Daily Dish

The inside scoop on food in Los Angeles

Category: Tacos

Taco Thursday: Tongue tacos

You are hungry. It is late. You are driving down one of the major thoroughfares in East Los Angeles. You pass a well-lighted taco table Your car is already swinging into a U-turn. You are at the heart of the Eastside taco universeYou are hungry. It is late. You are driving down one of the major thoroughfares in East Los Angeles. You pass a well-lighted taco table –- there are lots of taco tables -– but two blocks away you realize that the air is still scented with grilling meat, that you had spotted a proper, pineapple-topped al pastor spit (with flames) and that the sidewalk was crowded with dozens of taco eaters instead of the usual lonely one or two. Your car is already swinging into a U-turn. You are at the heart of the Eastside taco universe.

The intricate choreography of the taco men seems as though it has been practiced over years. One works the al pastor device, carving off stacked layers of pork as they char; cooks the carne asada on the griddle; occasionally grabs a stack of tiny taco tortillas and moistens them just on one side in a bowl of jus.

A second cook concentrates on chopping the meat, working his cleaver and tongs in a rhythm pretty close to the double-bass-drum solos Tommy Lee used to rock at Motley Crue shows, filling long ranks of tortillas with the deftness of a Vegas pro dealing blackjack.

A third cook mans the wet grill, or whatever the technical name is for the sombrero-shaped metal device in which simmers pig stomachs, loops of tripas and other high-test offal.

A fourth guy, positioned just outside the awning, collects money.

You collect your tacos al pastor, dress them with tart green salsa, a scattering of chopped onions and cilantro, and thin taqueria guacamole, and find a wall to lean against. The meat is slightly crisped and rich -– perhaps too rich, because it tastes more of commingled organ juices than it does of pork, which is not undesirable but also not what you were expecting, not at all.

You get back in line and get a few tongue tacos to go. The organ-y flavor will be more appropriate, you suppose. You are correct.

A caveat of sorts: This taco table, although it has held down the corner of Caesar Chavez and Hicks for at least a couple of years, may not be a strictly approved vendor and is basically unnamed -- it appears on Yelp as simply "Taco Table."

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Photo credit: Jonathan Gold / Los Angeles Times

Taco Tuesday: Duck skin tacos

TacoIf you are in the habit of roasting ducks, or of rendering duck fat for confit, you know that the tastiest bits are often those scraps of crunchy skin left behind on the cutting board — brown, shriveled, squiggly bits of what are essentially pure duck fat and pure duck flavor. You know that you could probably toss them into a salad, use them to garnish mashed potatoes or sprinkle them over whatever soup you may make the next day from the ruined bones of the carcass, but you won't. That skin is never leaving the kitchen. This is why you're The Cook.

So you may be interested to know that the estimable Cacao Mexicatessen, which goes through an awful lot of duck in the course of making its notorious duck carnitas, also happens to sell tacos stuffed with fried duck cracklings, which it calls chicharron de pato. There's not much to see here — a tiny, hand-patted tortilla; a drop or two of tomatillo salsa; a few slivers of julienned radish — but there doesn't have to be, not when what we're talking about is one or two bites of pure duck evil. You will find the tacos de chicharron de pato on the Taqueria de Maya menu, and if you think there may be some credence to that calendar thing, you may as well have two.

1576 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock, (323) 478-2791, cacaodeli.com.

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Taco Wednesday: Tacos de tripas

Taco tuesdayWhen the planets were young and I was courting my wife, our occasional tiffs would usually end up with me walking over to a local taqueria, where I would buy a plate of tacos to take over to her for lunch. This particular taqueria, while it was probably best-known for its succulent beef tinga, had a secondary concentration in organ meats, and it was from these that I invariably chose the Tacos of Reconciliation. Simmered lamb sweetbreads, carefully fried snouts, brains, spleen, the glandy meat from the back of a cow's tongue -- they all made their way onto those plates. In retrospect, I probably should have bought her peonies instead, but we had an unusual relationship, and she did like organ meats a lot.

So it makes sense that on the day of our 22nd anniversary last weekend, we drove down to La Carreta, a cheerful, ranch-themed taqueria east of USC famous for its quesadillas, tortillas made to order and pots of free beans, but which specializes in tacos de tripa.

One of her favorite of those Tacos of Reconciliation involved tripas, which are not actual tripe but the very top of a calf's small intestine; slender tubes still filled with half-digested milk. If you do not fancy offal, tripas is not a meat likely to convert you -- they are strong-tasting, those things, and just rubbery enough to remind you of what you are eating. I have heard it said that you should never order tripas on your first trip to a restaurant, and it is probably true -- it's not something you want to trust to a random street-corner taquero.

