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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Bull Head City

June 13, 1996|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ten or 12 years ago, I told some restaurant-reviewing friends about the burrito al pastor at Rincon Taurino and they wrote about it. Then one of them took a New Yorker there, and he went home and wrote about it, and I guess for a while New Yorkers were making pilgrimages to Panorama City to worship at the shrine of burrito al pastor.

What with everybody telling their friends about Rincon Taurino, the place doubled in size a few years back and put in a video game and even more bullfight posters and bulls' heads. Then it spawned two branches, with a third just about to open at Parthenia Street and Van Nuys Boulevard.

The original Rincon Taurino remains an oddly shaped little joint in an aged north Panorama mall up where old streets running northeast to southwest intersect the rest of the Valley's north-and-south street grid. It's a no-nonsense, move-'em-out taco and burrito source that probably does as much takeout as sit-down business (there are about seven tables).

As for that burrito al pastor, it's a large flour tortilla wrapped around a pile of chewy, spicy, semi-blackened bits of beef sliced from a gyro-type vertical spit. It contains enough ground red pepper to make it bittersweet, but what you remember is not so much the hotness as the complex spicy aroma. This is a real punch in the mouth--a combination of tastes and textures so aggressive that I nearly always order burrito al pastor with beans and rice, rather than the all-meat version.

It's not just that I'm saving money ($2.60 versus $3.55). The highly seasoned meat happens to make for a rich, balanced combination with rice and beans. Anyway, I'm saving the all-meat al pastor experience so I'll have something to look forward to when I'm old and jaded.

Rincon Taurino probably sells as much carne asada as al pastor--you can usually see a couple of quarts of beef chunks cooking on the griddle--and deservedly. It's good and beefy. The carnitas are somewhat greasier and spicier, with a sweet spice (clove?) joining the ground chiles.

With a name like Rincon Taurino (roughly, "the bullfight place"), you should expect an unflinching approach to meat. Everything but hooves, horns and tail seems to go into its burritos and tacos. Sesos (brains), tender and bland, work best as a taco, but buche, a slightly funky meat known in English as hog maw, deserves the full burrito treatment. Beef tongue (lengua) does not come sliced, as you might expect, but shredded and fried brown, which emphasizes the beefy, rather than the lingual, flavor.

Cabeza, or cow's head, is strictly for the bold. The aroma is decidedly funky; those who like it will probably disagree with my feeling that it smells like burnt cowhide. It can be full of ropy fat and gristle, and the tender-minded may object to biting into their burrito and finding whole cow palates, which look sort of like dentures.

Tortas, on big puffy buns smeared with beans and mayo and garnished with tomatoes, onions and avocado slices, have their own meat selection. Apart from bistec, which seems to be the same as carne asada, there's crunchy breaded milanesa, very nice pork leg (pierna) with a bit of sweet tomatoey sauce on it and a surprisingly good filling of ham, cheese and egg, the ham sliced paper-thin and fried slightly brown. You usually get a little paper cup of mild, liquid red salsa with a torta.

On weekends, everybody comes for lamb barbacoa (in its honor, a ram's head shares the wall with the four bulls' heads). For $6 you get a plate of chunks and shreds of roast lamb, probably half a pound of meat. You may have to pick around some bones and pieces of fat, but it's great, some of the meat soft and moist, some crisp and browned, some gamy and some sweet. With this you get chopped onions, sliced radishes, half a dozen slightly raggedy-looking corn tortillas and two sauces: a mild green tomatillo sauce and a fairly hot paste of mashed chiles that looks like dark red paint with seeds in it.

Altogether, this is a great place for vivid Mexican snacks. From the bulls' heads on down, it's also handy if you ever need to mortally offend a vegetarian.

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WHERE TO GO

Rincon Taurino No. 1, 14551 Nordhoff St., Panorama City; (818) 893-5927 or (818) 918-5606. Other branches at 13744 Amar Road, La Puente, (818) 918-5606, and 11318 Bollis Road, Lynwood, (310) 631-8339. Open 7 a.m.-midnight Monday-Thursday; 7 a.m.-3 a.m. Friday-Sunday. Cash only. No alcohol. Takeout. Parking lot in back. Lunch for two, food only, $6-$12.

What to get: carne asada taco, burrito al pastor, barbacoa (weekends only).

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