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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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.

Posted: August 7th, 2010
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38 El Rey Tacos

38 El Rey Tacos

August 2, 2010

1358 W Martin Luther King Jr Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90037

Vermont Square

Sometimes you go to a taco shop because you think the tacos will be good. Sometimes you think the tacos will suck but you go for some other reason. I was attracted to El Rey Tacos because of its compelling architecture, or more specifically, its Googie rooftop architectural signage. The super-sized sign expertly brings together multiple Googie tropes – a triangular pylon upright of structural steel infilled with textured sheet metal; “El Rey” in a great script face on an elongated orange hourglass; “Drive-Thru” to express convenience and modernity; and “T A C O S” in a blocky letterface on five discrete rectangles supported by another triangle, a horizontal version of the upright, but this time in orange; a steel rod starburst crowns the pylon. The potent space-age imagery is at odds with the Missionizing architecture below of tile mansard and off-white stucco – perhaps the building suffered an unfortunate makeover at some point in its history.

The menu board claims El Rey has been operating here since 1961. Considering the short timeline of the taco in United States culture, 1961 is prehistoric. There are very few taco shops this old. Taco Bell dates to 1962 and Del Taco to 1964. Wikipedia traces hard shell tacos, likely the first type of taco encountered by average American gringos, only back to the late 1940s. El Rey was a pioneer, and perhaps it is due to nothing more than the unpredictability of history that Taco Bell grew ubiquitous while El Rey stayed true to its form, at the corner of Normandie and what is now called Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

El Rey did not look like a place that would even serve tacos of the corn tortilla-meat-onion-cilantro-salsa variety, and when I saw that they did serve them, I certainly didn’t expect them to be any good. The prominent legend “HOME OF THE GARBAGE BURRITO” was also not encouraging. With suitably lowered expectations, I ordered three tacos – one each carnitas, carne asada, and “regular”, and an horchata. Tacos were $1.39 each and served fairly quickly. I pulled them from their bag and unwrapped them for inspection.

First I ate the Regular – this taco had first priority, as I considered it to be my passport on this journey into taco history. The Regular, as the serveuse told me, featured ground beef, lettuce, cheese, and “mild sauce”. This taco was the lord of the old school – the shells are machine-made, and maybe they come from a supermarket or something, but seemed to have been recently re-fried for a fresh crispiness. The ground beef was rather watery, and tasted like McCormick taco seasoning. The “mild sauce” resembled the sweet condiment furnished with Jack in the Box or Burger King tacos. The overall impression of this taco is of what you might get if you tried to reproduce a regular Taco Bell taco at home – categorically like Taco Bell, but lacking the precision. I would recommend this taco to nobody, and yet, being a crunchy taco, it was still tasty and wonderful, although less so than what you can get at a Taco Bell.

The taco time machine did not really take me very far. I moved on next to the carnitas taco, which resembled a real taco except for being fitted with a pico de gallo-type salsa of tomato chunks rather than customary liquid salsa. The carnitas was quite serviceable, particularly in light of my low expectations – it was brown, and the texture had body, and it tasted like pork.

Next I ate the carne asada taco. The steak was reasonably good, competitive with the carnitas. Eating it with the pico de gallo reminded me of something one would eat at a Baja Fresh. I think I should have asked for some hot sauce to enhance the taco, but all told, both soft tacos were satisfying. El Rey Tacos gave me great architectural signage and a decent meal.

Posted: August 2nd, 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
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35 Tacos El Gavilan

35 Tacos El Gavilan

July 12, 2010

1900 S Central Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90011


It’s not often that I can tell you the name of the architect that designed the taquería I visited, but I can today: Stanley Meston designed this building. El Gavilan (“The Hawk”) inhabits this former McDonald’s franchise, built on the 1950s pattern when McDonald’s stands were Googie and awesome. Have a look at these photos of Meston’s McDonald’s outlet in Downey and it is unmistakable. Be careful looking at that website, though – it may give you a totally useless nostalgia for McDonald’s.

Only a year or two back, the Gavilan removed the conspicuous golden arches that made its historical origins obvious; this deliberate effort to wipe out history disappoints me. I arrived at a hypothesis that the palimpsest of McDonald’s was obscured to protect the owners from the threat of historical preservationists.

The remodel did improve the place by semi-enclosing the large dining area with ugly plastic sheets, creating an authentic Los Angeles indoor-outdoor dining experience. There is also a giant dining room inside an adjacent building, empty tonight but perhaps useful when late-night crowds are large, which does happen according to reports on the interwebs. Carmen and I went there for dinner on this Monday night, placing our orders at 8:14 PM, while the indoor-outdoor dining room was half full.

