Tito’s Tacos, Culver City — Day 19

IMG_0593We lost the coin flip again and had to hit the road for our CIF DI tennis semi-final match vs. Harvard-Westlake. It was May 19, 2006. “Let’s stop at Tito’s Tacos for lunch on our way up to the Studio City Golf and Tennis Club, ” I said to the guys. I was the coach, and we were the underdogs. A stomach full of Tito’s would give us energy; it’d be our secret weapon, I thought. However, I forgot to say, “no more than three tacos a piece,” and when we got to the tennis courts the guys looked sluggish. Maybe Tito’s was a stupid idea. But I had another trick up my tennis sleeve. Caffeine gum. Everyone got a piece; we bounded back on the courts, swept the doubles and shocked the tennis world with an 11-7 upset of the number one seeds. It came to be known as The Caffeine Court Tito Taco Miracle. Catchy, huh?

IMG_0592Nine years and three months later I met up with two players from that team, Mark Paulsen and Jordan Rees. We got tacos from Tito’s and took them to The Three Weavers Brewery for tacos and session IPAs. It was a special group of guys not just because they were talented tennis players and highly academic, but because they had personalities and entertaining social — how do I say it –idiosyncrasies.  I also had most of them as students and ushered them through Europe on the senior trip. Mark and Jordan will soon be doctors. Mark is doing his residency at Harbor-UCLA Medical Hospital and Jordan is in his final year of USC med school. As for me? I’m writing a taco blog. You see, we’ve all moved on in glorious ways after the CCTTM.

Tito’s tasted just fine, the same. Having started in 1959 — a very good year — I doubt the recipe has changed. The simmered beef is a little on the saltless side and the pink/red salsa lacks heat, but I still love the crunch of the warped taco and the juicy middle. The iceberg lettuce tastes like any iceberg lettuce; The cheese looks plastic but tastes fine. Tito’s does not really belong on any ‘top tacos in the world’ category, but it is an institution and a great place to meet friends.

Who wants to plan a 10-year reunion of the CCTTM? We need to get the whole team back at Tito’s Tacos. I’ll bring the gum.

Wryly but truly,

LV

Revolutionario North African Tacos, West Adams Neighborhood, L.A.; Tacos Tumbras a Tomas, Grand Central Market –Day 18

IMG_0522USC students have it nice. Two blocks to the east, as previously mentioned, is Chichen Itza and now three blocks to the west on Jefferson is Revolutionario Tacos, where you can awaken all five of your senses to these North African tacos. Yes, North African tacos, created in Berber-style from the French-Algerian chef Farid Zadi and his wife Susan Park, who provides Korean touches and culinary expertise as well (she is a published world food authority).  The complex aromatics arising from the roasted cauliflower or black-eyed pea falafel or cilantro yogurt chicken tacos will make you dizzy.  Add from a variety of unusual and tasty garnishes such as kimchi curtido and red and green harissa sauces, and your head is spinning.

IMG_0533And then there is the brisket. Out in font of the bright red and yellow store front,  Zadi slow-smokes the meat in a classic southern barbecue burner, adding as many as 25 spices along the way. I recommend the lamb. IMG_0517 I actually recommend everything.

The inside decor is nondescript with simple pop up tables. The only artistic touch: a set of tangine cooking pots on the side wall alter.  IMG_0523A whimsical placement. This is not a date-night place. This is a neighborhood taqueria with a friendly vibe.  When Zadi found out Jake was going to spend the fall semester in Morocco, he became animated. Park gave him suggestions. When I said, “Camus was Algierian but had a Berber mom, no?” “Yes, Albert Camus is my buddy. But we are flipped.  He was born in Algeria and moved to France, I was born in France with Algerian ancestry.”

IMG_0529All in all,

Jake and I agreed,

these are the best

$1.75 tacos

you’ll ever have.

