48 El Compa Tacos y Burritos

48 El Compa Tacos y Burritos

September 30, 2010

5583 Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90019


El Compa feels instantly familiar, probably because it used to be a Campos, according to interweb folklore on Yelp. Carmen and I ended up here this evening in our search for a nearby quick taco meal. As the Yelp! reviewers observed, El Compa is in a tiny strip mall possessed of a “shady” and/or “seedy” character by virtue of the discount Thai Massage joint and the crowds of people loitering outside; but El Compa itself is not shady, it’s the platonic, and platonically forgettable, neighborhood taco shop.

We drove past the corner of La Brea and Venice on the way, the corner of the famed Tacos Leo, where until recently the best al pastor tacos I’ve ever had were served directly from the trompo in a gas station parking lot. A couple of weeks ago the LA Weekly’s “Squid Ink” food blog published an article about Leo’s, and (coincidentally?) the fuzz came and shut down the article and confiscated the trompo. Tasting Table’s account of the story. Fingers were pointed at the Weekly’s blogger – had the mainstream attention to the humble taco truck scene in a disused Unocal station brought on persecution? Is taco blogging in fact a form of gentrification, an inadvertent means of helping white douchebags and hipsters take over and deplete the authenticity of undiscovered institutions?

Ten years ago I moved guiltily out of the alleged “artist’s district” of Santa Ana, swearing never to be a gentrifier again. I would hate to think that taco reporting is a sin against authenticity, but there was still no trompo on display at the corner of Venice and La Brea. I wonder if the folks at Leo’s would like to have Kogi-like lines of hipsters out front, waiting half an hour for $3.00 tacos? They might love that, but it would make me sad. If I may express this graphically:


There are some methods you can use to avoid being a gentrifier. You can choose to live in places that are already middle-class or mixed-race in character, for example, or choose neighborhoods inherently gentrification-resistant by virtue of their character. You can write about taco shops that are in no danger of having their authenticity corrupted by hordes of hipsters. Like El Compa, which fed me a mediocre but satisfying meal, three tacos and a good horchata.

The inside still looks like a Campos, with a Campos menu board and Campos menu items. The acoustic panel ceiling is painted out to look like a beautiful cloudy sky. The dining room is humble, pleasant enough. I ordered three tacos, one each of the al pastor, carne asada, and a hard shell taco with ground beef. El Compa looks like the kind of old-school place where the crispy tacos are an important part of the menu, and this fact must be respected. The soft tacos were $1.35 each and the hard taco $1.95, if I recall correctly.

I ate the hard shell taco first, which was probably correct, as I received therefore maximum sensation of its hot, oily, fresh-from-the-fryer crispiness. The meat was sludgy like at Jack in the Box. The tomato sauce-like salsa combined with the shredded cheese reminded me of pizza, which is not a bad thing. A tasty crispy taco.

The soft tacos were okay. I ate the carne asada taco next. The tortillas were leathery and resilient, not laminated, bigger than average (as were the tacos), a bit dry, but that’s better than soggy or failing. The steak, finely diced and, well, steak-flavored, at first made a good impression. It was thoroughly seasoned with carne asada seasoning. But by the time I was halfway through, all I could discern was that it was too salty. I was empalagated. It would work better in a burrito, tempered with a bunch of other stuff. The onions were diced to a pleasing fineness, the cilantro appropriate, but the red salsa (served on the side in a plastic cup) disappointed – too much tomato, no spiciness. I resorted to the Tapatio.

The al pastor tasted like the al pastor they used to serve at the Campos that was on Venice Boulevard and is now a Pancho’s. Sweet, bright red, rather saucy. Good enough to eat, and would be even more enjoyable had my standards not been raised by the stimulating and superior al pastors I’ve been exposed to this year. At an old school place like El Compa, you will do well to order the hard shell taco, and savor the knowledge that you are not acting as a shock-trooper of gentrification.

Posted: September 30th, 2010
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47 Pinche’s Tacos

47 Pinche’s Tacos

September 25, 2010

8665 Washington Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232

Culver City

I didn’t think I would like Pinche’s Tacos very much, and indeed I did not. It isn’t personal. The staff seemed friendly. I felt that they made an effort to take care of me and Carmen, their customers for dinner this evening, and to give us the best food they could. It wasn’t bad. But I don’t like Pinche’s Tacos.

