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Having never been inclined toward ivory tablecloths and soft focus candle lighting, I subscribe to the philosophy that a good restaurant is, simply, one capable of churning out palatable food. While Michelin is unlikely to take notice of this modest establishment in Boyle Heights, on the taste front, at least, Cemitas Poblanas Elvirita #1 satisfies.
On your way in, you’ll have to skirt by a squat metal shelf housing a tower of plastic cups, a collection of silverware, and a coffee machine. Other curiosities line the walls (whose blaring orange hue can come off strong), including a lone cash register squatting on a glass case full of Mexican sweets, homemade paper signage mandating things like “Debit Credit $1,” and multiple toy dispensers (how often are they patronized, one wonders?). On the overhead TV screens, Spanish-language soap operas unfold with campy flair.
But that’s not what you’re here for. Focus on food instead. Specifically, I’d like to draw your attention to the taco de cecina, starring, well, cecina: a thinly sliced cured beef. The taco comes mutant proportioned, its mountainous form splayed impressively across the plate. Start by peeling back the curtain of grilled cactus, then brush aside strings of Oaxacan cheese,nudge over the onion bulblet, and finally, clear away the heaps of potatoes, black beans, and pliant green onion strewn artfully across the whole splendid piece. Your excavatory efforts will be rewarded when you hit the base: an endless field of cecina–salted and dried, gently curled at the edges–blanketing a thick swathe of tortilla.
To a roving eye, the taco de cecina may seem unfashioned and graceless, not unlike the eclectic jumble of the restaurant space. What force determined the placement of each tangle of cheese, each cut of avocado and strand of green onion? Whether the chef’s neurotic hand or gravity is to thank, the payoff is the same. And besides, ultimately, you are the master of your own fate. Tear, pair, and spear to your own tastes. You might even witness the unveiling of a scandalous affair while you’re at it.
Cemitas Poblanas Elvirita #1
3010 E 1st St
Los Angeles, CA 90063
I love potato tacos. A lot of people don’t, and I blame the overwhelming amount of bad potato tacos (soggy, bland, and uninspired) for misrepresenting the entire category. Perhaps my appreciation comes from the fact that I usually make mine at home, giving them an Indian twist with Chef Raghavan Iyer’s smoky yellow dal recipe. This way, I get to bypass most restaurant versions, though I am guilty of pigging out on the greasy bombs they serve over at El Acator #11 after a few drinks and under the cloak of night.
There is one potato taco that recently came onto my radar that actually gives its brethren a good name: the Mashed Curry Potatoes and Carrot Taco at Xoia Vietnamese Eats in Echo Park. This one gets it right for so many reasons. For one, the filling is flavorful thanks to the sweetness of the carrots and, of course, the savory curry, which really pops. The crunch factor is also spot on. The filling of a potato taco is unavoidably mushy, so a certain amount of crunch is necessary—the crispy tortilla and shreds of red cabbage are perfect for the task.
The finishing touches don’t miss, either. Vietnamese coriander, which is similar to cilantro, and a house-made sauce of Oaxacan crema, coconut milk and Sriracha add to the overall flavor. I think about these tacos a lot.
Not bad for $6.99.
With summer afoot, fish taco season has officially begun. In Los Angeles, especially on the eastside, we’re lucky enough to have plenty of top notch fried fish tacos within reach. What makes a good fish taco? It starts with a quality tortilla that isn’t too brittle or soggy, a flavorful batter that has a little crunch, and a well-cooked piece of fish that stays moist in the deep fryer. Fresh toppings are a must, too, and those limes better drip when you squeeze them.
Here are three of my favorite fish tacos. Note: Ricky’s Fish Tacos is not listed because they’re closed until “further notice”. (Update: Ricky’s is operating again in Chinatown. Find his locations by following Ricky on his Twitter. )
Tacos Baja Ensenada: There’s usually a line a this East LA joint, and it’s well earned. The dark golden batter is crunchy, giving way to a delicious piece of pollock in a chewy corn tortilla. The fish taco/shrimp taco combination is a good bet, or forget the rice and beans and just add another taco. I would. And don’t forget the salsa bar—the gorgeous yellow roasted chiles gueros aren’t as hot as they look. Mexican sodas and aguas frescas available, fish tacos are 99 cents on Wednesdays. 5385 Whittier Blvd, Los Angeles.
Fate (aka a Groupon) recently brought me to El Vaquero Restaurante in El Sereno, where I was pleased to see that their specialty was Tortas Ahogadas. A popular sandwich Guadalajara, Mexico, it consists of a hard roll filled with carnitas and a smattering of beans, drowned—that’s what “ahogada” means—in sauce and served with a pile of onions.
Kind of like a Mexican French dip.
When I first set eyes on this daunting sandwich, I didn’t think I could possibly finish it, but I was quickly addicted. The bread was dense enough that it stayed in one piece under all that delicious tomato broth, the pork was tender, and the pickled onions brightened the whole thing up. I read that they sell these things at soccer games in Mexico, and that people eat them with their hands. Could that be true? This one definitely required a knife and fork.
You can order your torta ahogada mild or spicy, or even half mild, half spicy. The spicier version is drowned in chile de arbol. You can also get it media ahogada—”half drenched”—or not drenched at all, but that’s crazy talk.
El Vaquero Restaurante
4884 1/2 Huntington Dr S
Los Angeles, CA 90032
By all rights, Garvanza’s should be wildly popular, but its tucked-away location keeps it undercover. The neighborhood restaurant focuses on pan-Latin flavors with an emphasis on high quality local ingredients. The produce is fresh and seasonal, and the service is super friendly. A lot of people, including me, are rooting for it.
