A steady stopby on Van Nuys
5142 Van Nuys Blvd. (south of Magnolia, in Sherman Oaks)
Phone: 818-501-9065 | map
La Fogata is reliably in-between, a unique mien that Valley-based Mexican eateries have: a counter-order place with too much decor and booth seating to be a fast food joint*. Small rooms jut from the main area, with bullfighting posters and smiling porcelain sun faces populating every wall.
Look over the menu above the counter, then turn about-face and read the other menu on the opposite wall. Color photos cause indecision. I am usually not compelled to explore too deeply here, as if the universe is all right with my taking it easy.
When pulling away from my usual burrito-plus-a-taco habits, I have the Chicken Breast dinner. A big, symmetrically satisfying brace of chicken, grilled golden, skin stiffened only just, presides between the expected rice-and-beans fare.
The rice is standard issue, but the refried beans are notably tasty, almost whipped smooth, the layer of white cheese fused into translucency. A pleasing mound of shredded lettuce, cheese and guacamole is present to stuff into your tortillas, or just to crunch for the coolness.
The salsas are happily chunky and good enough, and except for a slight boost in bite, the difference between the mild and hot cannot be discerned in appearance nor in heat. I spoon hearty qualities of each over everything.
However, a burrito and a taco for companionship is my frequent friend. The burritos could be a little bigger for their price, but still make for good eats.
The Chile Burrito is an elastic flour tortilla packed to capacity with nothing but lovely shreds of juicy pork, richly brown with a slight antique fuchsia tint**, and more of those creamy refried beans. The Red chili is a tad too sweetish like a ragu, so the green is a better bet.
La Fogata is better with Veracruz-style fish than, say, the Baja fish tacos, which can be dry and lackluster. The Fried Chicken Taco basically means a hard-shell taco, with miles of gentle shredded cheese on top.
Continuing with my Sherman Oaksian gringo moment, when I need simplicity I secretly like the cool habit of a Chicken Taco Salad, warmly shredded chicken fraternizing with the refried beans underneath. With a crispy pale green mound of lettuce, sour cream and guacamole, there is a well-defined transition of heat to cold.
La Fogata has its own parking lot (let's say about five cars), and the side street is usually sparse and a little spooky, but available.
** As in color. It's meant to indicate the barest touch of purple that exists in roast meat. If you didn't like that comparison, try "fandango" or "cerise."
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Mexican, The Valley )
Yes, it means what you think it means
8200 W. Sunset Blvd. (@ Havenhurst, in West Hollywood)
Phone: 323-650-0614 | map
8665 Washington Blvd. (Culver City)
Phone: 310-837-5000 | map
395 Santa Monica Place (@ 4th, in Santa Monica)
Phone: 310-394-0373 | map
Despite being open until three in the morning, this doesn't possess the comfortably shabby demeanor of a neighborhood taco stand, into which you stumble in sore need of some well-deserved grease and spice; it's priced a little too high for that. This is the latest inspiration by the Anaya Brothers, owners of Cha Cha Cha.
The ceiling is awash with miniature piñatas* and colorful cutouts; the walls are adorned with off-brand loteria paintings (the El Pinche seeming particularly irreverent). The tables have absurdly blue checkered cloths.
As might be expected, the easiest introduction to a place with "tacos" in the title is the Pinche Combination Plate: a trio of tacos, with rice, beans and chips. The rice is properly fluffy**, and the refried beans are plain tasty, full of themselves without being whipped to senselessness.
Each taco embraces the holy duo of small white onion shards and cilantro, huddled together in malleable corn tortillas that are prone to tearing on contact with moisture. This contributes to the non-taco-stand feel, as I prefer to eat these at the table with fork and fingers rather than hunch over a rickety aluminum counter devouring taco goodness and fighting off pigeons.
The adobada consists of intense little cubes, marinated in a chili sauce with a wink of vinegar; they demand a determined chewing to extract maximum flavor. A briskly chopped salsa sits atop. The pollo a la parrilla is blocks of chicken breast, grilled to a pleasing stiffness on the outside, painfully moist inside. The carnitas are exquisite, not shredded, but large, imposing cuts of rich, shiny, citrusy pork.
