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Slumming in Los Angeles; Mexican Food for the Poor in Pocket, But Rich in Taste

Part I: Mexican Food: Muy Barato

Mexican Food

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1992, I had a roommate named Lynn. Lynn was a man who would drink two beers, matriculate to several lines of cocaine, and then culminate the evening with a perilous motorcycle ride across Hollywood to El GRAN BURRITO on Virgil Avenue. There he would order and consume a burrito, taco, and horchata. He never invited me to sit behind him on the motorcycle, and I foolishly neglected to ask. I did ask Lynn’s friend Celso, the first Hispanic man I met in L.A., where to find the best Mexican restaurant. He frowned and said: “What am I, a food critic? Go to El Gran Burrito, knucklehead.” I might just as well have asked my inebriated Irish roommate with the feminine name, but it seemed wiser to inquire about Mexican culture from a Mexican person. In any case, I listened to Celso and boarded my roommate’s motorcycle. For $4, I ate the “Lynn Special”: a burrito carnitas, a carne asada taco, and a large Styrofoam cup of horchata. My five year experiment with vegetarianism was conclusively resolved. My pursuit of great Mexican food in Los Angeles had commenced. El Gran Burrito was discovery #1.

Mexican Food

o The Burrito.

Mexican Food

The ideal burrito is the al pastor, filled with marinated pork, and complimented by rice, beans, cilantro, and onions. EL TAURINO on Hoover Street serves an al pastor burrito that is “primo” to the Greek gyros and the Armenian shawarma. Like the gyros and shawarma, El Taurino’s marinated al pastor is sliced from a crispy chunk of meat on a rotisserie, and then rolled into a big tortilla with the aforementioned ingredients. Like any great burrito, the beans are whole, not refried. The slender pieces of meat crunch and melt as you masticate. The al pastor at EL TAQUITO MEXICANO, located above the 210 freeway in Pasadena, relies less on texture than marinade. The meat is saturated in a dense sauce that resembles the wonderful rendang dish of Indonesia. The flavor is smoky and juicy, with taste and texture augmented by grilled onions.

Mexican Food

YUCA’S, a tiny hut located in a Los Feliz liquor store parking lot, exemplifies the regional cochinito pibil burrito of the Yucatan region of Mexico. By definition, cochinito pibil is a young, pit roasted pig. While verifying the age of a pig subsequent to pit roasting is regrettably beyond my know-how, I’ve many times contemplated the age issue as the tender meat slowly dissolved in my mouth. If young is good, than Yuca’s cochinito pibil is a puerile beast. Speaking of young meat, I brought my two sons to Yuca’s after a morning of forced sprints up a Silverlake staircase, and had the honor of watching them shed tears over a burrito. Asada devotees heretofore, the tomato influenced pork juice that dribbled from their possessed lips changed their ways. Now whenever we leave the house for an outing, regardless of where we go, the kids say, “Great, we can go get a pibil burrito at Yuca’s!” But we’re going to Oxnard, I remind them. “Isn’t that close to Los Feliz?” Close enough.

o The Huarache.

In the world of attire, a huarache is a sandal. In the culinary world, it is a flat, crisp, chewy, sandal-shaped slab of masa. At EL HUARACHE AZTECA in Highland Park, a huarache is topped with meat, cilantro, and crumbled bits of white cheese (cotija, me thinks). I usually request al pastor or chicharrones on mine, but all sorts of flesh suffice. Chicharrones, deep fried pork skin with unhealthy doses of fat and meat attached (kind of like a chunky rendition of bacon), are normally sold ala carte in panaderias. On the huarache, the chicharrones are stewed in a spicy red sauce, so that their texture is more reminiscent of tendon. Tendon reminds many people of Jell-o, just chewier. It’s an acquired taste; you might opt for pork, beef, or chicken. The white cheese that melts into the meat is rich and somewhat dry, similar to a parmesan or feta. The contrast of crunchy and chewy, juicy and dry, create a sensation deliciously unique in Mexican cuisine.

o The Tamale.

There are almost as many tamale vendors in this metropolis as there are burrito trucks. Some people swear by Liliana’s in East L.A., while loyalists in El Sereno love The Tamale Man. It’s all good stuff, but I tend to spend my tamale money at East L.A.’s LA MASCOTA BAKERY. They make three essential tamales (rojo chile, verde chile, and queso), and one that I just don’t get (dulce), so I just don’t get it. The rojo is filled with pork in a red salsa, and the verde is chicken in a green salsa. The contents are crucial to the superiority of one tamale over another. The rojo at La Mascota consists of several tender pork chunks that one dreams about finding in a carnitas burrito. The cheese in the queso tamale is soft, rich, and permeated with green chile. I wouldn’t be able to prove it in a culinary court, but I’m pretty damn sure it is panela cheese. The masa that encases the contents is dense and flaky; it feels light, yet it firmly holds its load (mmm!) without crumbling apart.

o The Gordita.

