three shredded meat tacos all have a similar look (refer to photograph #1) and similar texture.

The tastes of the meats were distinctive, although Carmen was particularly disappointed by their relative blandness and similarity. She liked Yuca’s less than I did. The pibil had a good moistness and a slight flavor of cola that I have recognized in cochinita pibil before but don’t know to what it can be attributed. We missed the citrus-pickled onions with which pibil has been served elsewhere. The machaca was tasty – it’s righteous, tender, moist shredded beef, and how can you go wrong? But it’s not remarkable, was in places too soft from long cooking, and was not up to the same high level as the other three meat choices.

The built infrastructure of this stretch of Hillhurst looks like a working-class Los Angeles neighborhood, but it was occupied by many hipsters and rich people with nice cars. Despite this setback, and despite the “best taco” hype, I did enjoy experiencing the tiny building, the dining in a driveway, and a very filling lunch at Yuca’s.

For further reading, see Bandini’s review at The Great Taco Hunt.

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