From Revolutionario, we drove 5 minutes to 3rd and Broadway DTLA and sauntered through the ever-popular upscale/downscale Grand Central Market, possibly the most beloved Los Angeles cultural/social/historical tourist spot of the last few years. IMG_0553Before that, it was only for people “in the know.”  It is a city-within-a-city, ethnically and socio-economically emblematic of all of L.A. If you hate L.A., I’d take you here, drop you off for the day and you’d be happy as a muster of peacocks. Jake and I were craving the macadamia-almond latte from G & B, the only latte I’ll ever drink. IMG_0545It was refreshing indeed. Weaving through the crowd we ran into recent Peninsula High grads Ray and Kristen, which made me wonder if all of LA was there.  Ray could not believe The King of Kitsch practices what he preaches, but Kristen seemed to take it in stride. They had stood in the long, long line at The Egg Slut opposite the Bradbury building (worth it), and I was going to que-up at Tacos Tumbras a Tomas. Jake people watched and started writing a short story which was almost finished by the time I came to the window. IMG_0551Tumbras is two ways famous:  1) for it’s big-as-a-burrito 3-dollar tacos and 2) for the we-sell-every-part-of-the-pig/cow aesthetic. There’s tripe (stomach), there’s cabeza (head), there’s lengua (tongue) and there’s trompa (snout) for starters. I got a combination, but frankly, I was too full from Revolutionario to enjoy it. And I might add, that three weeks into this experiment, I am enjoying vegetarian tacos more and more.  I will be back another day to stomach stomach tacos and will render a culinary verdict then. but if you’re a USC student, you’re only 5 minutes away.  There’s no excuse.

Wryly but truly,

LV

Mitla Cafe, San Bernardino — Day 15

IMG_0437  Glen Bell was an appropriation artist, not that dissimilar to Andy Warhol, the famed Pop Artist who grabbed a photo of Marilyn Monroe, silk-screened neon colors over it, and then mass produced it.  Art, you see, belongs to any wannabe artist, and shouldn’t be trademarked, licensed or copyrighted.  Just ask Shepard Fairey.  Bell, who lived in San Bernardino in the 1940s and ’50s, was PoMo before Pomo existed. His grandparents came to Cali from Minnesota and got rich on real estate. His mother, however, too proud to ask her parents for money, lived in poverty. Bell, ever the entrepreneur, remained sanguine.  As a young man he ate lunch at a Mexican cafe,  Mitla’s — which opened in 1937 — and dreamed of opening a burger place like the one a few blocks away also on Route 66 called McDonald’s. Yes, this was Richard and Maurice McDonald’s drive-up hamburger place, the first McDonald’s in the world, which was demolished in 1971.  Bell dreamed of burgers while he ate tacos.

IMG_0440He had never eaten hard-shell tacos this delicious and queried Vicente and Lucia Montano, the owners. How do you do it? When Glen opened Bell’s Burgers across the street, he noticed that it was his tacos–really his approximation of Mitla’s tacos — that sold best. Bell’s Burger’s didn’t last; Mitla’s did.  But Glen Bell opened other restaurants and they did pretty well.  They’re now called Taco Bell.

Most of this history I got from Gustavo Arellano’s totally absorbing Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America (2012). You may know him for his column, “Ask a Mexican!” that was widely syndicated. Anyway, Arellano travelled the country and his engrossing history of how white Americans embraced Mexican food is well researched and funny.

When I was in middle school Taco Bell opened in my hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and a war of allegiance broke out between Taco John’s acolytes and Taco Bell disciples. TJ originated in Cheyenne, Wyoming and still dominates the Plains States. The Johnsians vs. the Bellites. Ha. It took Mexican fast food to inspire such hitherto-unforeseen passion from the Scandinavian-American pale face. Some fierce snowball fights ensued.

My brother Peter, a Johnsian, would drive over the Big Sioux River all the way to the East Side — a 10-minute drive — to Taco Johns. I couldn’t drive, so I walked to Taco Bell and became a Bellite. My first taco was at Taco Bell. I was 13. I didn’t try the “hot sauce” that came in the plastic packet, but my friend Scott Knudson (note the Norwegian surname) did, and boy did he sweat.

That’s why I needed a reason to drive out to San Bernardino to try Mitla’s tacos, the recipe that hasn’t changed since 1937, the taco usurped by Glen Bell, The Appropriation Artist Supreme of the fast food world. I don’t begrudge Bell; I like entrepreneurs.  But I do like to give credit where credit is due. And I enjoy the small irony that Mitla’s has survived and across the street there’s no evidence of Bell’s Burgers–not even a Taco Museum, thank heavens.

IMG_0427My daughter Maddy flew in from SF on a Thursday night, and I drove her out to Palm Springs on Friday for her friend’s bachelorette party at the swinging soiree site, The Ace Motel. Millennials love the place. IMG_0429I decided that after the drop off, I would bend ’round to San Bernardino on my way back to Redondo. Traffic on a Friday afternoon on LA Freeways –news alert–is and was a bear.  But I didn’t mind as I got to spend time with my oldest.  Realizing Mitla might be closing by the time I arrived, I did panic a bit driving back. It closed at 8.