I ordered one each of the carne asada, al pastor, and carnitas tacos, which varied from average to above-average in size, and cost $1.25 each. Tacos are served plain; cilantro-onion mixture and red and green salsas are available at a well-stocked salsa bar, also featuring juicy limons, beans, jalapeños, radishes, and so forth. The small, doubled tortillas were pleasingly oiled and griddled, exhibiting a surprising yellow hue, and performed admirably.

I applied cilantro-onion mixture and rojo to my al pastor taco and commenced. The al pastor was my favorite of the three. More savory than sweet, the al pastor is not overly saucy, with something of a dry-rubby character. Grilled onions do their part too. The flavor of the pork came through loud and clear, and the orange and black bits offered good texture. Gavilan’s al pastor is a fine example. The rojo was pretty spicy and had a nice smoky flavor. Carmen ordered a quesadilla al pastor – the meat tastes great with melted cheese and griddled flour tortilla, and it was impressively big and meaty. I would prescribe it for hangovers.

Next was the carnitas taco, another winner. Good-sized cuboid chunks had a nice brown color and a rewarding fried texture. I applied the green salsa, somewhat spicy and very herby.

The carne asada taco came last. It was pretty good, and the biggest taco of the lot. The steak chunks had a good texture, although a few pieces were a bit tough, and tasted of carne asada seasoning. I think that stuff has crack in it – I don’t know if it’s onion powder or crack cocaine or what, but some part of that seasoning gets you hooked, like when you eat a Dorito and then find that you cannot stop eating Doritos until the bag has been emptied.

Posted: July 12th, 2010
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32 Campos Tacos

32 Campos Tacos

June 27, 2010

10814 Jefferson Blvd, Culver City, CA 90230

Culver City

Campos Tacos is a mini-chain of five or ten restaurants scattered mainly around the Westside. There was one on Venice Boulevard in Palms that became Pancho’s recently; they used to have some giant tasty al pastor tacos that you could wash down with a Negra Modelo. There is also a Campos Famous Burritos on Venice Boulevard at Motor Avenue that I visit frequently, but when I go to a place called “Famous Burritos”, I order a burrito. I’m not a troublemaker, so why would I deliberately defy such an explicit guideline contained within the name of the restaurant?

Be advised that all these Camposes serve completely different food. The Burrito place has a very savory, chorizo-like al pastor that I enjoy in burrito format; but Campos Tacos on Jefferson in Culver City, where Carmen and I had lunch today, surprised me with a diametrically opposed al pastor of super fruity sweetiness.

We found this suburban-looking taco shop in the middle of the big strip mall with the Target store. The television let us watch Argentina beat Mexico at the big sportsball tournament. I ordered one each of the al pastor, carne asada, and carnitas tacos, which were well above average in size and $1.75 each. They were served con todo, with a couple different kinds of salsa preapplied, and a handful of storebought-seeming chips that I nonetheless enjoyed with the spicy verde salsa from the salsa bar.

I started off with the carne asada. The ordinary tortillas were hot, steamed, but not laminated, so I performed the tortilla offset maneuver on this big taco. My first bite was very satisfying. I tasted onions, cilantro and salsa in proper balance with a beefy steak flavor sparely seasoned with salt and pepper, and citrus from the lime I had squeezed above my tacos; but on subsequent bites, I was disappointed to find much of the steak too tough, resisting one’s ability to bite through it. Flavor was good, but texture was subpar.

Next I ate the carnitas taco, the best of the bunch. Unlike the moist, grey carnitas at Famous Burritos, the carnitas here had a nice brown color and a dry consistency with good al-denteness. The addition of spicy green from the salsa bar helped round out this taco.

Finally I ate the al pastor. Despite the very peppery-looking salsa, this taco surprised me by being the fruitiest, sweetest al pastor experience of the year, with a taste reminiscent of brown sugar. I liked it, but the carnitas was better, and I have to admit it was not better than the median of al pastor meats.

Carmen ordered a hard shell taco with beef, which she declared “Better than Tito’s”. I took a bite and found it very tasty, with the crispy taco shell offering all the satisfactions of oily, freshly-deep-fried starches. A sign in the restaurant claimed that they have the best crispy tacos in town. That would be a fun project to verify.

Posted: June 27th, 2010
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30 Tacos Tumbras a Tomas

30 Tacos Tumbras a Tomas

June 13, 2010

Grand Central Market Space A05, 317 S Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90013


Our first visit of the year to the famed Grand Central Market started out great. The Grand Central is a fantastic place full of vendors, the timelessness of produce, neon signs that are either old or retro, and woodchips on the floor. The dining area at the north end is open to the sidewalk to the north and the market to the south, with the floor sloped and stepped on its way down to Broadway. The interior finishes are concrete and skylight. It’s a tremendous place.

