The taco is not what it used to be. Thanks in large part to the Kogi Korean taco revolution of a few years back, tacos have morphed from a Latin staple of meat, cilantro and onions into a sort of cultural chameleon. As soft, corn tortilla vessels for just about any combination of ethnic food that one can conjure, they have lost a solid identity and entered the laissez-faire realm of pizza and burgers: You can top them — and stuff them — with anything.
FOR THE RECORD:
Scene Setter: The Scene Setter column about the taqueria Tinga in the Oct. 25 Calendar section said that the restaurant is located on La Brea Avenue near 3rd Avenue. It is on La Brea Avenue near 3rd Street. —
For those who enjoy the imaginative possibilities of this inevitable development but still hanker for a more traditional grounding for their favorite food, there is now a tiny taqueria on La Brea near 3rd Avenue called Tinga. Tinga specializes in tacos that are at once conventional and modern.
For example, there is a short rib taco on the menu, but it is not prepared like the popular Korean short rib tacos that have captured the Angeleno palate. It is imbued with a touch of heat and topped with salsa verde, pickled red cabbage, raw tomatillo salsa and queso fresco. It is also stuffed with a pillowy, lightly fried lump of potatoes.
The idea to add the potatoes came during a late-night party that owner Jerry Baker was catering with his company the Food Matters. "We had a lot of short rib, and we shoved that and mashed potatoes into a taco and that combination was fantastic. But it was so heavy that it needed something; so that's where the cabbage came in, and then we added ginger and scallions," says Baker.
The story speaks to Baker's approach to cooking in general. He crafts recipes like a jazz musicians sings scat. Picking and choosing from a variety of traditional Mexican recipes that he has researched and found in books, such as those written by Diana Kennedy (known as the Julia Child of Mexican cuisine) and Rick Bayless, and adding his interpretations according to what he thinks would complement them.
One of his best side dishes is a deconstructed version of the traditional boiled corn that is sold from food carts all over the city and from little tables across Mexico City and beyond. On the street, corn on the cob is lanced on a wooden stick and slathered with margarine and mayonnaise, sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and hot chili powder, and squirted with lime juice. At Tinga, Baker cuts the corn off the cob, puts it in a compostable container and tosses it with lime, chili, poblano puree and housemade crema (he doesn't like mayonnaise).
Another side, the creamy arroz with salsa verde, pickled onion and cotija cheese, claims cottage cheese as its secret ingredient, an addition taken from a recipe of Nancy Reagan's that Baker found in an old cookbook that his brother's high school — Riverside Poly — put together in the 1970s. "We added bay leaves and different things," says Baker, who hopes to institute themed nights soon, such as a quesadilla night.
The restaurant already serves Latin-influenced buckwheat waffles and chicken on Sundays. And Tinga is just down the street from Roscoe's House of Chicken'n Waffles, proving that in Los Angeles, just like in tacos, there is room for everything.
Where: 142 S. La Brea, L.A.
When: noon to 4 p.m. and 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays to Thurdays, noon to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, noon to 8 p.m. Sundays. Closed Mondays.
Price: Two tacos with chips and salsa, $5.50 to $8.50; sides and quesadillas, $1.50 to $10.95.
Contact: (323) 954-9566; http://www.tingabuena.com.