IMG_0447A little frazzled, I arrived at 7:40, taking a booth in the front room. “Just give me two tacos and a coffee.” A man at the front entrance was watching the Angels-Dodgers crosstown game on the big screen TV behind the counter and wishing people good night. We started chatting. His name was Steve. IMG_0441Because growing up his grandma took him to spring training games in Palm Springs, he was an Angel’s fan even though most in SB bled Dodger Blue.

He talked to more people leaving and knew them by name. Trout hit a triple but was left stranded. I asked if his grandma was Lucia Montano. He nodded. He talked business to a guy about his delivery truck. Then he asked a customer how their cruise ship vacation went.

My tacos tasted great. The cheese glowed orange. He said we use really sharp cheese.   Sharper than most. You’re not really wondering — you there in Blogsville — which taco is better, Mitla’s or Taco Bell’s? The problem with Taco Bell is you just do not know what you’re eating.  ‘What percentage of the meat is soy?’ is merely a starting point.  Mitla’s is pure: a curvy hard shell taco, juicy stewed beef, lettuce and cheese. Sharp cheese. From reading the NPR and NYT stories on the wall, they’re really known now for other entrees.

I told Steve I’d bring my wife back next time, and he said drive safely and shook my hand. I walked back to the booth and took one last gulp of coffee. The warm liquid flowed through me.

Wryly but truly,

LV

Homemade Tacos — Days 11, 12, 13

IMG_0560You’ve noticed: I’ve not been writing everyday. That’s because it’s summer and summer is for reading. Here’s a picture of the books I am currently reading. Like you, I have an attention-span problem. At least you pick up a book and read it straight through.  I don’t; I start many, and each day continue with the one that beckons me like a siren, a chanteuse, a song from the neighbor’s attic or a gesturing come-hither hand disembodied. Sometimes one book tempts me while I’m reading another; I’ll see it sitting there on the pinball machine from across the room and smell the mint tea wafting my way.

Two new buzzed-about-town books have kept my gaze sporadically throughout summer. Barbarian Days: a Surfing Life by William Finnegan and The Best Team Money Can Buy by Molly Knight are specifically SoCal entreaties that transcend their limited scope as evidenced by glowing reviews from East Coast writers and the fact that I, a non-surfer and Minnesota Twins fan, am engaged.  I see both as questing-in-the Joseph-Campbell-way, but , fortunately,  Finnegan and Knight write in non-syrupy, restrained sentimental overtures that attest to their disciplined, journalistic backgrounds.  If The Dodgers make the play-offs, I will return to Knight’s Shakespearian tragedy to see if it plays out differently in Act II. Finnegan’s more personal first person account of seeking out the world’s greatest wave is not that dissimilar from my search for the great taco. No? Hmm.

The only book of fiction of the five is David Foster Wallace’s 1996 1079-page opus Infinite Jest, a book I have flipped around– like The Gravedigger tossing Yorick’s skull–on numerous occasions.  And now the surprisingly affecting The End of the Tour movie stars Jason Segel playing Wallace and Jessie Eisenberg playing The Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky. This movie follows a 5-day book tour that ends in Minneapolis. The funny thing is: I saw David Foster Wallace when he came to the Los Angeles Book Festival at UCLA back then but also with my teacher friend Gregg Gilman in Chicago which I think was the same tour as the movie.  We listened to him read at Barnes and Noble?? (Gregg help me out) and afterwards, after he signed my book, I asked if I could take a picture of him and was surprised when he said,”no.” He did say, “Sorry, I’m just not comfortable with fan photos.” It all makes sense after seeing the movie, although I realize it is a movie and not a documentary and while some people have praised Segal’s performance as “channeling” Wallace, other friends have said he has him wrong. Still I am back to reading it and am cherishing it as I go.

IMG_0561One cool thing is I that I have a first printing, first edition which, as a mint condition book goes for $2000 or so. Mine is not quite mint–excellent, possibly. You know if you have one if the chap boards are blue and if on the dust jacket the last blurb by William T. Vollmann is spelled Vollman, a misspelling or in book jargon, an erratum,  which they corrected on the second printing, first edition. You see, if it says first edition it might not actually be a first edition. I know this stuff. Collectors pray for errata. My blog, unfortunately, is filled with them.

IMG_0450But this blog is about tacos, no? For three days in a row I fixed my own tacos.  I only took one picture. I saved some money and stayed at home and read. Taco USA is an incurably addicting book by Gustavo Arellano that all Americans should read.  I’ll talk more about it next time.  The TimeLife: Foods of the World  from 1968 reads like it was written yesterday, and I’ve been educating myself with The Latin American Cooking book from the series in my spare minutes.

IMG_0563 IMG_0564

The pictures are precious too, don’t you think?

P.S. Not tired of tacos, yet.

