Searching for tacos muy buenos
By Jenae Cohn
May 20, 2009 11:37 p.m.
We live in a town known for its roving taco trucks and hole-in-the-wall urban taco shacks, so there is little excuse to consume any kind of subpar Mexican cuisine such as Taco Bell or Westwood’s Acapulco. But why stick to familiar, subdued flavors when a whole lot more spice and a lively restaurant experience is not much farther away?
I found it long past due to embark upon a Westside Taco Crawl. The Taco Crawl is a popular phenomenon among Los Angeles-area bloggers, since taquerias in Los Angeles are almost as numerous as Starbuckses.
Browsing the annals of Yelp, Chowhound, The Great Taco Hunt blog and other reliable Los Angeles-area blogs, I picked three taco joints within 15 driving minutes of UCLA that offered tacos for no more than $2 each. Upon assembling an enthusiastic three-woman Taco Taste-Testing Team, the journey to find the greatest close-to-UCLA taco joint began.
We attempted to compile our data in the most scientific way possible, but our search left significant room for error.
First, we only consumed one taco at each joint to avoid getting overstuffed. Second, had we wanted to do an in-depth taco study, we probably would have assigned one type of meat (for example, chicken, carne asada or carnitas) to each taste tester to determine which restaurant was best at each. Hence, a poor carnitas at one restaurant may not speak to that particular joint’s pollo. Keep that in mind as you read our results.
Tacos Por Favor
1406 Olympic Blvd. Santa Monica
Located in a strip mall perpendicular to the 10 Freeway, Tacos Por Favor blends into the surrounding mundane cityscape. However, a line out the screen door indicates a large following.
A casual counter service spot, Tacos Por Favor offers an extensive menu of standard Mexican options, including soft and hard tacos, burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, sopes (fried bowls of corn dough, or “masa,” topped with refried beans, sour cream, lettuce and salsa) and tortas (a grilled sandwich made out of a fluffy white bread filled with meat, lettuce, tomato, onion, guacamole, salsa and mayonnaise).
My friends and I stuck to the more traditional soft tacos, which range in price from potato and veggie tacos at $1.90 each to fried fish tacos at $3.15 each.
Although the tacos could be ordered in a combination with rice and beans, we opted to go a la carte, and while we were fascinated by the chorizo, a spicy type of sausage, and cheese taco, we decided against that choice.
I immediately stormed the salsa bar, which, to my delight, offered a giant bowl of pico de gallo along with smaller troughs of avocado and spicy red-colored salsa.
The taco al pastor tasted magnificent with the fresh cilantro. Tender, spicy and rich, the smoky flavor of the pork proved to be the Tacos Por Favor highlight. I topped my taco with some pico de gallo, but the pico de gallo proved underwhelming, with the tomatoes and onions not nearly spicy enough. Perhaps it had been sitting out in its giant bowl for a few hours too long.
The carne asada, too, was tender, but the chicken breast proved remarkably dry. My friend noted that it could have merely been an off night, but it tasted like the taco one would order for a party’s picky eater; it needed to be doused in some serious salsa.
The fried fish, while more expensive, was a good alternative option. It was obviously not just a wrapped-up microwaved fish stick and ““ praise the heavens ““ it was not accompanied by any “chipotle slaw,” but complemented by sour cream, lettuce and pico de gallo.
El Super Taco
11923 Santa Monica Blvd. Santa Monica
With the least expensive tacos of our crawl, El Super Taco proved El Super Affordable, but also Un Poco Boring.
With an extensive salsa bar ““ including a slightly sweet, chunky tomato salsa ““ greeting us at the door, my expectations were high.
El Super Taco offered more adventurous types of meats than those at Tacos Por Favor, including buche (pork stomach), suadero (a thin cut of beef brisket), lengua (tongue), tripas (small intestines) and cabeza (the meat from the roasted head of a cow). While I initially intended to order al pastor throughout the night, the variety of meat options tempted me ““ I had to go with the cabeza.
The “super tacos” were less than super in terms of size. Each taco could easily be consumed in three bites and were topped only with marinated, fried onions rather than the traditional chopped raw onion and cilantro. The carnitas were bland, and my friend had to douse her taco with the chunky tomato salsa.
My cabeza meat was tender, flaky and a little oily. While the meat was cooked nicely, the taco needed a lot more seasoning; the meat did not have enough flavor to keep me from pouring on the salsa. Both my friend and I agreed that we could have done without the greasy onions and would have preferred the chopped, raw variety.
My friend broke our taco mold and ordered a torta. She barely ate half of it because the torta was a jumbo-sized sandwich filled with black beans, tomato, avocado, mayonnaise, string cheese and chicken. The bread was crispy and the chicken was a little dry, but the flavors were spicy and satisfying overall. In comparison with my past torta experiences, El Super Taco’s torta was more like a panini than like the giant, stuffed, sloppy sandwiches we had previously experienced.
If you have suggestions for future Taco Crawl spots, e-mail Cohn at [email protected].