The Supreme Court Justice of taco bloggers, Bandini, rates his taco experience on a scale of one to five. When setting out to survey the tacoscape one must commit early to whether or not will adopt a quantitative rating system. I opted not to follow this precedent, so I have to rely on mere words to express my dissatisfaction with Pinche’s Tacos. But I don’t think Bandini would like Pinche’s Tacos either.

There used to be an outpost of the small Campos Burritos chain in this small freestanding restaurant next to the Helms Bakery complex, and the contrast between the Campos that was, and the Pinche’s that is, exemplifies the transformation of Culver City from a fairly modest community into a destination for dining so allegedly hip that even the New York Times deigned to raise its monocle and take notice. Those who know me will confirm that I am a Campos Burritos partisan, and I mean that figuratively as well as literally. The unassuming, inexpensive, authentic, unselfconscious, and tasty Campos Burritos sensibility pleases me greatly. The overpriced, self-referential, and cute Pinche’s is as if formulated to offend me – a farce of a taquería in the place where the real thing once stood. Check out the reviews on Yelp! and you’ll see that most of the favorable reviews sound like they were written by douchebags.

Pinche’s took Campos late-midcentury-generic taco building and painted the outside bright pink and purple; put up a sign with their cheeky name, and topped it with the word “tacos” in glorious Comic Sans; and filled the inside with an admixture of kitsch and camp: real Lotería cards, humorous satirical Lotería cards, authentic Day of the Dead memorabilia, a faux-vintage “Wanted” poster for the bandit Emiliano Zapata. They were playing Gael Garcia Bernal’s ironical cover of “I Want You to Want Me” when we walked in (which was a nice touch).

I ordered one each of the carne asada, al pastor, and carnitas tacos. Price for each was between $2 and $3. Sounds reasonable enough, but then do the math: our order of six tacos, a Jarritos, and a fountain Coke came to $21.79. At a taco truck, this order would have cost about $9 and tasted better.

Our food was kindly brought to us. I noticed that each taco had a different salsa – a good sign that the tacos are being thoughtfully curated. I noticed the interesting single-ply homemade tortillas – they have a sort of spongy thickness that reminded me of that bread at Ethiopian restaurants. They lack tensile strength. These tortillas did fine through the first taco but tore on the second taco and failed catastrophically on the third.

I ate the carnitas taco first, and enjoyed the meat – it had some substantial toothiness to it that one might even call tough, but which to me only enhanced enjoyment; and the meat was flavorful, tasting of citrus and pork. But I did not like the salsa – very chunky and watery, very cold, dominated by tomatoes. A constant stream of dirty salsa water dripped from my taco onto my plate, threatening to drown the carne asada taco. In my opinion, a taco should be a non-leaking and dry thing. Leaking tacos are about as cool as leaking diapers. I washed my hands vigorously after I came home.

Next I ate the steak taco. This was truly a taco of steak, as it was impressively above average in size, and the steak chunks were big and cuboid and unmistakeably steaky in flavor and texture, with the serious chewiness you find in American-style steaks. The meat seemed to be of the same chewy cut often found in Peruvian “Lomo Saltado” dishes. The steak was smoky from grilling and seasoned with plenty of cumin. Pretty good stuff, although not what one expects in a “carne asada” taco. The salsa verde was good and peppery, but left me wishing for some spiciness.

The al pastor was acceptable, dry rubby in character, with clove and cinnamon conspicuous in the mix. The tender pork bits were sliced thin. The red salsa on this taco didn’t do much for me. This taco’s final act was catastrophic tortilla failure halfway through consumption. These spongiform tortillas need some serious attention.

Aside from the supersweet chicken mole octoparrot taco that Carmen ordered, upon consideration, I have to acknowledge that the meats at Pinche’s Tacos were reasonably good, and my account of what I experienced there doesn’t seem to justify the strong feelings of disappointment that Pinche’s inspired. Maybe half-hour’s writing about Pinche’s has mellowed my ire. Maybe I should recant the oath I made two hours ago to stop eating bad tacos and only eat good tacos from now on. I don’t know, but I do know that if I go back to Pinche’s, I’m going for the burrito. Ooh, burn.