In case you were wondering.

Wryly but truly,

LV

Marisco Jalisco Truck, Boyle Heights; Guisados, DTLA — Day 10

IMG_0406 IMG_0399 I used to be front and center with music trends. That was quite awhile ago. Am I the last to discover Mac Demarco? Probably. I was thinking his new song “I’ve Been Waiting for Her” is the perfect accompianment to the gushy/crunchy bite of the shrimp tacos at the Marisco Jalisco truck parked on Olympic in Boyle Heights. It’s surf-y and easy-listening and then something unexpected like that distorted Hawaiian guitar shoots in.  Cool. Actually, I take that back, That first bite is more than cool; it’s surprising and more explosively delicious than anything Demarco has done (but he’s young, isn’t he?) Think instead of the opening chords to Dinosaur Jr.’s 1990s “Freak Scene.”  No, I’ve got it, that first bite makes you wanna dance giddy as one does to The Weaver’s 1950s classic “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” a whirling dervish of a song.

IMG_0402I’ll have to ask my math teacher friend Mr. Van Enk which song he’d pair it with. I took him and his daughter Amanda on Day 10 out for Coffee and Tacos. I know: Beer and Tacos make more sense, since we’re talking pairing, but it was morning.  We had our Stumptown flat whites, then hit the Marisco Jalisco truck for morning tacos de cameron. These tacos one eats sideways as the avocado slices are placed on the fried shell along with a ceviche enlivened shrimp. The citrus-soaked shrimp is on the inside and outside. A little messy, but you eat it soo fast, because it’s soo good.

IMG_0405What’s also cool is that owner Raul Ortega’s truck pre-dates the food truck craze. There’s no eye-catching graffiti on the truck, just the name. He brought the recipe years ago from his hometown of San Juan de los Lagos, in, naturally, Jalisco.

From there we headed back to DTLA for another coffee, this time at Blue Bottle where Amanda Snapchat-ed “I’m at Blue Bottle” or something like that. (I heard Sam Teles was jealous). IMG_0408After a labyrinth walk through The Last Bookstore at 5th and Spring, we ended up at Guisados a couple blocks away, the cornerstone eatery at what looks to be a spectacular re-imagining of the old, old Spring Arcade building.

There’s a debate among taco aficionados in regards to tortillas.  Some favor flavorless tortillas to allow the ingredients to star; others infuse the tortillas with flavor creating an even bigger backstage buzz. Here at Guisados, which opened in Boyle Heights five years ago, both merit marquee status.  The little corn masa tortillas are plumper and fresher and tastier than any. And the stewed meats –guisado–have nuanced flavors of nuts, chiles and seeds.

Amanda and Dad got the six-taco sampler for $7.25 and seemed to cherish every bite.  If I recall, Amanda liked the smoky chicken tinga, while Dad liked the conchinita pibil –‘the pickled onion really makes it,’ he said–and they both liked the mole Poblano chicken.  I am partial to the veggie summer squash choice, but really you cannot go wrong even with a blindfolded selection.

IMG_0420If someone visits L.A., I’m taking them to the Kogi Truck first. But Guisados is a very close second.  The clean and modern decor of the DTLA site has brought them out of the humble Boyle Heights origins the De La Torre family first envisioned IMG_0417.  Now with upscale fast food/slow food restaurants in Echo Park, West Hollywood and DTLA, let’s pray they come to the South Bay next.  I’m thinking, “Come on, Let’s Go,” by Los Lobos, San Pedro’s finest.

Yucatan Cooking at Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen, Orange — Day 9; Chichen Itza, L.A. –Day 14; La Flor de Yucatan, L.A., Day 17

IMG_0236I’ve long been an admirer of Yucatan cuisine, but lately I’ve become a bonafide devotee, sniffing for hints of cochinita pork and banana leaves as I drive the 57, the 60, the 110 or the 405.  The sweet aroma is strongest on South Hoover Street and South Grand Avenue.

My early education began in the early ’90s when Barb and I visited her sister Joan, who, having deferred medical school,  was living in Playa del Carmen selling jewelry. She learned how to sculpt silver from craftsmen in Quito, Colombia, and then, because hers had a distinct Greek-mytho-meso-American style, she followed ‘the gringo trail’, ending up in the Yucatan. Our objective in meeting her was two-fold:  hang out near the glorious beaches and explore Mayan pyramids.  We rented an old blood red VW bug and, with a Berkeley Mexican Travel book as our guide, traipsed across Quintana Roo and The Yucatan. We were more interested in the half-excavated ruins–Coba and Mayapan– than Chichen Itza.  We were on a Road to Ruins as, I believe, The Ramones called it.