Tacos Tumbras a Tomas is one of the best reputed of the three or four taco vendors in the Market, and famed in particular for the large size of its tacos. It looks just right – photogenic. Ordering at Tumbras a Tomas is like ordering at a crowded bar – you push your way to the front until one of the many taqueros behind the display case looks at you and yells “Next!”

I ordered one each of the “ranchera asada” and carnitas estilo Michoacan” tacos. Al pastor isn’t on the menu board, but they do have it – Carmen ordered one each of the carnitas and the al pastor tacos. They are $2.50 each. You will be asked your choice of green and red salsa. The taquero said that the red is hotter, so that’s what we got.

The tacos are the biggest I have ever seen. Two tacos completely cover a normal-sized paper plate. As taco authority Bandini wrote, it was like getting the meat from a carne asada plate lunch and a carnitas plate lunch along with a few tortillas. In addition to the substrate tortillas, an additional bilaminated pair was thrown on top for good measure. The chief merit of these tortillas is that they are big. That’s the chief merit of the tacos, too.

We portaged our heavy plates of tacos and found a table, where we proceeded to pick at our unpickupable tacos with the forks. The carne asada was unusual – saucy and savory and gamy, and diced into very small bits, it bore more resemblance to typical al pastor than carne asada, although it showed unmistakable beefiness. Usually I think of the classic taco meat dichotomy of as consisting of al pastor on one side, with its maximalist, tons-o’-flavor sensibility, and carne asada on the other, representing spare, elegant minimalism. So this asada was okay, but it was an octoparrot.

The grey, shreddy carnitas was impressive for the fact that it looked like meat – chunks of various shapes, sizes, colors and consistency that clearly came from many different parts of the animal. It was mostly tender and moist; we both pulled a few giant chunks of fat from our tacos, but that’s okay, as there was still an overload of pork remaining. Extremely salty and smoky flavored, this pork bore a very strong resemblance to the Kalua pork served overflowing in a Styrofoam tray, at fast-food Ohana Hawaiian BBQ in Monterey Park. This was a recipe for feeling gross, which is what I’m doing right now, and meanwhile the experience has driven Carmen to pass out on the couch in the middle of the afternoon. The al pastor might have been the best of the lot – it was of the saucy variety, savory and quite salty, but a whole taco’s worth still might mess you up.

After forking out about a third of the meat from my plate, I forked a half-measure of carne asada and carnitas onto the spare bilam-tortillas, creating a hybrid taco. These tortillas were a bit dry and had a good leathery quality. The mixture of carne asada and carnitas was odd, creating a dank salty, grungy sludge. The carnitas chunks I ate in this octoparrot taco were particularly fatty, giant chunks of soft, white, melt-in-your-mouth fat. They must slow cook this stuff for ages.

Finally there was little enough meat remaining to pick up my tacos. I picked up carne asada – folded over and hefted in the hand, it was still larger than any taco I’ve been served this year. I ate most of it, but did experience catastrophic failure of the bilam’d tortillas halfway through. Perhaps the perforations of a thousand fork stabs and the 90 minutes or so that seemed to have passed since I started had something to do with it, but the tortillas underlaying the meatpiles seemed inadequately prepped.

Finally I picked up the carnitas taco, and ate about half of it before setting it down in utter revulsion. Today I profoundly experienced the feeling that gives meaning to the Spanish word “empalagado”, that feeling of being full not because of your stomach, but because your palate cannot handle any more – although my stomach concurred with my mouth this time.

How big are the tacos? If I said they were three times as big as a normal taco, I think readers might be skeptical. How can they be that big? But I promise you, there was more than three tacos’ worth of meat on each of these monsters. Frankly, the size of these tacos is obscene. I believe that today was the first time in my entire life that I have not finished all the tacos I have been served. I am disgusted at the thought of tacos. I resolve never to eat tacos again. That’s terrible, Kenny. How ‘bout nobody win? The cincuenta taquerías project has never before been in such jeopardy.

Posted: June 13th, 2010
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29 Carnitas Michoacan #3

29 Carnitas Michoacan #3

June 5, 2010

741 S Soto St, Los Angeles, CA 90023

Boyle Heights

My field assignment at East Los Angeles College ended three weeks ago, so now I have to travel to the Eastside purposefully to eat tacos, which I will gladly do. And pobrecita Carmen has been to so few of these Eastside taquerías with me. We trekked out to Boyle Heights for dinner at conspicuous Carnitas Michoacan #3 on Whittier Boulevard, an eye-attractor for many reasons – it has both a giant hamburger and a giant dinosaur on the roof; it has “carnitas” in the name of the restaurant; car-lot-style flapping flags overhead; and the sign out front claims boldly of their tacos “OVER 5 ZILLION SOLD”. This latter fact is quite dubious, although the quantity in a zillion cannot be verified by press time. By making such a claim Michoacan #3 is throwing down the gauntlet at their competitors down the street – you’ve got to be pretty confident to take on McDonald’s.

