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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

City Tacos

November 21, 1996|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Welcome to the authentic house of Mexican food, Mexico City style," reads the sign at Tacos Clarita. Aha. That would explain why I'd never seen some of the items on the menu before, such as pambazo.

This turned out to be a sandwich for which the roll is dipped in enchilada sauce and fried crisp. In effect, a pambazo is cross between a torta and an enchilada made with a roll instead of a tortilla, with a filling of mashed potatoes and chorizo. It's great, though it's a little messy to hold and the very idea of fried bread might disturb some people.

I also ordered a chorizo taco, which was just a handmade tortilla (sometimes you may get two store-bought tortillas instead) topped with mashed Mexican hot sausage--and nothing else. No onions, no tomatoes, no cilantro. If I wanted to put something on it, there was a tangy yellow-orange salsa on the table.

So this was sort of brusque, sophisticated big-city food. Oddly, though, Tacos Clarita itself is a gentle, decorous little place right in the middle of an East L.A. block of homes (there's parking down the driveway) and the people who run it are so sweetly obliging it's hard to think of them as urbanites. When I asked for an order of huitlacoche quesadilla to take back to my office a couple of miles away, the young woman taking orders apologized that it wouldn't be ready for half an hour and offered to take down my office address and deliver it.

Huitlacoche (spelled "cuitlacoche" on this menu, which is closer to the Aztec spelling) is a charcoal-gray fungus that grows on corn. It's horrifying to look at but has a rich, subtly corn-like mushroom flavor. I went back another day to try the quesadilla and got a handmade tortilla folded over a bit of cheese and a very generous amount of huitlacoche; a real bargain at $2.50. You can also get quesadillas stuffed with mushrooms or squash blossoms.

Sopes are fairly familiar in L.A.--little fried platforms of masa, usually topped with meat. A huarache is much the same, except that there's a layer of beans within the masa and it's flattened out to be about 10 inches long. Both have the savory aroma of cooking lard here and can be ordered plain (that is, smeared with sour cream and queso an~ejo), but for a buck more you can have them topped with things like chorizo, flavorful boiled chicken or rather mildly spiced beef al pastor.

The best topping is carne asada, like very meaty, coarsely chopped hamburger. By the way, if you see chicharrones on this menu, don't think pork cracklins. It's boiled, rather than fried, pork skin, with a pleasant gumdrop-like texture but not much flavor.

Tacos are available with the same range of meats as sopes and huaraches, as are mulitas, which are thick tortillas split in two, filled with meat and a little cheese and dabbed with red sauce. There are also tortas with the usual fillings of ham, chorizo and egg or breaded steak (milanesa). (Actually, you can get them with the same meats as the tacos too, though the menu doesn't mention this.)

Cheese enchiladas are the only kind available. Curiously, sometimes the daily special entree is a chile relleno stuffed with slightly spicy beef picadillo instead of the usual cheese. The daily special also comes with rice and beans and a soup; say, fresh chicken broth with green onions, cilantro and chunks of avocado.

Tacos Clarita is relatively crowded on weekends because of the barbacoa, sold by the pound. This tender roast lamb comes with the usual onions, limes and salsa and about a quart of strong, muttony broth, which would be great to cook red beans in. The weekend menudo is appropriately strong too.

There's not much for dessert but ice cream, strawberries in sour cream and sometimes cake. But who cares when you can get a big glass of fresh orange juice (squeezed to order) for $2.25 or a strawberry milkshake (licuado de fresa)? By the way, if the young woman makes it, it's a larger portion, but if the older man makes it, he always sprinkles cinnamon on top. Maybe that's how they do it in Mexico City.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

WHERE TO GO

Tacos Clarita, 3049 E. 4th St., East L.A.; (213) 262-3620.

Open 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily. No alcohol. Cash only. Takeout.

Lunch for two, food only, $7-$11.

WHAT TO GET

Cuitlacoche quesadilla, carne asada taco, chile relleno with picadillo, barbacoa, licuado de fresa.

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