What can’t you do with masa, the Mexican wonder dough? At ANA MARIA’S, a food stall at Grand Central Market, they mold the masa into flat, grilled cakes that they split and stuff with so much stuff, it’s like eating a taxi cab with an endless supply of clowns… but even tastier! This is a gordita. It’s basically meat, beans, cilantro, salsa, and a crema that tastes like the tzatziki with which the Greeks douse their gyros. The best meat here is the carnitas, which are oily, stringy, and plentiful, like a pulled pork sandwich. Between the meat, beans, and fried masa, a $2.50 gordita can assuage and punish an empty stomach for hours. Being as dense as a gordita myself, I often order two.

o The Hot Seafood.

There are many consistently solid mariscos restaurants in Los Angeles serving variations of fried and grilled fish, and I’ve yet to decide upon one as being transcendent. SENOR FISH has a very nice scallop burrito, and seafood quesadillas that are remarkably excessive. Senor is not as good as its reputation, nor as inexpensive as it used to be, but it’s still a damn good meal. VIA MAR, in Highland Park, is an inexpensive, ordinary mariscos stand that serves one extraordinary item. Their langostino burrito is filled with buttery, sautéed crawfish, green peppers, and rice. The langostino meat is the nearest thing to the taste of lobster. The succulent pieces detonate in buttery bursts of indulgent gratification. For value and consistency, the SIETE MARES chain of mariscos restaurants may very well be the best in Los Angeles. Most branches consist of a taco stand and a sit down restaurant. Go to the taco stand for fish and shrimp tacos, burritos, and ceviche tostadas. The restaurant is a good place to sweat over a big bowl of siete mares soup, or a plate of fried or grilled fish with rice and beans.

o The Cold Seafood.

Ray’s is the legendary pizza joint in New York City that was voted “Best Pizza” a few decades ago. Soon afterward, dozens of Ray’s Pizzas popped up throughout Manhattan, leaving the neophyte unsure as to the location of the original Ray’s (Original Ray’s also being a frequently repeated pizzeria name). I think the original is on 11th Street & 6th Avenue, but I can’t prove it. It’s kind of like the “Tommy’s” & “Tomy’s” scenario in Los Angeles, or the Mexican seafood trucks that line Figueroa Boulevard alongside Sycamore Grove Park in Highland Park. Only one of them is legendary, but luckily each truck has a different name. You want the one labeled LA MAR AZUL.

La Mar Azul serves seafood cocktails (cocteles de mariscos) and several variations of ceviche on tostadas. The cocteles are fresh, inexpensive, and generous of portion. The ceviche (raw, citrus marinated seafood) tostadas are sublime. You can order abalone, pulpo (octopus), camarones (shrimp), jaiba (imitation crab), or mixta (combination of all the above). The meat is heaped upon a bed of rich creamy, cilantro laden sauce (sour cream? mayo?) that combined with the cool seafood is ineffably tasty. The crisp, salty, foundation of the tostada effectively supports the substance. One tostada will bring your belly to a standing ovation, and two will close the show at a tab of no more than $5.00. Your tummy will reminisce for days to come, but without the painful reminders of a gluttonous love affair such as experienced over the gordita. This is a healthy relationship.

o The Taco.

What do you want with a taco? Get a burrito, silly. It’s bigger, and it’s got beans. If the burrito doesn’t quite fill your tank, or you’re an anti-beanist, then purchase a taco for supplemental succor. Any of the aforementioned burrito joints can make a tasty and efficient taco.

REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST

Soon after I discovered El Gran Burrito, it moved west to Santa Monica Boulevard and Vermont. I followed. They expanded the dining room and added additional rooms, but the place still looks the same. Its progressive growth from small dump to big dump brings to mind the modifications in Steve Martin’s childhood home in “The Jerk”. Success changed the size of El Gran, but it didn’t alter the substance. It’s still an inexpensive dump serving great food to patrons wondering in off the street. It wasn’t until a year or two ago that they finally raised the prices of their burritos (from $2.50 to 3.00 or 3.50), which are still gran in quality and quantity. Much like my children cry over Yuca’s pibil, I still blubber over my El Gran carnitas burrito. Let it be known that I, being of satiated body and mind, request they cater my funeral. Wah!

o LOCATIONS

o Ana Maria’s/ Grand Central Market, 317 S. Broadway

o El Gran Burrito/ 4716 Santa Monica/ 323-665-8720

o El Huarache Azteca/ 5225 York/ 323-478-9572

o El Taquito Mexicano/ 467 N Fair Oaks/ 626-577-3918

o El Taurino/ 1104 S Hoover/ 323-738-9197

o La Mar Azul/ Sycamore Grove Park, Figueroa Street between Ave. 45 & 49

o La Mascota Bakery/ 2715 Whittier/ 323-263-5513

o Senor Fish/ Alhambra, E Rock, L Tokyo, S Pasadena

o Siete Mares/ Silver Lake, Lincoln Heights, Whittier, etc…

o Via Mar/ 5111 Figueroa Boulevard/ 323-255-4929

o Yuca’s/ 2056 N Hillhurst/ 323-662-1214

Jeremy Kaplan is a recovering school teacher, and sometimes martial arts instructor in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles. He practices martial arts in an effort to increase his appetite, so that he can indulge in the various ethnic cuisines available in Los Angeles. Please visit his website at [http://www.eaglerockkarate.com].

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