Posted: September 25th, 2010
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46 Candela Taco Bar

46 Candela Taco Bar

September 16, 2010

831 S La Brea Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036


Candela Taco Bar looks on the inside like the small bar that would be attached at one end of a large old-timey Mexican restaurant of the margarita-serving El Cholo or Don Somebody school. Instead it’s attached to the awesome, weird and old-timey Leonardo’s Dance Hall. Tonight was Salsa Night, and a very few people were enjoying salsa lessons in the big space. But Carmen, Mike and I were enjoying tacos and giant goblets of beer in the small bar.

After a couple 22-ounce goblets of Candela’s hefeweizen-style house beer and a shitload of tricolored tortilla chips, you might not care much about the quality of your tacos. Going to Candela is like multitasking – rather than go to a bar and stop for tacos afterwards, you can sit there at the bar, enjoying goblets of beer, and then eat tacos at the same time. Such efficiency.

For $2 each, they aren’t bad. Average in size and above average in tastiness, with serviceable doubled tortillas that performed. And on Wednesday, Taco Wednesday, they are $1 each. That is a bargain. It’s a loss leader to get you to drink beer!

I had four of their tacos, the Chile Colorado, the Carne Asada (described as skirt steak), the Barbacoa (beef) and the Al Pastor. Chile colorado was first. It did look pretty awesomely red in the dim light, and the big chunks of beef were pleasing and flavorful. Barbacoa was not too distinctive, although I enjoyed it at the time. Al pastor was pleasing, being particularly pineapple-laden. Heavenly heavenly piña – the gorgeous taste, imposing as a southern island king crowned in glory, is yours to enjoy. Carne asada struck me as decent but overly salty, although Carmen did not find them so salty.

Mike upon consideration pronounced the tacos to be in the 65th percentile. This level of specificity is convincing.

Posted: September 16th, 2010
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45 Tacos El Primo

45 Tacos “El Primo”

September 7, 2010

Alley just north of Adams Blvd at Redondo Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90016

West Adams

Carmen and I ventured out for Tuesday evening tacos, seeking trompo. On Saturday night we had seen a giant sidewalk trompo right on the sidewalk in front of a Tacos Guadalajara truck, now occupying the spot on Adams in front of the R-Ranch Bodega, where the Tortas Ahogadas truck used to park. We drove by and espied no trompo, so we figured to head up to Venice and La Brea, my new favorite taco intersection, and not because that’s where the combination Taco Bell and Pizza Hut is either. We didn’t get past the corner of Adams and Redondo before we spotted another truck, however, and lo and behold, they had a trompo in the window. Trompo fortune.

Tacos “El Primo” is a small taco trailer pulled by an awesome two-tone tan-and-brown F350 “Dually” pickup truck. It is parked in a potholed alley parallel to and north of Adams Boulevard, next to an empty corner lot and in between a humble four-unit apartment building and the back of A&C Appliances – a spontaneous taco community appears regularly in this gritty interstitial space. I found Bandini’s review of Tacos “El Primo” from September 2006, where the photographic evidence reveals the same truck and the same trailer parked in the same place four years ago to the day. Tacos “El Primo” might look to the observer like an exemplification of the ephemeral nature of taco supply and demand in Los Angeles, but it is a surprisingly permanent fixture. Eating here is a veritable flashback in time to four years ago, when the economy boomed and it seemed like the party would never stop. Everything turned to shit, but Tacos “El Primo” remained.

I ordered two tacos al pastor and one carne asada, cheap at $1.00 each. Horchatas are also $1.00 each. It’s like 2006 all over again! Tacos are served plain, and there are large bins containing salsa and a premixed mixture of onion and cilantro. I applied the red to the steak and one al pastor taco, and the green to the other. The tortillas are nicely oiled and griddled to effective leatheriness.

Carmen loved these tacos. Carmen raved about the steak, which I found very juicy and moist – Carmen glimpsed the steak being boiled briefly in a dark liquid filled with grilled onions before being griddled. But the red salsa bollixed up my taco. It was pretty spicy, but it tasted like soap. The green salsa was far better.

The al pastor was good, but not among the best – I’m not even sure it came from the trompo, since it looked like they were only just firing it up, and we might have come to early for the righteous pork treat. It was tender and thoroughly marinated, but saucy and quite sweet with chunks of fruit and onion in the sauce; good enough for me to give it the endorsement of pronouncing it taco-righteous.