Michoacan #3 has the look and feel of a neighborhood institution and hangout. Open 24 hours, it has a dining area featuring arcade games, jukebox, and a candy-filled vending machine. Best of all, it’s a perfect indoor/outdoor space, under a roof but separated from the parking lot only by fence. Putting on one’s deerstalker cap and pondering while waiting for them to call order #9, one imagines that a taco stand came first; the canopy out front added later; and the fencing still later, resulting organically in the pleasing space that exists today. You would have to be pretty cynical not to be charmed by the informal collection of ad hoc signs and graphics on display here.

Carmen took her cue from the name of the restaurant and ordered three carnitas tacos, while I hedged my bets characteristically, ordering one each of the carnitas, carne asada, and al pastor tacos. These were $1.25 each and a little above average in size. I felt obliged to eat them in a predetermined order, because the three tacos slightly overlapped on my plate like a Venn diagram, and it seemed correct to eat whichever taco that was on top. Tortillas were the normal kind, bilaminated.

The al pastor was delicious, carved off a revolving spit, and with nicely contrasting orange bits and blackened grilly bits. The meat exhibits both some sauciness and some dryrubbiness somehow, and overall sweet, fragrant, and tasting of many spices; it did not emphasize the savory chile/garlicky/oniony aspect that often comes across so strongly in non-spitted al pastor varieties. The house red salsa is really good and pretty hot, and complimented the al pastor well.

Next up was the house specialty, a fine and platonic carnitas with nicely variable texture and a strong smoky, porky flavor. In tandem with the red salsa this made for a truly righteous taco – these tacos really get to the essence of what Taco-ness is all about. The same must be said of the carne asada, which was moist, flavorful, very beefy – really good. I would like to become a frequenter of the Michoacan #3.

Posted: June 5th, 2010
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28 Puebla Tacos

28 Puebla Tacos

May 29, 2010

700 N. Lake Ave, Pasadena, CA 91104


Our lunchtime taco meal was a family affair. We rendezvoused at the home of burgeoning taco enthusiast Oliver, who took Suelika out to a nearby luncheoning at Puebla Tacos along with Carmen, myself, and special guests Lauri, Winston and Cecilia, who have all come to visit from foreign lands. We wanted to find a righteous taquería so that our guests from afar could enjoy the authentic taco experience, and Puebla Tacos was a good choice – the food was not outstanding, but it was accurate; the strip mall location next to a 7-11 was appropriate; and the murals on inside walls depicting the Puebla homeland were captivating. Their lightbox sign features one of my favorite Mexicanizing typefaces. Look at how happy are the scale figures in the photograph – they have been enjoying a fine taquería meal.

Tacos are $1.80 each, with the usual choices on offer. I ordered one each of the al pastor, carnitas, and carne asada tacos. They were served as meat only, with toppings available at a salsa bar. When I was handed my paper plate with its three tacos, tortillas folded over so as to conceal and protect the contents, I was taken aback by the unexpected weight. These tacos are hefty, and a good value. The tortillas are the normal kind, but larger in diameter, doubled but not laminated. They looked a little pale to my eye and I expected them to let me down by being underprepared, but they turned out to be quite effective and satisfying, and piping hot to the touch.

After scooping up onion, cilantro, and red and green salsa from the bar, I assembled and ate the big al pastor taco with the mildly hot and cilantroid salsa verde. The al pastor is the saucy kind with a strong, sweet adobado flavor. It was pretty good, but not terribly compelling. This is not the al pastor that is scratched indelibly in my brain next to concepts like awesome and crave.

Next I ate the carne asada taco with the addition of plenty of the dark and brooding red salsa, fairly spicy with a slow burn and nice roasted chile flavor. The carne asada was pretty meh, though. It looked the part and had good texture, but the flavor was bland and slightly sweet. It reminded me of the smell of mothballs. I recommend that you not choose the carne asada.

Last I ate the carnitas taco, with a generous application of the rojo. The carnitas was my favorite – far from the grey moist meatmass I was half expecting, it was among the driest carnitas I have encountered this year, with a real crispiness and textural mouth feedback. It was overly dry, but the best bites of this taco hinted at brilliance. The shreds of crispy fried flesh had a delicate, filigreed fineness. That clutch player Carnitas came through with the game-winning RBI.

Posted: May 29th, 2010
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