Like a billion other people, I took a trip through Los Angeles recently. Thanks to my food fanatacism, I’m going use the ’60s “Summer of Love” convention to describe my time there, except in place of love, I use tacos and burritos. Here are a few of the more interesting places in LA where I ate Mexican food.
1) La Tehuana
Maybe it seems weird to drive to Koreatown to eat at a taco truck, but if you think about it, it’s sort of weird to let strangers cook your food inside a truck.
Parked on the north side of 3rd street just west of Normandie, in a dense, residential strip, La Tehuana serves food Monday through Friday, 7pm to 1am, and Saturday and Sunday, 5 to 2. If you sling tacos in the middle of a city this big, it’s wise to stay open late for drunks and weekend revelers.
When I arrived after 9pm, I slid in line behind a Korean couple and some fellow solitary eaters. It was Saturday night. People walked and biked by. Cars raced down 3rd and piled up at the stoplight. I parked a few feet away, in front of a Korean liquor store whose sign simply said “Liquor” in both English and Hangul.
A guy on a skateboard rode up, ordered an asada burrito and leaned his board against the newspaper wrack that stood in front of the cashier window. Because of the way the truck was situated, the dispenser functioned as a de facto table, which you could relax on while waiting or use to set your drink.
An elderly man on a bike yelled “Get outta my way!” to a pedestrian crossing the street. I leaned against the cool brick wall of Lucky’s Laundry and waited for my food. Three women in aprons and ball caps hustled inside the truck. Two prepared food. One handmade tortillas. When the cashier called the Korean couple’s order, they sprinkled their tacos with cilantro and hot sauce at the salsa bar and carried their food down the street.
If you want napkins here you have to ask for them. Same with utensils. If your order is to-go, the cashier will wrap your plate in aluminum foil. She’ll call your number and slide your plate across the counter: “Cuarenta y ocho!”
I sat on an upturned milk crate and ate.
The coastal air was moist. People continually arrived to place orders. Two tacos cost me $2.50. Every taquería garnishes their tacos differently. La Tehuana doesn’t dress theirs — just meat piled on one corn tortilla. You add onions and cilantro as you like, shredded cabbage, too. A row of condiments and salsas lines a metal counter.
There’s the usual containers of limes and thinly sliced radishes. There are two mulcajetes of salsas – one a thin, smooth guacamole, the other a fiery roasted red, as much flavor as heat. And there’s a Tupperware of plain but workable chunky salsa which seems to be made with only onion, tomato and cilantro; I couldn’t taste lime or salt in there. Inert as it is, it does add a nice crunch and color that makes the food pretty.
La Tehuana makes their own corn tortillas by hand, and they’re delicious. My sole hang up is that they only use one tortilla per taco. Doubling up lets you spread the contents out into a longer taco, which extends the pleasure of the taco experience and keeps your bites from being ridiculously overstuffed. Doubling up also helps keep any wet tortilla from disintegrating in your hands. Even though using one tortilla is an understandable way to cut costs, if you’re known for handmade tortillas as La Tehuana is, I say slap another on there. It’s a minor complaint.
Despite the abundance of local taco options, lots of Angelinos love this place. One woman on Yelp recalled the moment her La Tehuana addiction began: “Saw this random taco truck with a crowded line and I immediately made an illegal U-turn and almost ran through a red light.” Another woman said, “$1.25 for a taco? Great price to pay to get through the gates to taco heaven.” “I once heard you can judge a taco truck by their Pastor tacos,” said a Yelper named Victor, “and let me tell you this trucks pastor is 5 stars.”
Apparently, they used to serve a mysterious, decadent dish called Alambre, which the LA Weekly covered. It wasn’t offered when I went, though I wouldn’t have ordered it anyway. I was here for the tacos, even if they did only use one tortilla.
For dessert, here’s a fun blog, subtitled “Celebrating the Taco Lifestyle in Los Angeles” http://www.lataco.com/
2) El Gran Burrito
Red words painted on the yellow wall say:
TACOS • WE SERVE
TORTAS • BREAKFAST
BURRITOS ANY TIME
“Burritos any time” – I want that on my headstone.
Located just west of the busy corner of Vermont Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard, cattycorner from an ARCO gas station, El Gran Burrito Restaurant offers a setting that feel as close to a picnic as you can get in this part of East Hollywood.
