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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

The Taco Olympic

November 17, 1994|JONATHAN GOLD

If you've had the slightest encounter with street food in Mexico, you know how good tacos can be: tortillas made to order from little lumps of corn dough, a scant ounce or so of meat snatched sizzling from the grill, a scattering of chopped onion and a splash of pungent salsa, laid on a napkin and handed to you with the meat still bubbling, the surface of the tortilla still glazed form the heat of the griddle. Even at the busiest stands down south, nearly everything is made to order and from scratch--which is, unfortunately, made possible by extremely low wages. A holiday in someone else's misery, I believe Johnny Rotten once said.

But there are a zillion taquerias in Los Angeles, and some of them are extremely good, strung out along the major boulevards in South L.A. and the east San Fernando Valley, sometimes forming little taco districts.

While not quite on the level of those Mexican walking streets where one vendor specializes in grilled beef, the next in roast pork and a third in tongue, Los Angeles taquerias have styles of their own. And on Olympic Boulevard, as it courses through East Los Angeles, half a dozen good taco stands are scattered along a couple miles of road, and maybe twice as many taco trucks. You can find, I believe, almost every kind of taco available in L.A.

Rustic: Blasting east on Olympic from downtown, you can smell Tacos Leovis two blocks before you see it, from the sweet whiff of roasting meat and burnt chiles that blasts through the internal combustion fumes on this heavily trafficked stretch of road. There are a lot of gypsy taquerias grilling meat over open sidewalk fires late on weekend nights, but this is the place to come in the afternoon, a battered metal cart where vertical spitfuls of pork rotate before a roaring fire in the al pastor --shepherd's--style. . . . I've seen stake-bed trucks make screeching U-turns when their drivers spot the grill.

Order a few tacos with grilled onions, grab a cold Mexican apple soda from an ice bucket and garnish the tacos yourself from a buffet-style salsa bar--the tart green salsa is better than the lackluster red. You pay, and sit inside, at the counter of the restaurant proper behind the sidewalk cart.

Bargain: You can usually spot a bargain taqueria such as El Capitan Taqueria by the bold legend "2X100" painted on nearly every flat surface of the joint--including the truck that usually serves as the restaurant--and by the long line of people waiting for their food. A bargain taco, though cheap, can be tasty--shavings of roast goat or grilled beef or whatever folded with green salsa and the usual cilantro-onion thing into a pair of silver-dollar-size tortillas. Essentially, it's another style of taco. What you taste is heated corn inflected by spicy condiments, a small amount of meat stretched into a meal.

The Specialist: Antojitos Denise's is a small, sweet taco stand near an elementary school, whose customer base consists largely of people waiting for the MTA at the bus stop right in front. A caricature of Denise is painted on one wall, and if you poke your head into the takeout window, there's Denise herself, chopping meat, working the register, folding her special burritos.

In a land dominated by carne asada , Denise's is where to go for pork, a bagful of one of the three or four different kinds of house-made chicharrones , fried pork rinds, perhaps, the pickled pigskin called cueritos or a pound or two of the roast pork carnitas . If you have a buck for a taco, you can taste what are among the best carnitas in East L.A., dense-textured, with the full, almost gamy flavor of slow-cooked pork. Also good are the tacos with chicharrones stewed in spicy tomato sauce, numbingly rich, a 1,500-calorie taco.

The Classicist: If the timing is right, Taqueria Tlaquepaque can come as close to a good Mexican taqueria as any place on the Eastside, serving freshly grilled tortillas rich with the flavor of toasted corn, chile-crusted bits of pork al pastor , a blazingly hot red salsa with a bracing jolt of vinegar, and a sweet onion garnish that has nearly melted away in the course of its sauteeing. These are the kind of tacos you may polish off before you find a table. There is a full range of Mexican sodas available, including the superior, sugar-sweetened Mexican Coke, a truck out back sells a full line of seafood cocktails and prices are reasonable. But the tacos can be inconsistent--if you order three different kinds, only one will be great, sometimes the buche , sometimes the carne asada , and it's never the same one twice.

Tacos Leovis, 3120 E. Olympic Blvd., East Los Angeles.

Taqueria Tlaquepaque, 3800 E. Olympic Blvd., East Los Angeles.

Taqueria El Capitan, 3750 E. Olympic Blvd., East Los Angeles.

Antojitos Denise's, 4060 E. Olympic Blvd., East Los Angeles.

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