But as those things go, the tripas at La Carreta are grand. They charge a few cents more per taco for them than they do for all other meats, including the pork-shoulder chorizo made in the back, and they are set off in larger type on the menu board. Almost everywhere else, tripas are boiled; here they are boiled and fried, which gives them both pleasant elasticity and a resounding crunch -- it's the taco to have when you're only having one. Does it still taste like tripas? Sadly, yes. They were slightly too pungent for me. But Laurie was beaming, the sauce was running down her chin, and I remembered why I was in love.

1471 E. Vernon Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 232-7133.

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Photo: Jonathan Gold

Tacos Clarita lives!

ClaritaDo you remember Tacos Clarita? It was a sweet little restaurant located on 4th Street in the heart of Boyle Heights, a house really -- you either had to park on the street or in the driveway if there was room. But the food was delicious -- and different than most Southern California taco stands. You could get carne asada if you really wanted it, but the great stuff there was the Mexico City specialties, like pambazos (like a sandwich dipped in enchilada sauce and then fried), huaraches, stewed nopalitos, and my favorite, huitlacoche quesadillas.

Then suddenly, in 2006, the restaurant disappeared. But Esmeralda Bermudez caught up with the owner, Clarita Trujillo, recently. [UPDATED: An earlier version of this story misspelled Bermudez' first name.] She's now cooking at her daughter's restaurant in El Sereno, also called Tacos Clarita. And the huitlacoche quesadillas are still on the menu.

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Photo: Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times

5 Questions for Roberto Berrelleza

Roberto Chef Roberto Berrelleza is chef-owner of Babita in San Gabriel. Once a manager maitre’d for the Hollywood Brown Derby, Berrelleza had been cooking up basic Mexican food -- tacos, burritos, menudo and posole -- for some time until he answered an internal culinary calling to feed Angelenos cuisine found in eateries around Mexico City. Leaving former staples behind, he added dishes such as chiles en nogada, mixiote (lamb shank) and chile relleno Oaxaqueno to the menu. On a day off away from the kitchen, you might find him in the Santa Ynez wine country.

What’s coming up next on your menu? Zucchini blossoms -- big, bright yellow -- blanched, shocked and made into a sauce with a white wine reduction, capers, onion, tomato and spicy chiltepin [pepper]. It's finished with a Spanish roux and goes over Mexican bass with a bed of huitlacoche en salsa.

Latest ingredient obsession? Prickly pear and gúamuchil [fruit]. I reduce juice from 20 pears down to one cup for a prickly pear crème brulee. As for the gúamuchil, I make it into a sauce that I use for venison or for filet mignon of pork, stuffed with nogada fruit, Wellington style.

What restaurant do you find yourself going to again and again? I love the shrimp crab omelette at Alcove Cafe on Hillhurst, and I keep going back, again and again, and still order the same thing. It's good and I can’t resist.

The one piece of kitchen equipment you can’t live without, other than your knives? If you promise not to laugh, I will tell you -- my ring molds. I use them in salads, guacamole, desserts, ceviche....

What’s your favorite breakfast? A toss-up between huevos rancheros, done the right way, and steak picado, with two eggs over easy on top.

Babita, 1823 S. San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 288-7265.

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Photo: Roberto Berrelleza. Credit: Babita Mexicuisine

Gap 1969 rolls out 'Pico de Gap' taco trucks

Truck

Gap clothing brand, the purveyors of classic blue jeans and knitwear, launched the Pico de Gap taco truck to celebrate the launch of creative director Rosella Giuliani's new 1969 collection. Sure Los Angeles has no shortage of food vendors on wheels, but check out the rad blue color. The brand asked Marcel Vigneron, former "Top Chef" contestant and star of Syfy channel's "Marcel's Quantum Kitchen" to whip up a menu of taco truck favorites with a twist.

MarcelChef Vigneron may be known for his chemically enhanced concoctions, but the tacos from Pico de Gap are not fancy; they're just pretty darn good street food.

"No liquid nitrogen or chemical cookery in there," joked Vigneron as he pointed to the sky blue truck. "I still utilize some tools like the pressure cooker I used to cook the lamb and pork; mostly to cut down on cooking time and it makes the meat tender."

The menu consists of four types of tacos: braised lamb neck with chile negro (dried dark chile) and guajillo (moderately hot reddish-brown chile); carnitas with chipotle (smoked jalapeno); shrimp with pimenton de la vera (Spanish smoked paprika); and spicy tofu.

"Because the weather right now is so hot, I wanted the tacos to be more light, fresh and sexy," Vigneron said. "The condiments are traditional but fun and playful. I tweak everything."