When we got to Merida, the capital, the ethnocentric attitudes I didn’t think I had emerged then dissolved. Merida was a rather bustling, sophisticated city with a beautiful church and public square, bookstores, coffee shops and interesting cuisine. I don’t remember that much about the food except everywhere we saw pibil-this and pibil-that. We tried it; it was tasty–but what was it?

Flash forward to 10 years ago when Loteria Grill’s pork pibil and cactus tacos began luring us away from Redondo to the Fairfax Farmer’s Market. Yum.

Two or three years ago the head chef from Copenhagen’s numero-uno-in-the-world Noma came to Merida and raved. Word has it he is still hiding out in the Mayan jungle.

Delicious Yucatan cooking is all over L.A., but L.A., as you know, is a jungle, so bring your machete. Time to mention three important destinations.

IMG_0229Chichen Itza, near the USC campus  (well, on the other side of the 110) in the cute and tidy Mercado La Paloma should be your first stop. The lines are usually long for authentic Yucatan dishes. The cochinita pibil tacos are killer. Pibil refers to a pib or round clay oven where pork is slow cooked in banana leaves. The leaves impart sweetness. A touch of sliced pink and pickled onions on top is the perfect touch. While you’ll find pibil tacos on many pan-Mexican menus nowadays, if you haven’t had one yet, start here. However, no one else seems to make panuchos — bean infused tortillas with avocado, pepper and a tomato on the meat– like they do, and I am gravitating more and more to these.

IMG_0378 IMG_0381Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen in Orange, in the trendy Orange Circle, behind Chapman University is the most upscale, gourmet taco restaurant I’ve ever been to. The prices on the menu scared us and we almost backed out, but we were hungry, and the midwestern let’s-not-embarrass-us/them-by-walking-out gene took over. Besides, Louis hyper-extended his back a few minutes earlier in his soccer tournament and the seats were comfortable.

So glad we stayed. This is not authentic regional cuisine, but modern in that it understands the region and then attempts to improve it. Not exactly PoMo in the Roy Choi way, but experimental, nuanced, artistic and scientific. My tacos had squash blossoms — take that Nancy Silverton! These were the calabasa y rajas/blue corn-huitlacoche tortillas — the first ones on the taco menu, three for 15 bucks. What an explosion of taste, and vegetarian at that with grilled summer squash, corn, rajas, panela cheese, avocado relish and salsa arbol.  Just get that–now while it is in season. Go for your birthday.

IMG_0499 IMG_0492Back in Los Angeles just north of the 10 on Hoover sits a corner bakery, a little bit campy, a little bit homey, a lotta bit delicious. It’s La Flor de Yucatan. The neighbors come in the morning for the pastries. I came mid-morning for the tacos and they weren’t quite ready for lunch.  Still they made me comfortable and gave me some pastries on the house to ease my wait. The coconut and candied yam-filled concoction put me in the right mood.

IMG_0496Here they often put turkey in their tacos just like in the Yucatan –actually, originally the Mayans put deer meat, or venison, in their tacos. I had the relleno negro taco; they were out of turkey and used chicken for me. The meat looks black because they char the chili peppers, grind it and achiote seeds into a paste and add other spices. Black and juicy and terrific.  I also had a pumpkin seed enchilada-like creation called Papadzules.  This is one pretty dish and the pumpkin cream sauce is interesting — not quite zesty enough for my taste — the crumbled hard boiled egg filling is most unusual but a little on the pasty and bland side. I’d stick with the tacos and the pastries.

IMG_0490I got a kick out of their Chak Mool logo on the storefront.  Back in the ’90s, when Barb, Joan and I finally made it to Chichen Itza — the ruins not the restaurant — we were hounded by kids selling clay Chak Mools, the Mayan Rain God, reclining and receiving a heart offering. I, of course, the King of Kitsch, bought one.  Here the irony is double: there’s no rain in L.A., and in place of the heart is a birthday cake. Clever, huh?

IMG_0498But I also noticed across the street an immaculately rendered house-as-shrine with white Christian lawn ornaments. Call it Chak Mool Modern.  Beside that house, a beautifully painted yellow house with black trim rested, and I couldn’t resist parking my yellow and black mini-cooper in front for a picture.

IMG_0486This is my last outing, my last pilgrimage with my iconic 2005 Mini Cooper S, a car that also matches my high school’s colors. On Saturday I’m trading it for a blue Honda Fit. It’s been a good 10-year run.

Time for you to make your pilgrimage to Yucatan. There’s more to it than just Cancun.