Luxuriating on a stretchy tortilla, the pescado taco is thinly golden, not crunchy like Baja style but tender and collapsing. Oddly, it has a Veracruz coleslaw rather than naked cabbage, but I think I like it. The red salsa on this is among Pinche's best.
For burritos, I like the al pastor, pork strips marinated and broiled to a steaky firmness, muddled together with strings of sautéed onion and nicely gritty, dirty rice.
The chips here are fried hard, the pico de gallo can be thin and oniony, and there may not be many favorites among the salsas, although the cool spicy red used on the fish tacos is good to request.
Some Yelpy complaints have emerged regarding the staff at the Sunset location, which is, statistically, also more likely to attract its share of obnoxiously assumptive clientele. However, both locations have statistically unlikely free parking lots, suggesting that the universe is somewhat balanced. In any case, tacos, and I want them again soon.
Thanks to Adam for letting me drag him to yet another lunchtime foray.
* "Would you say I have a plethora of piñatas?"
** I realize that I rarely have much to say about Mexican-style rice. I am incomplete if it is not juxtaposed with my beans and main course, but it tends to be either satisfactory, or dry and uninteresting like your Uncle Theodore. I have never yet had a forkful of amber rice with a touch of vegetable and said, By God and the Queen's grace, Janice, this rice is damned fine!... I also don't know anyone named Janice to whom I can direct this ejaculatory observation.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Mexican, West Side/West Hollywood, Santa Monica/Culver City, Late Night/24 Hours )
As you cruise west along the hip, aloof commerce of Melrose, you may choose to look right at The Foundry instead of left. You may have passed Antonio's dozens of times. Yet it's been there for decades, as the sea of photos featuring celebrities posing with the handsome, mustachioed Antonio Gutierrez will attest.
The inside has the richly puffy booths, the heavily stuccoed wall murals, and the iron chandeliers of a classic Mexican restaurant, and also a spectacular bar with striped-leg stools. Señor Gutierrez himself may be present, dressed smartly in a suit to greet and assure his customers' happiness. I am pleased to have captured both in a single photo. We also like to sit outside and watch L.A. go by.
They charge for chips and salsa here, which is unusual but doesn't bother us unduly since the chips are warm, extra-crunchy and shiny, the salsa is an electric tomato red that's mild and zippy, and the chopped pico de gallo has a lurking serrano snap of the fingers. The two salsas combined make for an agreeable conclusion. If you want it, ask; if you don't, say so.
They offer a few gringo-friendly combinations--I'll get to that in a paragraph or three--but the dishes you want are the explorations into the Monterrey of Antonio's youth.
Antonio's rendition of Carnitas comes as a Sunday Special: long-marinated, fatty roast pork leg bathing like Diana in an insanely rich red sauce that has, of all things, pineapple, orange juice, cola and tomato. It is a nod to the taste buds of another time, a jazzy departure from tomate frito that has one's fork scraping the sides of the plate.
The Chicken Papachango is a little more in the realm of mole, a full-bodied sauce of white wine and herbs and tomato made thick enough to rest on the tines of a fork. The chicken is pliable, nearly needing no knife to cut.
With this is a single, dignified banana that's been grilled tender and sweet, and dances gracefully with the sauce. Pretentious sentence, I know, but it's a really good banana. Yellowed rice and beans buried under a swirl of melted white cheese keep the dish familiar to the American palate.
Back to my gringosity. I love, love, love classic Americanized hard-shell tacos with a cool red sauce on them, and they do that here with old-school panache. On the Beef Tacos the strips of steak are well-browned, the lettuce shredded almost into a web, the white cheese grated, the red sauce refreshing. Chunky guacamole adds that cool yumminess.
The Chile Verde is a bit oversalted but resplendent in its porcine force: lots of fat, falling apart, in a nigh-colorless but rich & sultry sauce. It's heaped with big lazy strips of sautéed onions and green peppers.
The cute little lemon-yellow margaritas are a fair $7 around lunchtime, and are strong enough to be worth an extra cost later in the day. We, however, have had a Sunday night dinner and been charged the same seven bucks.