The bulk of Garvanza’s menu is burritos and tacos, including tender barbacoa with pickled onions, pork shoulder slow cooked in garlic and peppercorns, and flaky mango-salsa-topped fish tacos. Plates, comprised of those same meat choices and some of the most flavorful rice and beans in a 10 mile radius, are also served.
The one must of the appetizers is the Garbanzo Bean Salad, a simple mix of fried garbanzos, tomatoes, onions and cilantro. The cool veggies and a drenching of lime juice really brighten up this highly addictive dish. The chips and salsa are also notable for the same reason—the chips are thick and greasy, making them the perfect match for the tangy salsa their served with.
The speed at which York Boulevard’s food scene is developing has hit break-neck status recently. There’s that new French place Ba, a little place called Fusion Burgers has quietly opened across the street from Maximiliano, and now there seems to be enough room for two cafes.
That’s right. Highland Cafe has opened a few doors down from mainstay Cafe de Leche. The new place, housed in what was the Guatemalan restaurant El Chapin just a few months ago, stakes its claim with a small, Mexican-tinged breakfast and lunch menu along with a full coffee bar fueled by Downtown’s Handsome Coffee Roasters.
The new restaurant/coffee house courts a college crowd, offering a 10 percent discount to Oxy students and plenty of room (plus a few easy chairs) to hash out the deets of a class project. Even so, the crowd is mixed enough that older-than-22 patrons won’t feel out of place and probably won’t mind paying full price for above average egg dishes, pastries, sandwiches and salads.
A friend of mine became enchanted by Tacos Villa Corona’s breakfast burrito after seeing it on The Layover, the Anthony Bourdain television show. She said Bourdain really fawned over it, and since we wouldn’t have to travel far—it was just in Atwater Village—we figured we ought to try it.
I had the papas and chorizo version, which was substantial but not ridiculous. I finished the whole thing without much trouble and with no regrets. Did it live up to the hype? Well, I didn’t see any fireworks, but it certainly met my criteria for a good breakfast burrito.
Most importantly, all the components were nicely balanced. The chorizo-potato ratio was spot on, so, thankfully, it didn’t fall into the all too common over-potatoed breakfast burrito trap. The egg was nicely cooked and also knew its place, which is good because if there’s one thing I can’t tolerate, it’s a showboat egg that overshadows the rest of the fixings. Not a problem here. The lack of grease was also a big plus.
I hear the line can be pretty lengthy at Tacos Villa Corona during peak hours, and I’m not sure it’s worth a long wait. However, if it’s, say, three deep, I’d go for it.
Cash only. Burritos with meat are $5-6, vegetarian are $3-4.
Tacos Villa Corona
3185 Glendale Blvd,
Los Angeles CA 90039
My favorite place for mariscos in LA is Tacos Baja Ensenada in East LA. I know Ricky’s gets higher marks, but when all is considered—menu, ambiance and location–Tacos Baja Ensenada is where I want to be. That said, I put up no blinders to new fish taco experiences, and my curiosity was riled when I heard that Highland Park’ s Via-Mar Seafood also has a strong fan base.
I pass by Via-Mar almost daily, so I was excited to finally be placing my order at the window. The menu includes the expected tacos, grilled fish plates, cocktails and burritos along with a good selection of soups. I was still pregnant when I visited, so I had to play it safe with cooked fish, but I longed for an octopus cocktail and that mixed ceviche tostada pictured above.
Both the fish and shrimp tacos were done well (shrimp pictured above). Golden brown and crispy, the batter didn’t overpower the actual shrimp or fish, both of which remained moist. Condiments can make or break a fish taco, and there was no shredded cabbage overload here. However, there was a little too much crema for my tastes, but I always say that.
I’ve never had a bad—or even just okay—meal at La Casita Mexicana. The small South LA restaurant, clad in vibrant colors, giant paper mâché produce and an Our Lady of Guadalupe painting, has become a legend in the 14 years it’s been around and for good reason.
Created by Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu, La Casita is different by design. The goal of the two mustachioed chefs, who both hail from Jalisco, Mexico, is to challenge the Angelino perception of Mexican food by moving far beyond the standard combination plate.
The result is a large menu of imaginative dishes that draw from their “ancestral food heritage” and the recipes of their grandmothers. Regulars gush over their moles, chiles en nogada (a cream and pomegranate topped poblano pepper stuffed with spiced meat, nuts and fruits), and rather lovely seafood dishes. Not to mention their lemonade chia seeds—a must!
Devotees also go on and on about La Casita’s chilaquiles, and I felt so left out because I’d never tried them…until a recent sunday.
Now that I’ve had them, they’ve stamped my mind, much like those mole chilaquiles I had a few months back at CaCao in Eagle Rock. La Casita’s version come in few different variations: red, green, mole poblano, red or green pepian style (made with pumpkin seed, peanuts and chiles), and chipotle.
I’ve had a three prevalent/overwhelming cravings throughout my pregnancy: peanut butter, shredded wheat cereal and wet burritos. Of the food-obsessed trinity, the wet burrito urge is my favorite as it plays right into my blogging schemes, allowing me to “research” various versions around town. My latest and greatest discovery is the adobada burrito at Highland Park’s El Huarache Azteca Restaurante.
El Huarache is one of the most prized restaurants on York Boulevard—it’s always packed, and it’s hard to find many who will deny its superiority. As the name implies, they’re most famous for their huarache, an oblong-shaped slab of fried masa covered with cojita cheese, meat (avocado in this case because we ordered it veggie), crema, lettuce and onions. And, yes, their huaraches are good, but to me, their adobada burrito shines even brighter.