42 Antojitos Carmen
August 22, 2010
2510 E Cesar E. Chavez Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90033
My streak of taco good luck continues, not that there was anything lucky about either choosing to go to Antojitos Carmen or finding that it was awesome. Carmen and I wanted to show visitors Tim and Lauri some righteous tacos, and heading to the East Side to a place widely raved about that serves D.F. specialties was a Sure Thing.
Finding righteous tacos seemed extra-important today because Tim and Lauri came from Toronto. Of course Toronto is a cosmopolitan place and in this day and age you can find good food anywhere; but I still had to imagine that Toronto is beset by inferior tacos. Canadian food. We snobby Angelenos like to think of Canadian food as sad and provincial – like American food, only slightly worse even. What comes to mind when one ponders the phrase “Toronto Taco”? Canadian bacon, maple syrup, and poutine splashed with vinegar and folded inside a smashed glazed donut. After conceiving that vindictive but somewhat intriguing image I googled “toronto taco” to see if I could prove myself wrong. The first hit is an interesting taco blog torontotaco.com, subtitled “Reviwing the best tacos in Toronto. Most suck, but some are pretty good.” The third hit is a list of “The best Toronto Taco Shops” on urbanspoon.com. On this list of seven taco shops, numbers 4. and 7. are both Taco Bells. Case closed.
But I poke fun because I love you, Toronto, not just because I harbour spiteful jealousy of your publicly subsidised healthcare system.
We had heard about Antojitos Carmen both from the LA Times and Jonathan Gold in the LA Weekly, where the portrait was painted of a street-food operation coerced from their location in a parking lot who then took up residence in a real storefront on Cesar Chavez earlier this year, with street cred still intact. The joy of eating in parking lots notwithstanding, the bricks-and-mortar Antojitos Carmen we visited is pretty much the perfect restaurant for any occasion. They feature table service, but maintained the low prices you would expect to find eating in a parking lot. The interior is cozy and the service friendly, the menu long and full of surprises. The salsa bar is the best I have encountered, and the manager brought us a bowl of something special he described as an old family recipe – an addictive mixture of roasted sesame seeds, spices and dried chile bits, more reminiscent to me of Southeast Asian flavors than of any Mexican food I have encountered.
I ordered one each of the carne asada, carnitas, chorizo, and al pastor tacos, for $1.25 each. They are somewhat above average in size. The tortillas are handmade, doubled, and lightly oiled and grilled – fantastic. “With everything” means with onion and cilantro – eaters apply their own salsa from the salsa bar. The salsa bar includes an avocado salsa; a pretty spicy, smoky red; an herby green and a peppery green; and a wicked-hot habanero, probably the hottest salsa ounce-for-ounce I have found at any taco shop.
I started with the carne asada taco, adding some rojo and squeezing some lime juice. The taco here is a splendid rendition of the carne asada taco, not showy but so good. The steak was tender, sparely seasoned with salt and pepper, and had that buttery flavor you find in the best carne asada. It was JUST RIGHT.
Next I ate the chorizo taco. The crumbled chorizo is so potent and pungent without being offensively oversalty. It’s the best chorizo I’ve ever had.
Then I ate the carnitas taco, with the herby green salsa. It’s a fine carnitas with a slow-cooked porky depth to it, but was my least favorite among its standout brother tacos.
I ate the al pastor last, with a healthy helping of the fiery habanero salsa. My smiling mouth burned with habanero and joy as I savored this last treasure from flavor country. It’s tender and flavorful without being saucy or dryrubby.
These four smashing tacos have now replaced King Taco #15 as my choice for this year’s taco all-around gold medal. It is exhausting to encounter so much taco goodness to be enthusiastic about, but one must grin and bear it.