Posted: September 7th, 2010
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44 Tacos El Paisano

44 Tacos El Paisano

September 4, 2010

5301 Venice Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90019


One month ago, Hamburglar Hadley reported in Grub Street the important news of a new taco shop opened in Mid-City on Venice Boulevard. I have a strong, personal identification with that particular boulevard! I was looking forward to it.

This little shop was home to Hoagies & Wings, and then it became Wing Shack, which according to unreliable internet website Yelp! was really good. Wing Shack closed in May of this year to make way for a taquería, a sign of the times. If you compare this “before” picture, you can see what it takes to transform a Wing Shack into a Tacos El Paisano: you add some Hispanicizing puffy stucco around the top. The tiny building with about four dining tables is a fine environment in which to enjoy the simple pleasures of a taco meal.

The menu isn’t too long, which is an asset in a taquería, because it highlighted what we needed – $1.25 tacos and Mexican sodas. Carmen smartly ordered two carne asada tacos and one each of al pastor and chorizo, so I followed her lead. The friendly serveur poked fun at me in English for not speaking Spanish as Carmen had.

We had to drive past the nearby Venice and La Brea truck with its awesome trompo (literally a children’s toy spinning top, this word designates the vertical revolving spit of al pastor pork that resembles such a top). I remembered a line from Bandini’s recent review of Daniel’s Tacos: “al pastor that doesn’t come from the trompo only has so high of a ceiling.” True enough. Recent revelatory trompo experiences may be turning me into a serious trompo snob. For non-trompo pastor, the tacos at El Paisano are quite good – thoroughly marinated and quite strongly flavored, with good texture; savory rather than sweet.

Tacos were average in size, with satisfactory bilaminated tortillas, and served topped with onion and cilantro. Salsa was provided on the side in two bowls, red and green, both fairly spicy. Carne asada was good – I preferred the al pastor, but Carmen thought the steak was better. The steak had the butteriest flavor I have ever encountered, which Carmen likened to movie theater popcorn. That simile probably doesn’t make it sound very good, and in fact the taste is kind of freaky. I have previously noted a buttery flavor in good steak tacos which I attributed to the fattiness of the beef, but this time, we wondered if actual butter (or more likely the butter-flavored oil pumped onto popcorn at movie theaters) played a role.

The chorizo pleased me too – this taco was the biggest, with chorizo in big charred-orange chunks; very salty, but a welcome counterpoint to the other tacos.

The most distinctive aspect of our taco plates was the grilled onion – a medium entire onion served whole, but made sweet and delicious on the grill. One could eat such onions by themselves like bits of candy. I pulled Grilly apart and divided his remains amongst my tacos to spread out the joy.

Tacos El Paisano provided a taco-righteous meal and dining experience. I don’t know how they are going to compete with the pork artisans down the street at the Venice and La Brea truck, but I always root for the underdog.

Posted: September 4th, 2010
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43 Tacos El Unico #12

43 Tacos El Unico #12

August 29, 2010

6650 Crenshaw Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90043

Hyde Park

Carmen and I chose to eat lunch at the Crenshaw location of Tacos El Unico, another Los Angeles minichain of taco restaurants, currently ten locations strong according to their website. The most conspicuous location might be the one at Adams and Vermont near USC. The website explains that the chain is an outgrowth of a taco truck business that started back in 1981 at the corner of Rosecrans and Atlantic in Compton where they subsequently built their first restaurant. It’s another story of the American Dream coming true.

We found decent tacos there, the kind you would eat regularly if you were in the neighborhood, but not worth driving across town for. We each had the $4.99 combo special of four tacos and a fountain drink (individual tacos, average in size, are a bargain at $1.16 each), and shared some tasty fresh French fries. I took the tour, having one each of the carne asada, al pastor, chicken and lengua tacos. I refrained from trying the cabeza.

The tiny public section of the restaurant interior has a few stainless steel tables and a counter. Ordering is alienating, taking place through steel security bars in an opening in the bulletproof glass, which did not make me feel protected, but did prevent me from pulling any stickup jobs while at Tacos El Unico. We got lucky and were awarded a table halfway through our meal, not that there is anything so ghastly about eating over a stainless steel counter while standing next to a trash can. For the record, if I lived in a loft apartment, I would have no kitchen other than a decommissioned taco truck and no table other than the stainless steel counter extended from the truck’s passenger side. And also I would sleep on a mattress in the back of a conversion van.

