Have you maxed out on al pastor or carne asada tacos from your local taco truck? Then you need a trip through Boyle Heights to remind yourself of the mighty taco’s versatility. That is what I did last week, along with professor Sarah Portnoy’s USC Spanish class on Latino food in L.A. (Check out the class blog to see what we’re up to.)
First, we visited Mariscos Jalisco, a truck on Olympic Blvd. about a half mile east of the 10 freeway. A half-dozen or so people had gathered for lunch — mostly families and guys on their lunch break from nearby businesses. A couple of people parked nearby, but most appeared to have arrived by foot. Nothing seemed to distinguish Mariscos Jalisco as special, or unique from the dozens of other trucks on Olympic and nearby streets. Then I saw the LA Weekly article next to the order window — a profile of truck owner Raul Ortega. One line caught my eye:
Here the undeniably succulent scent of fresh shrimp frying in envelopes of corn tortillas wafts down the busy street. Here your eyes glaze over as you surrender to what will be one of the best lunches of your life.
Before I could contemplate those scents for myself, Ortega appeared, greeted the class, and began to tell his story. His hometown is San Juan de los Lagos in Jalisco, a state on the western coast of Mexico. With its basilica, special image of Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos, and many legends of “miracles,” the city is a major tourist center. So Ortega learned how to appeal to customers as a boy, and began making and selling tacos with his family at age 16. In L.A., he’s run the truck for 11 years, enduring the ups and downs of taco truck popularity and legislation. (One thing he’s learned: All inspectors seem to have different ideas about how to apply the regulations.) In the past five years, he’s seen a boost in popularity. No doubt due to write-ups and recommendations by taco-savvy food bloggers, and critic Jonathan Gold.
But to Ortega, all this talk was mere backstory. He wanted us to eat. You can’t find tacos dorados de camaron anywhere else in L.A., he said, and have even drawn taco-fanatics from San Diego. (This is saying something, as San Diego is next door to fish taco heaven — Baja California, Mexico!)
What makes his tacos so unique? Ortega takes two tortillas, adds shrimp, then deep fries the entire thing. He tops the cooked taco with avocado slices and salsa. It was fantastic — the tortilla crispy, the shrimp juicy, and the acidic salsa counteracting the oil and grease. A perfect combination of flavors and textures.
It was on to Santa Rita Jalisco next, a truck parked on Cesar Chavez Blvd. recommended by Street Gourmet LA blogger Bill Esparza. (Well, Santa Rita is more than a truck — it also has permanent seating adjoining a small brick-and-mortar kitchen with an order window.) The specialty here is a Tijuana delight — deep-fried pescuezo de pollo. Chicken neck. Cue a shudder or a grin, depending on your zeal for the exotic. Now we have two questions: How did a Tijuana street food make it to L.A. and end up in a truck named for the city of Santa Rita in Jalisco? And how the hell do you eat a taco with a piece of meat that’s mostly bone?
We called on the cute bespectacled dude in the truck to explain. The truck’s been around for 24 years, he said, and is run by his uncle, who’s originally from Jalisco. When immigrating to the U.S., the uncle passed through Tijuana, and encountered pescuezo de pollo. We imagine he must have made the discovery at Kentucky Fried Buches, a beloved place near the Avenida de la Revolución that Esparza wrote about on his blog, established in 1963. (“Buche” usually refers to pig offal — stomach, intestine, liver. But it’s a loose definition, I guess.) Apparently, deep-fried pescuezo de pollo is only found in Tijuana.
Now for the taco. Our friend recommended, “Hay que tener cuidado.” Be careful. He usually picks out the meat first, then wraps it in a tortilla, and drizzles on special salsa de la abuelita.” Despite much squeamishness from the class (“you’re going to make me eat what?!”), we generally agreed that the food wasn’t so weird at all — just like chicken wings. And how can you go wrong with fried skin.
We ended our tour at Guisados, also on Cesar Chavez. Guisados is known for its guisos, or stews, topping thick, fresh-made tortillas. (Guisado literally means “‘stewed.” Don’t confuse it with worm — gusano!) This dish is common on the streets of Mexico City, but not so popular here in L.A. Precisely why co-owner Armando de la Torre, formerly a real estate agent, chose to make them, he told our class. He teamed up with Ricardo Diaz, chef at well-regarded Cook’s Tortas, to make it happen. (Read more about the duo in Elina Shatkin’s profile in the 2012 LA Weekly People issue.) The popularity was nearly immediate. At least, after de la Torre and Diaz could persuade people to give up the familiar asada for cochinita pibil or calabacitas. Our class sampled these two, as well as chuleta, chicharron and the hot-as-hell chiles torreados varieties.
Guisados has a hip edge with its rotating displays of art, and drawings on the walls. My favorite is a play on the classic “beware of running immigrants!” yellow road sign that you used to see in U.S. border zones. (Read about the controversial history of the sign in The San Diego Union-Tribune. Apparently signs have been removed in recent years.) The signs typically read “CAUTION.” But this version says, “¡No Olvide Su Taco!”
It seems a plea to Mexicans immigrants, begging them to keep culinary histories and traditions alive in the U.S. It’s also a plea to everyone already established here, particularly Angelenos: Revel in the amazing cuisine of Mexico, especially the mind-boggling variety available in our own city. And know that, in a way, it belongs to you. Don’t forget your taco.