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 –- 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."
-- Jonathan Gold
Photo credit: Jonathan Gold / Los Angeles Times