The tacos were totally serviceable. The tortillas were bilam’d (Carmen received a freak-of-nature taco even that was triply laminated!) and sturdy. Chicken and lengua came con todo with green salsa, and al pastor and steak with red, which consideration I appreciated.

I started with chicken, which was pretty tasty – well marinated dark meat, somewhat like slimy Del Taco chicken, but tasty. I moved on to lengua – gamy cuboid chunks of beef with a good texture. Not bad, but I still haven’t been wowed by any of the lengua I have tried this year.

Next I ate the al pastor, savory flavored and of the saucy variety. I thought it was okay. Carmen liked it so little she gave me her second al pastor taco, which for me was a great bonus worthy of Special Day celebration.

Finally I ate the steak taco, sadly the smallest of my tacos, for Carmen and I agreed that it was the best. The steak was in fairly large strips and marinated with carne asada seasonings – it reminded me of the carne asada steaks that we sometimes get at Bodega R-Ranch Market #14 supermarket for home grilling. Flap meat, maybe? It has a rewarding chewy resistance to the tooth. The red salsa is good and pretty spicy, rounding out this taco nicely.

Posted: August 29th, 2010
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42 Antojitos Carmen

42 Antojitos Carmen

August 22, 2010

2510 E Cesar E. Chavez Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90033

Boyle Heights

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.

Posted: August 22nd, 2010
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41 Venice and La Brea Taco Truck aka “El Latino” Catering aka Leo’s Tacos

41 Venice and La Brea Taco Truck aka “El Latino” Catering aka Leo’s Tacos

August 19, 2010

Venice Blvd at La Brea Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90019


This taco truck is awesome.

Carmen noticed a few months ago that this truck, parked at the Unocal 76 station at the northwest corner of Venice and La Brea, was attracting big crowds, despite its proximity to the famed El Chato truck. I saw the compelling al pastor spit with my own eyes. I read Bandini’s favorable review of the place. It has been too many weeks since I last had righteous tacos, and I have been craving just that – fancy tacos and weird tacos leave me wanting for righteous tacos, those tight little doses of elegant perfection, where the tortillas are not homemade but oiled and griddled to leatheriness, the meats are savory and diced small, and the salsa is red hot.

Celebrating the end of my working week and the arrival of the weekend – tacos are to meals as weekends are to weeks – Carmen and I went up the road to Venice Boulevard. Bandini called this truck Leo’s, but I didn’t notice any name on the truck other than “El Latino” Catering. Furthermore, this truck is clearly different from the one in Bandini’s pictures from a month ago, although everything else matches up, including the staff. No matter – at the moment I am feeling too much calm reverence for this taco truck to pronounce its sainted name aloud.

We went to the truck at about 7:00 PM – unlike with the late-opening El Chato truck, there is no need to kill the evening boozing somewhere while waiting to eat tacos. This location on Venice Boulevard is a fine specimen of tacogeography. The absurd width and underdevelopment of this automobile-oriented stretch of Venice Boulevard provides the setting for the adaptive reuse of the edge of an overlarge gas station where half the pumps have been decommissioned. This is a transient, fugitive space, lacking all of the qualities that anyone would use to describe a nice neighborhood; but here crystallizes regularly a temporary community gathered together to share in the eating of righteous food. While you are here, it’s the greatest place on earth. It’s outside, and it’s in and of the city.

I ordered two tacos al pastor and one each of the carne asada and the carnitas, a bargain at $1.00 each for average-size tacos. Carmen, knowing something good when she sees it, ordered four al pastor tacos. The serveur directed the carne asada and carnitas orders to the truck, and the al pastor orders to the master of the spit. Carne asada and carnitas were done first – the taquero in the truck called my order and handed me a plate of undecorated tacos, just meat on bilam’d tortillas. The condiment table features the standard items, which without skill I applied to my tacos. The cilantro was diced into tiny bits, an attribute Carmen declared essential to the righteous taco, with which I agree, but I don’t know why it is so. The rojo is quite spicy, the green thick and appropriately herby.