The restaurant is a giant patio. The register stands outside, set beside toy dispensers and coin-powered electric rides. Cars race by on the other side of the fence, as breezes blow between tables.
When you park, you step into the covered patio, rather than inside the restaurant, and even if you eventually spot the register, it isn’t entirely clear what you’re supposed to do next.
This convoluted ordering system is guaranteed to confuse newcomers and separate them from the regulars. Like Machos Tacos further up Vermont, though, this place engenders the kind of repeat visits that turn occassionals into regulars.
When I approached the register, the clerk was wearing headphones, scrolling through songs on an iPod he kept in his pants pocket. “Here’s your receipt,” he said. “You hand that to the lady in the window and she’ll take care of you.”
I scanned the dining area behind him for the condiment station. “Do you still have pickled carrots?”
“Yes,” he said, “just ask her for some.” They’d rearranged things since my last visit. No more self-serve carrots. Now cooks doled them out. The restaurant had also moved their entire condiment station inside; it used to be behind the register, in between the tables. It was so exposed that anyone could have stepped off of Santa Monica Boulevard and fixed themselves a bowl of carrots or helped themselves to salsa. Budget eaters like me probably spiked costs.These weird arrangements and idiosyncrasies are half of El Gran Burrito’s charm. The place is down-home, and in a world of chains, that’s refreshing.
Unlike other restaurants further north in Los Feliz, this isn’t the kind of place where you’ll hear talk of food allergies or gluten-intolerance. It’s the kind of place where you use paper towels, not napkins, and you have to fetch them yourself from an automated dispenser mounted on a metal column. It’s the kind of place that spells midnight “midnite” in its “El Gran Burrito Restaurant Midnite Tacos” sign, the kind of place where a kid on a skateboard will roll by on Santa Monica spooning cereal from a paper bowl, and two kids will chase each other through the parking lot, throwing gravel at each other.
You want a plate? Just ask for it. Otherwise, the cook will place your food in a small plastic bag, with the tacos wrapped together in foil, pickled carrots wadded in foil, too. You’ll be thankful for the paper towels’ larger dimensions and heavy gauge. For their size, these tacos are messy.
While I ate, a Hispanic man in his late forties pulled up on a BMX, wearing a white striped shirt and black plaid, knee-length shorts. He asked the cashier for a cup of water. “It’s hot, man.”
“It was hotter yesterday,” said the cashier. “But yeah.”
As the clerk filled a cup, the bicyclist peddled through the dining area, weaving between tables with the agility of a teen. His shorts stretched down past his knees, bright white socks pulled up to meet them.
The first time I ate here, a young black man in a tight purple dress beckoned me over from the neighboring Vermont/Santa Monica subway station. “Pssst,” he said, waving at me. “Hey. Come here, baby.” He was sitting on a bench, his back straight, one leg crossed tightly over the other. “Baby, come here.” People streamed past him, in and out of the subway stairwell. I waved back and said, “Thanks, but I’m hungry and need to eat. Have a good night.” When he kept calling I turned back around and blew him a kiss.
At El Gran Burrito, “everything on them” means that cooks dress the tacos with onions, cilantro and hot sauce. In addition to green, they serve two types of salsa: a chunky wet red one like the kind you’d dipped chips into, and a salsa fresca made of onion, cilantro sprigs and large slices of tomato. There’s too much oregano in the salsa for my taste, giving it a bit of a spaghetti sauce flavor. The salsa fresca is delicious, though. The tacos are stuffed full of meat both tender and flavorful. Not one but two tortillas hold each together. At $1.25 a pop, these are just what you need, especially after midnite when little else is open.
3) Tito’s Tacos
I spotted take-out containers labeled “Tito’s Tacos” in a friend’s refrigerator in Santa Monica one morning. When I asked about the restaurant, she said it was a local landmark, one that I, as a self-described taco fanatic, had to visit. When I arrived in Culver City hours later, I realized that at some point someone else might have mentioned Tito’s to me, too, but one reason I might not remember it was because of their speciality. They served tacos durados, aka hard shell tacos.
No matter how generous the contents, no matter how tender the meat, I don’t care for hard shell tacos. I prefer Mexico City style, which are often called “street tacos”: meat in warmed corn tortillas. Save the hard shell for tortilla chips, which I will also largely ignore to save room for the good stuff like tamales and beans and green chile. Maybe mine is a problem of association: any hard shell taco tastes reminiscent of my Taco Bell childhood, conjuring uneasy memories of cheap cheese atop soy-laced “meat” and the anxiety of going on high school dates with occasional acne. Can any high quality adult taco experience can undo that strong a Pavlovian response?