Antonio's is closed on Mondays, L.A. style. Valet is five dollars.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Mexican, West Side/West Hollywood, Hollywood )
The sauce of kings
3014 W. Olympic Blvd. (@ Normandie/Irolo)
Phone: 213-427-0608 | map
3337 1/2 W. 8th St. (@ Irolo)
Phone: 213-427-0601 | map
11215 Long Beach Blvd. #1010, Lynwood
The first location on Olympic was once the VIP Palace, and the exterior is still tiled with blue Korean stylings. The interior feels open, with thin pillars holding up the ceiling and a stage with elegantly carved wooden marimbas reposing grandly along one wall. The blankets on the tables are checkered in warm color.
While you're reading the all-Spanish menu and working through the tortilla chips smothered in an almost too-sweet red mole, dare to order one of their mezcaladas. Bianca likes the Garra de Tigre, as kin to a conventional blended margarita as a tiger is to an irritable housecat. Instead of tequila, Mezcal (the one with the worm in it, mind you) is blended with orange juice (and maybe the worm), into a grainy snow the color of raw sugar. The glass is rimmed with lime and chili powder, keeping it hot enough to keep drinking but strong enough to make it a foolish proposition. The paw of the tiger smacks you if you get more than one.
A simple introduction to the mysterious mole of Oaxacan cuisine is the Enchiladas de Mole Rojo. Ordered with chicken, the tortillas are filled with white meat without much personality.
With chorizo, however, the tortillas are loosely folded and blanketed with sweetish mole, emanating a flair of roasted pepper. The chorizo is twisted into ping-pong ball-sized spheres and laid atop, breaking open into spicy gaminess. It is a simplistic dish meant to convey complexity, the brown-draped centerpieces merely a vehicle for the mole, which is thick but uncloying, roasty and almost intoxicating.
A clayuda is a huge corn tortilla cooked on a clay disc, rendering the tortilla crisp like pappadam and imparting a dry, peppery taste. They put toppings on it and serve it on a pizza tray, like creamy black bean spread, chopped cabbage, and the everpresent snaky heap of queso fresco.
I like the Clayuda Guelaguetza, which supports a trio of meats. An elastic plank of pork rules the upper right, hammered flat and caked with spicy rub. It is not pork-intense, and is the most subdued of the three. There are several of the chorizo spheres, earthy and crumbly, requiring knife work, with the corn tortilla crackling and snapping beneath. The tasajo is salted beef pounded into a quarter-thin sheet, succulent and juicy and the strongest feature of this plate.
Next trip: Barbacoa Roja de Chivo, tender young goat in broth, and I hear they have chapulinas: grasshoppers.
The Koreatown location is the original, and has two-dollar valet. The Guelaguetza on 8th cringes and creaks down the street from Taylor's Steak House and has a better kitchen; the one in Lynwood is difficult to map.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Mexican, East Side/Downtown, Mid-City/Koreatown )
Since tumbleweeds have started bouncing lazily across my site, I am compelled to bust out one of my sparse "kept in reserve" reviews.
Rather than the sleepy-village decor of Don Cuco, it's more like the interior of your tia's house... that is, if your tia has frilly white dresses and a house the size of a nobleman's mansión. Upon stepping inside you will spy the prominent black and white photo of a handsome woman (presumably Rosa Borquez) in a brilliant black dress, and her diminutive husband.
El Cholo has been bombasted a bit by the culinary community (the original location on Western reflects that, having descended into a battered, unimpressive rhythm), yet it's still kind of a comforting institution, with specific dishes that have cemented it as a model "Mexican restaurant." They do have tons of tequilas, but don't flaunt the party vibe... you know, the "we're only a step above suck because we make our Cuervo margaritas unnecessarily strong" vibe. All of this means that I beg you not to grind margarita salt in my eyes because I'm writing about this catering company-owned restaurant that I might go to occasionally when I'm in Pasadena.
The chips are multicolored--I'm still on the fence about whether red and green tortilla chips should deduct from street cred--but the salsa is pretty good, thin and tomato-heavy with some serrano sharpness. Do ask for fresh guacamole made at your table; it's one of the finer ones we've tasted, avocados, red onions, cilantro and lemon juice elegantly mixed by a busy woman with a smile and a mortar and pestle. Couple that with one of their massive bowls of albondigas soup and you'll have difficulty finishing the main course.
The Blue Corn Enchiladas are a staple of mine (and of Rosa, according to the menu), with a tomatillo sauce, sour cream, avocados, and black beans and rice. The tacos here are rolled-style, and the enchiladas have extra meat piled on top, as if your tia thinks you're too skinny and need to eat more, mi hijo.
