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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Hardtop Tacos

May 30, 1991|JONATHAN GOLD

Blasting down the Pomona Freeway, fresh from a hot date in Whittier or whatever, you can see the King Taco sign beaming at you right before you've hit the Long Beach Freeway interchange. The hot pink triangle of light tips like a skewed Mercury spacecraft nose-cone; if you exit the freeway to investigate, you'll see the King Taco insignia inside the border of yellow and red bulbs, also the restaurant's logo: a pudgy king posed against a sunburst, waving to his taco-loving subjects with one hand and brandishing a cleaver with the other. The king is kind, but he can be merciless to a side of roasted pork.

King Taco No. 2, this duchy situated in the no-man's land between the freeway interchange and the pulsing heart of East L.A., is really more of a taco metropolis than a mere taco stand, and on weekend nights it seems as if half of Latino Los Angeles is crowded into the parking lot.

Half a dozen windows take orders, take money, yell to the next guy in the line. At least as many pump out the tacos, the burritos, the tall cupfuls of sweet, milky horchata. When your order is taken, you wander over to the service windows and wait for your number to be called--in Spanish, although if an obvious Encino kid is standing around, somebody might yell in English too--at which point you have about a second and a half to decide whether you want chopped onion or none, the green sauce or the (very) red one. Then the tacos are spat back to you before you have a chance to change your mind.

There are a lot of different kinds of tacos here, including tongue tacos (which are actually sort of delicious) and brain tacos and tacos made with spicy chile verde , but the thing to get is King Taco's famous tacos al pastor , which are made with crisp bits of marinated pork hacked off a rotating grill that looks like those things you see at gyros stands.

Do what the locals do--order them to eat here, then use the roof of your car as a picnic table. The red sauce can be murder on crushed-velour seats. Plus, the show's better outdoors, especially if you admire Jeep Cherokees equipped with a complete library of C+C Music Factory tapes and speakers the size of barbecue grills. Though come to think of it, that particular bit of entertainment will find you wherever you try to hide.

On weekends the King Taco fiesta cranks into even higher gear, and two house-owned taco trucks park underneath a high brightly lit canopy to serve the King's many friends. One basic key to taco quality is absolute taco freshness: the relative compactness of the trucks makes tacos served under the canopy about 5% better than tacos served at the main stand, because the goods don't have so far to travel.

On weekends, the King's chicken roasting annex also opens for business, and you can eat his birds in a vast indoor dining room decorated with the shrine to the Virgin on one wall and the mural of Aztec gods painted on another. Chickens twirl around, dozens at a time, on spectacular, custom-designed rotisseries that are best appreciated with a taco in one hand and a frosty beverage in the other--King Taco chicken isn't quite as tasty as it looks.

As if to emphasize the taco supremacy in the kingdom, on one end of the chicken room is painted an epic-length taco manifesto, which explains--in Spanish--the history of the taco, the cultural anthropology of the taco and the taco's spread throughout the world, including Israel, Canada and Kansas City. "Why not tacos on the moon?" the manifesto asks and why not? Tacos are certainly tastier than Tang.

King Taco No. 2, 4504 East Third Street, East Los Angeles, (213) 264-4067. Open daily, 24 hours. Takeout. Cash only. No alcohol. Guarded lot parking. Dinner for two, food only, $2 to $6.

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