B.S. Taqueria – Downtown Los Angeles

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The taco has traditionally been a humble food, originally created to make small amounts of meat go a long way. In the past couple of years, however, this has been changing, at least in Los Angeles, where serious chefs have been designing seriously delicious upscale tacos to a well-heeled clientele. One of the newer entries if B.S. Taqueria on 7th Street downtown.

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I thought it would be a good idea to start with an old standard that you can get in any taquería – Carnitas – and it was a wonderful surprise. Served on a blue corn tortilla and a base of guacamole, the perfectly braised pork was brought to life by a lime-heavy salsa verde and finely chopped onion and cilantro… Not your father’s carnitas!

The taco that really caught my interest was the Chorizo and Papas, sausage and potato. It came on the same blue corn tortilla, but this time topped with a crust of grilled cheese. The chorizo, finely ground, was mixed with a rich red sauce, and the smashed potato was soft and comforting. A dash of crumbled cotija cheese put it over the top.

I’m pretty sure I’ve never spent $20 on tacos before, even in my crazy over-indulgences at El Huequito in Mexico City, but this is serious food in an upscale location (site of the sadly missed Mo-Chica) and it’s high time that tacos stood up to be counted as the truly great food that they can be.

Here’s the website: http://www.bstaqueria.com/about/

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3 Old School Los Angeles Mexican Restaurants

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As a Canadian who moved to Los Angeles many years ago, I was delighted to discover Mexican food, and I tried most of the established restaurants around the city. These were the places that introduced generations of Americans to this unique and fascinating cuisine. In recent years, however, I’ve been exploring some of the exciting regional cuisines of Mexico, as specialty restaurants have come on stream to serve a largely Mexican clientele.

It occurred to me that I needed to revisit some of the fine, enduring places where I learned about Mexican food in the first place.

El Coyote Cafe

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My friend Sid recently invited me to lunch at his long-standing favorite restaurant, El Coyote. Sid is not a young man, but he has been coming here since he was a kid. The waiters know him by name, and he has the menu memorized. El Coyote first opened in 1931, and is going strong.

I know I should have ordered something more elaborate, but the “Torta Mexican Style Sandwich” caught my eye. I have favorite tortas all over Los Angeles, and thought this would be a good test for El Coyote. What I got was a nice fresh roll, generously stuffed with grilled steak, red and green peppers, onion and melted white cheese. Sort of a Mexican Hoagie, the ingredients reminded me strongly of a dish called Alambre that I recently had in Mexico City… Definitely a success. Sid had the fajitas salad. Not strictly Mexican, perhaps, but it was large, and looked delicious.

El Cholo Spanish Cafe

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Everyone I know has a memory of El Cholo. “I used to go there with my grandparents” is a common memory. Others go misty-eyed thinking about the green corn tamales. I’ve had the green corn tamales, and I get it. Founded in 1922, El Cholo has been around almost forever.

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I went to El Cholo (the original location on Western Avenue) for lunch a couple of weeks ago with my friend Leili. She ordered the Carnitas, a dish that first appeared on the menu in 1989, and it was a huge plate of beautifully cooked pork, served with pickled onions and sliced orange. I had the Chile Con Carne (introduced in 1923) which was a rich, dark beef stew. It was delicious, but I had the distinct feeling the chef was holding back on the spices for the benefit of those who aren’t familiar with Mexican flavors.

Don Antonio’s

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Don Antonio’s is a youngster compared with the other 2 restaurants, opening in 1981, but the founders’ history goes back a lot further with other restaurants around L.A. I went with a woman friend who observed that the last time she ate here was the night when her husband moved out of the house, some years ago. She ordered the Chicken Enchiladas, and declared that they are still the best comfort food she could possibly imagine. I had the Chile Verde, a dish I haven’t had in perhaps 25 years. The flavors were rich and meaty, and the portions generous.

The main attraction at Don Antonio’s seemed to be the Fajitas. The room gradually became hazy from the smoke generated by the sizzling dishes coming out of the kitchen every few minutes. Maybe next time.

Conclusion?

These were 3 very good restaurants, serving Mexican food to Americans the same way they have for many years. They do what they do extremely well, and deserve their long run of success.

Here are the websites:

El Coyote Cafe   http://elcoyotecafe.com/

El Cholo Spanish Cafe   http://elcholo.com/menus

Don Antonio’s   http://www.donantoniosla.com/restaurant

Hamburguesas Punta Cabras – Downtown Los Angeles

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When a couple of serious chefs opened a taco restaurant, the results were wonderful. Tacos Punta Cabras serves some of the best and most interesting tacos in Los Angeles from their small space in Santa Monica. When I heard they had opened a Mexican “burger joint,” I just had to head downtown to see what was going on.

What I found was just that – a hole in the wall burger joint that looks like something you might have seen in East LA in 1963. The main attraction is an old-school burger with none of the hipster frills we’ve been seeing in recent years… Well, I don’t recall having home-made thousand island, excuse me… mil islas on my burgers in 1963. The difference, though, is that it’s the best old-school burger you’ve ever had. Top quality ingredients, perfectly executed, and served in a traditional paper sleeve. And the bacon tomatillo salsa was a terrific modern touch.

