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Pupusas are one of those foods that I was convinced I didn’t care for. This belief had me perplexed because I love all the components, but I just had never been wowed. I am happy to say that Mayas Taco Market in Echo Park has single-handedly changed that belief.
Mayas beckons you with its brick red exterior, namesake in bold white letters, and Mexican style benches that line the front entrance. The interior of the small, humble establishment consists of 8 tables and a giant jukebox filled with Mexican Nortenos music. While also doubling as a small market with a random assortment of chips, bread, and staples, the restaurant offers a large menu of Mexican and Salvadoran cuisine. I come for two reasons: pupusas and the cochinita pibil tacos.
The pupusas come with the standard fillings: cheese; beans and cheese; loroco (Salvadorian edible flower) and cheese; and my favorite, revuelta, which consist of pork, beans, and cheese. I usually order 2 because I‘m greedy, but they’re on the larger side, so one would be enough for smaller appetites. The pupusas are made to order and come out toasty and fragrant. Inside, the salty, slightly crisp pork is enveloped by the bean and cheese mixture, which makes this combo a winning trifecta every time. The curtido (fermented cabbage salad that comes on the side) is crunchy with the right amount of vinegary-saltiness. They’re also served with a traditional non-spicy red salsa which yields a nice brightness, and a habanero salsa that’s seriously spicy, so tread lightly.
If pupusas don’t rock your boat, then the cochinita pibil tacos most definitely will. What makes their version a standout is the pork, which has a nice oregano bite, plus the meat is served in chunks as oppose to the common shreds. This method keeps the meat juicy and super tender. The tacos are topped with pickled red onions, and a generous amount of sliced avocados.
If you’re in the area on a Monday or Thursday, the pupusas are a steal for only 99 cents. Just keep in mind that the parking situation isn’t that great. There are only 3 spots, and it’s one way in and one way out, so street parking is usually best but might require a walk. On the bright side, if you work up a thirst on the walk over to Mayas, you can quench it with one of their vast selections of Mexican sodas.
Martha is a regular contributor to Eastside Food Bites. Read more about her on our contributor’s page.
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.
There’s really not much I can say about Guisados that every other blogger, restaurant reviewer, or food enthusiast in Los Angeles hasn’t already said. It’s popular, to say the least, and now there are two locations: the original in Boyle Heights and a new one in Echo Park. However, if in fact you haven’t heard, here’s the story: this family restaurant turns out glorious tacos on thick, handmade tortillas filled with meats or vegetables that hold beautiful, complex flavors.
The chickens tinga and mole are particularly good, and veggies and non-veggies alike will appreciate that even the calabasitas (a mix of squash and corn) aren’t an afterthought. Note that the cochinita pibil is ordered according to a 1-10 spicy barometer, with even the lower end capable of setting your mouth on fire, so don’t get smart. There’s always the 6 mini taco sampler if you can’t decide—it’s chef’s choice, and he’s usually right.
Lastly, don’t miss out on the drinks. I like the cantaloupe agua fresca, which is cool, refreshing and not overly sweet. Horchata lovers won’t be disappointed, and neither will jamaica enthusiasts.
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.
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.
Ever since my Flor de Michoacan paleta post, I’ve gotten a ton of requests for more Tulum restaurant tips. Instead of writing a bunch of emails, I decided to make a little eating guide with some food photos I took when I visited the small Mexican beach town last Christmas. For part 1, I’ve included all the places I love in the puebla (as opposed to the beach).
This is by no means an exhaustive list, so if you have Tulum food advice, help a fellow traveler and write it in the comments.
El Tacoqueto, Av. Tulum (it’s a red building with a thatched roof)
Popular with locals, El Tacoqueto is a place we always make sure to visit every time we’re in Tulum. This little red, thatched-roof restaurant is located on the main drag and offers some of the best “home-cooked” food in town at great prices—two people can eat for about $10. When you walk in, you’ll see a big, open kitchen, where women reside over large stainless steel pots of soups and stews. There’s no menu, so just walk up to the kitchen and take a look before you order. The mole is great (pictured at the top of this post), the soups never miss, and sometimes they even have chile rellenos.
In every life, there comes a moment when you must make a choice. Recently, this moment came for me. I couldn’t waffle, I couldn’t equivocate—I had to declare…my favorite carnitas. Luckily, I had a team, a Taco Task Force if you will, to help me navigate the meaty jungles of this town and cut through the pork.
The Taco Task Force’s previous missions have included finding the best fish taco, potato taco and birria in town. I was lucky enough to be drafted for the most recent TTF to crown the best carnitas. The tasters for this outing included founder Bill Esparza (Street Gourmet LA), Josh Lurie (Food GPS), Matthew Kang (Mattatouille), Zach Brooks (Midtown Lunch), Dave Lieberman (OC Weekly) and his wife Linnea.
A word about carnitas: I learned that most carnitas you find in LA are boiled and then fried in lard. This is cheating and the reason why carnitas often have a hard (sometimes to the point of petrification) and stringy texture. It’s definitely the reason why I’ve never been a big fan—in their usual state, they’re almost oppressive. Ideally, they should be slow cooked in their own juices in a cazo (copper or stainless steel pot).
The scoring: To make the comparison as fair as possible, we ordered a taco surtido, a mix of various pig parts, at each location. Each taco was judged on Grade of Key Ingredient, Condiment/Tortilla, Overall Flavor and Cooking to determine a final score. Catagories were scored with a 1 to 5 scale, 5 being the best.
The contenders: Some of carnitas destinations were chosen by popularity and buzz, but there were also some less established places here that specialize in carnitas.
Metro Balderas only serves carnitas on the weekends, but they make up for that by serving 8 different kinds. The most common type of pork carnitas served in Los Angeles is maciza, braised pork butt (actually cut from the shoulder). Metro Balderas serves maciza, of course, but they also cover less-frequented pig parts: cuerito (skin), trompa (snout), nana (uterus), buche (stomach), costilla (pork rib), oreja (ear), and surdita, which is a combo of all the above minus the Nana.
Metro Balderes also does something else differently: they don’t boil the meat. According to Street Gourmet LA, that’s a cheater method and the culprit behind the hard, stringy texture of so many carnitas that you come across. That problem is exactly what’s kept me from being the carnitas fanatic that I know I can be.