The oldest enchilada served here (since 1923) is the Sonora Style, a hefty layered beast. Between plate-sized corn tortillas rests great white strata of chicken made tender in an onion and tomato broth; drippy cheese and a fried egg add a lush tang. Surrounding it is a moat of deepest red and green sauce.
At the end of it all, a small plate of tooth-shatteringly sweet dulce de leche cookies beckons.
The parking lot is long and expansive, but there's valet for some reason.
It seems obviously connected with the other locations, but keeps its own website.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Mexican, Pasadena/San Gabriel/Alhambra )
More Mexican restaurant recovery prescription
7408 W. Sunset Blvd. (West Los Angeles)
Phone: 323-874-7924 | map
1449 W. Sunset Blvd. (Echo Park)
Phone: 213-250-4505 | map
website (barely, and mind the music)
After getting home at nearly three in the morning, we have our usual recovery methodology: eat Mexican food and nap for the remainder of the Sunday. Sometimes we head west instead of east.
The El Compadre in Hollywood is a reliable stop along the string of musicians' stores on Sunset west of La Brea. The nearly unlit interior causes some blinking until you can see, but the decor is resplendent: deep red vinyl, brick red tile, black iron chandeliers. Heavy lanterns of iron and wood hang above your table like hexagonal anvils.
El Compadre is known for their "Flaming Margarita," but we stick with the less embarrassing, traditional on-the-rocks margaritas, sneaky concoctions in a big old-fashioned glass. We dig into those, and the shiny, lip-slicking tortilla chips. The salsa is ruddy and mean, but without much endurance. The albondigas soup is warm and full-bodied like a hug from a favorite aunt, densely seasoned and not heavy on the celery.
The plates are the classic Mexican restaurant blast from the past you know and love, radiating heat as if fresh from a kiln, the sauces sharpened around the edges, the pepper-dashed rice darkened to goldenrod, the big and beany refried beans covered with cheese that never quite stops melting, spotted with enough burn marks for contrast.
You know me--I have to indulge occasionally my inner childhood gringo--so I check out the combinations. Rather than a "one taco, one enchilada combo," they call it the Vagabundo, which I like. Bring me the Vagabundo! And do not let him escape! Vengeance is mine! On a long plate of cheese-laden heat, the enchilada is bulkier than most, combining crispy with fluffy. The beef in the taco is somewhere between ground and shredded, and really not the most important part; that is the lettuce, the thin line of white sauce, and the glistening shell, begging to be snapped apart and devoured with wedgefuls of beans and red sauce.
The Enchilada de Jaiba Estilo Vallarta is a long, lovely name for a crab meat enchilada in ranchera sauce. You cannot see what's going on here, what with the cheesy white lava, but the meat is almost obliterated, leaving only the scent and pungent essence of crab.
The Carne con Chile Verde is more conventionally titled. Fatty cubes of pork are done to a fork-slicing tenderness, flecked with spicy red and green bits in a rich, complex tomatillo sauce. I am enamored of the rustic corn tortillas, slightly scorched, into which I pile spoonfuls of the chile verde.
Way down on the bottom of the right page of the menu are some quietly superior Grilled Fish Tacos. So far Bianca and I have gotten these, both on the same night, on two separate occasions, because they're that good.
The fish is superbly grilled and tender with the gentlest of crunchy exterior, and are incredibly friendly with the white cheese, cabbage, refried beans and occasional hint of green pepper. After some excavation with a fork, the pale, scratchy, mostly-bendy corn tortillas can be rolled up and devoured.
The dishes can climb into the twenties when getting into the camarones and the bisteca, but many combos are under nine bucks.
The West Hollywood El Compadre is a hot spot, so a dinner experience will be long and loud, but lunchtime is perfect, after which you may stumble outside, full, slow and hissing like Sleestaks at the brilliant sun. There is a parking lot in back for about ten cars. It has a nice two-in-the-morning closing time.
The Echo Park location has a bigger lot (let's say fourteen cars), slower but just as friendly service, and is more airy and lit. We haven't determined how late they're open.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Mexican, West Side/West Hollywood, Los Feliz/Silver Lake/Echo Park, Late Night/24 Hours )