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That’s where old-school ends, though. The menu also has black bean burgers and turkey burgers, which I may try on another visit. What I did try (yes, I had 2 lunches yesterday) was the shrimp burger. This is where the chefs’ creativity came in full force. A combination of ground shrimp and pork, I was having flashbacks to delicious Vietnamese meals. Served as a burger, though, they had some fun with Mexican spices and Asian flavors, including paper-thin slices of my favorite Asian pickles. I will definitely be going back for more of these.

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Hamburguesas Punta Cabras is on Spring Street near 7th.

Here’s the website: http://hamburguesaspuntacabras.com/

Alambre – at Oaxaca On Wheels

The section of Santa Monica Boulevard between Barrington and Bundy in West Los Angeles has become a focal point for really good Mexican food trucks. I am usually distracted by one or the other of the two trucks that regularly park between my apartment and Oaxaca on Wheels, so it has taken me a while to get to it.

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I was impressed by the range of uniquely Oaxacan dishes, and finally had a chance to try the exotically and mysteriously named Alambre. I was fascinated for years by Vampiros, until I finally ordered them in Mazatlan one evening, and leaned they were just tacos. Good tacos, but just tacos. My fear was that I would be disappointed by Alambres, another dish I’ve seen on Mexican menus for years, but never tried. Instead, it brought back a couple of nice memories.

Some years ago, when I worked in the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California, we ate lunch at a favorite Chinese restaurant 2 or 3 times a week. It primarily catered to Chinese customers, and they were surprised but pleased that a group of young American men had become regulars. One reason we liked it of course, was that the pretty waitresses laughed at our jokes. Our favorite joke was giving American names to the distinctly Chinese menu items. If we ordered Chinese tacos, the knew exactly which dumplings we wanted. We also enjoyed the Chinese hamburgers and the Chinese spaghetti… You get the idea.

As I was digging in to my beautiful plate of thinly sliced beef tasajo, green peppers, onions and chorizo covered in melted Oaxacan string cheese, I found myself thinking about the cheese steaks at Pat’s in Philadelphia. As I wrapped this delicious combination in rich, warm tortillas, I realized I was eating a Mexican Hoagie.

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The truck typically parks about a block east of Bundy, and has a loyal following. I know I’ll be going back to try more of their distinctive regionalMexican dishes.

YXTA – Gringas al Pastor

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I’ve passed by YXTA a number of times, but never had the opportunity to try it. I was curious, though, for two reasons. First, how in heck do you pronounce YXTA? Well, you do pronounce the X, so it sounds like “eeks-ta.” Second, what is an attractive, upscale-looking restaurant doing in that dreary stretch of downtown Los Angeles, surrounded by warehouses, distributors and factories? The answer to that is now a moot point, because YXTA is worth a trip, no matter where it’s located.

I was invited to a preview of AltaMed’s annual fund-raiser East L.A. Meets Napa, and we made a stop at YXTA for their wonderful tacos, and a sampling of Trujillo wines. The US vs Belgium World Cup game was playing on the TVs as we arrived, which fit perfectly with the casual restaurant/bar atmosphere, and added to the fun mood of the outing. Needless to say, we didn’t stay long enough to see the disappointing outcome of the game.

I’ve seen Gringas on menus in Mexico, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen them this side of the border. As we all know, a gringa in Latin America is an American, or english-speaking woman. In food parlance, though, it is a special type of taco. Wikipedia says the name may come from the dark spots on the grilled tortilla that resemble the freckles on a gringa’s skin.

The gringas at YXTA were beautifully roasted marinated pork (pastor), served on a flour tortilla with lots of gooey melted cheese, onions, cilantro, chile de arbol salsa and avocado salsa. The treatment was sort of like a quesadilla, but it packed a flavor punch way beyond any quesadilla I’ve ever been served – and that includes the Olympic Mercado where all the street vendors appear on Saturdays, not that far from YXTA.

I’m looking forward to seeing what YXTA is serving at the July 18 East L.A. Meets Napa main event. I’ll be delighted if they go with the Gringas, but whatever they decide, I know I’ll be a happy guy.

Here’s the website: http://yxta.net/

Aguachile – Coni’Seafood, Inglewood. Los Angeles

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The aguachile at Coni’Seafood is the most exciting thing I’ve put in my mouth recently. I made an odd noise when I saw the presentation – something combination of a gasp and a “wow!” Basically a ceviche, it is fresh raw shrimp marinated in lemon juice, topped with a fruity/spicy jalapeño puré. I recently visited the wonderful Peruvian restaurant Mo-Chica downtown, where ceviche has been raised to an art-form, but for a blast of pure fresh flavor, nothing can beat this aguachile. A serving was a dozen shrimp (for a surprisingly good price), so I was completely satisfied before moving on to a wonderful main course.