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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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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