The knife-wielding master of the al pastor spit does his work out front of the truck, out in the open. Dozens of pork filets are piled high on the spit in front of what looks like a glowing concrete breeze-block with a fire behind it. Half a pineapple sits on top. When he got the order, the taquero grabbed tortillas, dipped the edge in the puddle of hot oil and drippings beneath the spit, and flung the oil from the tortillas onto his griddle. The tortillas sat there a while, achieving the perfect leatheriness and crispening. For the next step, the taquero scooped up the bilam’d tortillas and with large knife carved slivers of pork directly from the spit into his tortilla hand. The taco full of pork went face-down back on the griddle, to crisp the edges of the meat; and finally before being served, slivers of caramelized pineapple were sliced and placed on top.

I garnished these tacos with spicy rojo and eagerly brought my paper plates to the trunk of Carmen’s car. I ate an al pastor taco first. Sweet heaven, this taco was just right, the tortillas perfectly crisped and the al pastor phenomenal. Neither saucy nor dryrubby, the meat was dense with flavor that seemed integral to the meat, both savory and fruity. The excellent pineapple complemented the pork perfectly. Pineapple is underrated, as it is surely the best tasting of all fruits – the al pastor of fruits if you will.

The other tacos were great as well, although it seems unfair to compare them against the al pastor. The splendor of al pastor crowds my brain leaving all other meats forgotten. I almost feel sorry for the taqueros who work in the truck preparing all the non-pastor items, of which they offer a good variety – every day they have to compete against the man with the spit. It’s not their fault.

The carne asada was a fine specimen of carne asada, sparely furnished, finely diced and well textured. The spicy rojo perfected this taco. The carnitas, bright orange on its exterior, is striking – when I picked up the plate, Carmen and I both looked at it and said “Ooo!” This taco was the largest – its tortilla-filling handful brought to mind its contrast with the relatively diminutive tacos up the street at El Chato’s. We nibbled and I found that the carnitas had the paradoxical oily lightness of having been just-fried, with strong pork-fat flavor. I chose the green salsa for this one, and greatly enjoyed it, although I must admit that I was distracted by memories of the al pastor taco I just ate and by visions of the second al pastor taco that I was about to eat. I was in taco heaven for quite a few minutes.

My experience this evening – eating the best meal I’ll have all month, on the trunk of a car parked in a disused gas station as the sun set over Venice Boulevard on a summer evening, for a grand total of four dollars – this for me is what tacos are all about. The euphoria of another awesome taco experience briefly brings meaning and order to the fuckedupness of everyday life. I have an urge to terminate the cincuenta taquerías project and declare it successful and completed, now that I know I have found that everything I need in this world is available at this disused gas station two miles from my home. But I will soldier on, buoyed by the hope that maybe tacos will bring me good fortune yet again.

Posted: August 19th, 2010
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37 Plancha: A Taco Joint

37 Plancha: A Taco Joint

July 31, 2010

8250 W 3rd St, Los Angeles, CA 90048

Beverly Grove

Carmen and I had an errand to run in this neighborhood called, according to the Los Angeles Times’ Mapping LA project, “Beverly Grove”. It was the right time to go to “Plancha: A Taco Joint”. The doubly self-referential name of this place is kind of a turn-off. I had read about it on Eater LA when it opened and knew that it was the product of some gringo apparently part of the “Poquito Más” burrito-serving empire; but the good people who write things on Yelp! Seem to like it. Furthermore, they have a crunchy taco called the “Jimmy Taco”, something I wouldn’t mind being called myself.

Parking in this DB-filled neighborhood sucked. We walked a couple blocks, passing by Doughboys; several restaurants that look too nice for me to want to go to; then a palpable rotten-fish stench-cloud; then the strife-torn corner at La Jolla and 3rd where opposing dry cleaners Sloan’s and Frederick are locked in eternal battle for cleaner supremacy.

We came to Plancha. The customer in front of us in line asked the serveur, “What is al pastor?” That is truly a mystical koan. I ordered two “Street Tacos”, one each of steak and al pastor; and one crunchy “Jimmy Taco”. The former were $1.99 each and the later, $2.75.

While waiting for our number, I sat down and thought that the Plancha dining area was quite pleasant. A long bar with tall chairs surrounded the kitchen zone, but went unused. We sat at a table in a corner near the front entry. Indirect sunlight through the surrounding glass storefront bathed the space in a cool light. The temperature was cool, just right. The stereo was loud, and the song “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” by the peerless Phil Collins and Genesis – Phil Collins, the renowned Lord of the Cool, for whom no jacket is ever required. It was nothing but Cool, as I nursed a candy-like Mango Jarritos whilst we waited for our tacos. I thought of the pathosy genius novel American Psycho and then of the atrocious movie version that ruined the novel for me.