A crowd pressed against Tito’s five outside windows when I arrived, spilling down the sidewalk in loosely formed lines.
Inside, the same scene, except in shade.
It was as if someone had chummed sharky waters with taco meat and caused a feeding frenzy. Yet the atmosphere was calm, the people in line patient and polite. Apparently, the line often stretches far down the street.
Two women in front of me ordered twenty tacos and two large sides of chili beans. They were headed to a corporate event. A nearby couple carried off two cardboard trays stacked with tacos and chips. I’m sure Tito’s tacos are delicious, but when I stepped to the register, I didn’t order any. I got my other favorite food: a burrito. I snapped two photos through the window and the clerk politely told me, “Sorry, no photos.”
A young guy ordering at the neighboring window said, “Take one when they’re not looking.”
“Normally I would,” I said, “but I want to make sure I get my burrito!”
He laughed. “Good point.”
My cashier put on plastic gloves and stepped to the food station to wrap my burrito.
Like so many of LA’s best restaurants, Tito’s occupies a nondescript building whose architecture and location don’t reflect its iconic status. Down Sepulveda Boulevard’s seemingly unbroken row of old one-level store fronts, past Culver Ice Arena and Johnnie’s French Dip – another iconic eatery – Tito’s sits on busy Washington Place, just west of Sepulveda, beside the 405 freeway. Parking spots line the street, but chances are you’ll have to park on one of the two side streets that run north and south off Sepulveda. The north one is quieter, lined with houses and trees. The shady spots under the 405 are nice, too.
I carried my food through the crowded interior and took a seat on the back patio at a table with a family of four: two teenage girls, their mother and what appeared to be their grandmother. The grandmother spoke quickly in Spanish between long sips of Pepsi from a straw. A heavy man at the table in front of me ate alone: first a taco, then an entire chili con carne burrito and chips. He spooned salsa on nearly every bite, just as I always do.
Tito’s salsa tastes so fresh and alive, it seemed wrong to drizzled it on fried tortilla chips. It’s pureed. Composed mostly of tomatoes, it contains a little chile, a few chile seeds, and tiny, infrequent green bits that speckle its nearly absolute redness. The tomato flavor is intense but not overwhelming, and the flavor is so light and bright in your mouth that it almost tastes like they’ve pureed watermelon in it. I’ve never experienced any salsa like it. It’s exactly what you want on a hot summer day.
Even if you share my devotion to street tacos, Tito’s menu is diverse enough to satisfy. They sell beef and chicken tamales, tostadas and enchiladas, as well as chili beans. By chili, they mean chili con carne: cubes of beef, stewed until tender. As much as I love chili con carne, Tito’s version isn’t the most flavorful. It’s a bit bland. I got a meat and bean burrito, and it didn’t have the strong red chile flavor or complexity that I like. The salsa and tortilla more than made up for it, though.
The tortilla was perfectly grilled, making it both pliable and firm and giving it the essential little dark grill spots that flake off like pastry. It was, without question, the perfect burrito tortilla and folding job. They wrap like only the experts do: tight, origami corners that you can trust to hold up under pressure.
The back patio overlooks a car lot. As I ate, a car salesman taxied a small SUV through the lot, his leg dangling out the door so that the soles of his feet almost skimmed the pavement. Despite the location, the patio is peaceful. Vines festoon the side of the 405. Sitting out there beside the trees, freeway traffic softens from a roar to a calming hum, like a river of cars lulling you into a trance rather than eliciting the sense of terror and traffic jam adrenalin that LA’s freeways often do.
At a large table by the door, seven Tito’s cooks and cashiers ate together. Two still wore their hairnets. All had on red aprons. They were laughing and talking in Spanish. At one point they started singing and clapping their hands. Behind them, in a space beside the alley, stood three towers of tomato boxes, each nine boxes high. A kid with baggy skater pants and a forearm tattoo sat down nearby and ate three tacos. Inside, gringos sat beside Asian, Hispanic and black customers, everyone enjoying a sunny summer day and offering proof that Los Angeles is as multicultural as New York, and that it is this very multiculturalism that is responsible for making it one the world’s great cities.
Here’s Tito’s website. Don’t judge the food based on the quality of their jingle, but do brace yourself for it: http://titostacos.com/