Topping the tacos are:

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Golden State celebrates 2nd anniversary with Mexicali Tacos (which means vampiros and craft beer)

 Mexicali

Monday marks the second anniversary of Golden State cafe, and co-owner Jason Bernstein says he's celebrating with the help of Mexicali Tacos. From 6 to 10 p.m. Mexicali Tacos "will be doing their thing at our place," Bernstein says. "Their thing" is tacos, cachetadas (sort of like a tostada, with a crisp grilled tortilla), vampiros (juicy grilled meat and garlicky cheese folded into a flour tortilla) and Zupermans (three kinds of meat and melted cheese sandwiched between two tortillas) -- normally available Wednesday to Saturday at their stand at 1st Street and Beaudry Avenue (one of my favorite places to eat a taco with a view of the 110 Freeway and downtown skyline). 

"We think it will be a fun idea to pair these tacos and vampiros with really excellent California craft beer -- a combo we don't often see around town," Bernstein says.
 
The celebrating continues throughout the week. From Tuesday to Saturday, Golden State will be tapping a different rare keg -- Lost Abbey Angel's Share, Lost Abbey Deliverance, Deschutes Jubel 2010, New Belgium's La Terroir and Craftsman Lavender Sour. According to Bernstein, Golden State is the only place in Los Angeles where these will be pouring. 

Golden State, 426 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 782-8331; www.thegoldenstatecafe.com.

-- Betty Hallock

Photo: The Mexicali taco stand at 1st Street and Beaudry Avenue. Credit: Betty Hallock.

Everyone's going loco over Taco Asylum in Costa Mesa

Tacos 
Is there room in Southern California for another hip taco slinger? Judging by the lunch crowds at Taco Asylum, there is indeed. They're lured in by creative taste combos such as lamb with ratatouille, background, wild mushroom with fried chickpeas and parsley salad, center, and a grilled octopus taco.

That's why it's our Find of the week.

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Photo: Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times

What are they eating in Coachella? We'll give you one guess

Kogi truck
The Kogi Korean BBQ taco truck has been camped out in the grass beside the VIP area: I saw it there yesterday and immediately walked to its window and ordered a kimchi quesadilla and a short-rib taco. Delicious. Made even more so by virtue of the fact that the truck -- famous for launching the nouveau food-truck craze of 2009 -- had absolutely no line. Read more here:

--Jessica Gelt

Photo credit: File photo of Kogi taco truck. (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

Small Bites: Brunch tacos at Fig, pressed caviar at Petrossian and holiday bento boxes at Breadbar

Tacos Breakfast tacos: Tacos are the quintessential L.A. food: simple, satisfying and available on practically every street corner. Fig Restaurant is now cashing in on the taco's cachet by adding a taco bar to its Kegs & Eggs Sunday brunch. Tacos go for $3 a pop and include chicken; steak; lengua; carnitas; fish; chicharron; poblano and mushroom; chorizo and potato; and quesillo and rojas. Sides include Spanish rice, refried beans, frijoles de la jolla, queso fundido and nopales. To drink, you can choose from Miller High Life (without a doubt the breakfast of true champions), horchata or sangrita. Fig Restaurant, 101 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 319-3111. www.figsantamonica.com.

A bento-ful Christmastime: From now through the New Year, both Breadbar locations are offering special Christmas bento boxes priced at $17 for brunch, lunch and dinner. Inside during brunch: one BLT slider; one bacon-and-egg slider; white bean soup with tomato and kale; and a house-made chocolate roll. For lunch and dinner, the sliders get replaced with Breadbar's illustriously named Tower sandwich. Breadbar, 10250 Santa Monica Boulevard R-2, Century City. (310) 277-3770. Or 8718 W. 3rd St., L.A. (310) 205-0124. www.breadbar.net.

Im-press-ive! Petrossian Boutique and Restaurant is pleased to offer a treat that is hard to find in many restaurants because of restrictions on importing it: pressed caviar. The rich, thick paste is made from what is left over when traditional caviar is packed. You can find this decadent dainty on Executive Chef Benjamin Bailly's new Petrossian Experience menu, which is basically a smaller menu geared toward the adventurous eater of caviar. Dishes include stuffed potatoes with crème fraîche, chives and pressed caviar ($20); smoked salmon linguine with lemon, vodka and pressed caviar ($28); and seared sturgeon with white cocoa bean, artichokes and pressed caviar ($39). Or you can just pick some up to take home. Thirty grams cost $63. Yeow! Petrossian Boutique and Restaurant, 321 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 271-0576. www.petrossian.com

-- Jessica Gelt

Photo: Chicken tacos with avocado. Credit: Business Wire

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Daily Dish is written by Times staff writers.