My tacos were served and I examined them, somewhat perplexed – the steak looked lovely, but the alleged al pastor looked like stringy shredded chicken. The Jimmy Taco didn’t even look like a taco. I started with al pastor. I forked a piece of the shreddy meat into my mouth, confirming that it probably wasn’t accidental chicken but pork after all. Moist, fairly restrained in seasoning but good, it more strongly resembled the grey, shreddy variety of carnitas than anything called al pastor. I generously applied the smoky, pretty good rojo from the salsa bar. I enjoyed it, but categorically, this did not resemble a taco al pastor. The tortillas were bilaminated and sufficient.

Next I ate the steak. The chunks were in various sizes – one particularly big chunk stared out at me and gave me a good impression. The lean meat seemed almost too high quality for tacos, and I wished there were more of it – the taco was about average in size. The texture was right on, and the meat had been marinated and tasted lightly of carne asada seasoning salt.

The Jimmy Taco came next. After months of diligently, professionally eating soft tacos, I must be having a midlife crisis, as I find myself perversely attracted to things like burritos, quesadillas and crunchy tacos. Not to mention pizzas. The Jimmy Taco looked like a flat tortilla disk covered in a pile of multiple lettuce varieties. According to the description, it featured three cheeses, although only two caught my notice – crumbly white cheese on top and some melty cheese adjacent to the ground beef. The melty cheese offered a pleasing counterpoint to the savory meat and the crunchy, just-fried tortillas. The taco was pretty good, and with so much lettuce, left me with a relatively wholesome feeling for a crunchy taco. Plancha lived up to its promise – self-referential, inauthentic, high quality taco food – definitely a boon to those fated to spend time in this miserably too-nice neighborhood.

Posted: July 31st, 2010
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36 Tacos Don Chente

36 Tacos Don Chente

July 16, 2010

101 W Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach, CA 90806

Long Beach

This will be the story of a bicycle ride gone terribly wrong. The tacos were consumed in the middle of that ride, and their role encompassed both good-cop and bad-cop to my suffering and still unrecovered body.

I started off well enough, leaving the home around 9:45 under a sky still somewhat overcast and unusually humid conditions – it literally rained for a few moments this morning, an unexpected phenomenon in summertime Los Angeles (average July rainfall, .01 inches, which average is probably the result of a tenth of an inch of rain one wacky July day every 10 years). I was headed nowhere in particular, until some point while headed south on Figueroa I had the idea to take the Los Angeles River trail down to Long Beach. So that I did, taking famed Imperial Highway across to the River.

The clouds burned off and temperatures soared; meanwhile I began to regret bringing no food and little water. Ten miles of fixed gear-River trail were extremely monotonous, hot, and featured a constant headwind. Towards the end of my journey south, it dawned on me that I was in body trouble – if I didn’t eat, there was no way I would be able to get back home on a bicycle. I pulled woozily, slowly, off the trail onto PCH in the hunt for nourishment.

I passed a liquor store, full of tempting soda pops and Snickers bars. I passed a Mariscos shop that had a sign that said “Tacos” over the door. I even ignored the awesome donut shop, sensing that a taquería must be nearby. Then Tacos Don Chente materialized on the left, all bright colors and new stucco, and I tell you I was so pleased to see it there.

I went in and placed an order – one taco each of al pastor, carne asada, and machaca de res (shredded beef). The serveuse warned me that the machaca taco was on a big tortilla. I assented that this would be acceptable. I also ordered a large coke, which came in about a 480-oz. styrofoam cup. The al pastor and asada tacos were $1.25 each. Only later did I piece together the story with the machaca taco – Don Chente offers both ordinary tacos and “Tacos Especiales”, of which the machaca is one specimen; and it is served on an oversized, thick handmade tortilla, with pico de gallo, cheese and beans in addition to the selected meat.

Don Chente’s website menu is most illuminating. One obtains that Don Chente is a mini-chain consisting of about 10 restaurants; their menu is fairly diverse. The special tacos are $2.59 each. I am intrigued by the other special tacos – there is a Hawaiano taco comprising beef, pineapple, and melted cheese. There is another billed as “Your choice of meat with really hot sauce”. If only I had known this at the time. But the fact remains that you can’t try every taco when you visit a taquería – I would have liked to try the carnitas and chorizo too, and even the guts tacos, but that’s how they get you to come back.

Fun fact – Don Chente’s hardcopy menu has a list designated “Our Meats” featuring 8 varieties in English. Below this is a separate list in Spanish of 11 varieties. Can you guess the three that did not make the English list? Buche, cabeza, and tripas. In Canada, you’d get sued for that kind of linguistic discrimination.

I was given a big basket full of chips while I waited. Perhaps I looked like I needed sustenance; and then even more chips were brought later with my special taco.

I visited the salsa bar. The Don Chente team has an extensive bar with, among the various sides and bits, six distinct types of salsa. With laudable rigor, these have been organized in order from mildest to hottest, and assigned a percentage number indicating the heat level of each, starting with a pico de gallo at 0% hot and proceeding to the rojo at 100% hot. I only sampled the three hottest, clocking in at 80%, 90% and 100% hot, if I recall correctly. These were respectively a smooth orange, an herby green, and a smoky red. The red was spicy, but not in the league of really hot reds like that at the King Taco/El Taurino family. If I had assigned the ratings, I might have given the red a 70% and gone down from there. I’m guessing that the special taco “Taco a la Diabla” is where to go for the Really Hot Sauce, as they say. I didn’t care too much for the orange salsa, as its pale color and smooth texture were just a little too close to white sauce for my predilections, and it reminded me of squash soup. I liked the herby green one a lot. It was damn full of specks of herbs and pepper bits.

My tacos arrived, and each of these had distinctive characteristics – Auteur tacos, as it were, although Auteur points are always deducted for delivering tacos without salsa, as came the al pastor and carne asada. I ate the al pastor first, applying a bunch of the red salsa. I liked it a lot – the pork had a good flavor and texture, and not too fatty; but the surprise was the preponderance of pineapple. Whereas al pastor typically consists of pork with a smattering of piña added for flavor, this was a full-on mixture of pork and pineapple, perhaps an even split. It brought to mind the experience of eating sweet and sour pork at a Chinese restaurant. In my exhausted state, direly in need of some fruit vitamins, I found this fruity taco refreshing.

Next I ate the carne asada taco. It had a winning, slightly gamy, beef flavor, reminiscent of proper steak, and largely unadorned with seasoning; but what stood out was the grilly character of it. The steak had the charry taste of steak cooked on a blackened grill, and a bit of crunchy texture to go with an otherwise tender consistency. Both the al pastor and carne asada tacos were above average in size, with a nice heap of meat atop the bilaminated tortillas.

Finally I moved on to the surprise special, the machaca de res. I was surprised to find fine white cheese on this taco and a pico de gallo, which actually had a good flavor that complimented the shredded beef well. Then I was even more surprised to find refried beans smeared on the tortilla beneath the meat. This taco was pretty good stuff, although I did find the presence of refried beans, no favorite of mine, to be odd and conspicuous. The beef was tender and stewy-flavorful.

By the end of this meal, my dangerous hunger had been slain, but I checked the speedo and realized I had gone 27 miles. This meant that, if my math was right, I would have to ride 27 miles to get back home. Body rotund and slow, I headed back into roasting heat by now at least 90 degrees. Returning by the River trail, assured of a steady tailwind, I found the ride even more monotonous. Moving forward with a tailwind at my back made it feel even hotter, as if there were no wind at all. I ran out of water. My tongue lolled back and forth like an autonomous dying creature. That giant salty taco meal betrayed me by leaving me thirsty and dehydrated. I began to wonder if I would die from the heatstroke.

Turning off my path I stopped at a carnicería in South Gate for a bottle of Gatorade. In my delirium Gatorade had sounded so appealing, but then naturally tasted cloying and oversweet, ruining my mouth. I soldiered on, turning up inhospitable Alameda, following the rail corridor. Suffering from heatstroke, tacos, and poison-mouth Gatorade, I rolled the rest of the way so slowly, a gimpy animal, feeling as unnatural as a dog wheeling itself around with its hind legs tied to a cart. After this sunparched ordeal, I am grateful to be alive, and resolve never to go on a bike ride again.

Posted: July 16th, 2010
Categories: Uncategorized
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