Some badger Hugo's, citing tons of other places to acquire taco authenticity in L.A. They're right, of course; go down the street a bit to Tacos Villa Corona, or over to El Tapatio #2, or to the guys open on Fletcher, and that's without leaving Atwater.
But you don't come here for the things you can get elsewhere: carnitas, al pastor, et al. Engage yourself in healthful pursuits, experiment with your vegan side.* Hugo's has played with fillings and salsas and other Mexican-influenced assembly, and has been successful at it.
Gape at the menu in its glory. Pick an item, pick a filling, pick a salsa. Our quick recommendation here is either the Grilled Fish, still with a silvery sheen from being freshly scraped, or the Soy Chorizo with Potato and Zucchini, chopped so finely it's like salsa. There's also chicken, steak, carnitas, and a zucchini/corn/string bean mix. Pass on the not-terribly-interesting al pastor, which has a little too much of a steaky toughness.
You'll just have to go through all seven choices of salsa until you've figured out your perfect taco/salsa pairing. A basic Pico de Gallo, a thick green Jalapeño & Tomatillo, Salsa Cruda, the Honey Chipotle everyone raves about, a moody mole-style Salsa Negra, Salsa Habañero, and a belligerent little red Salsa Arbol. I kinda wish I could sample all those separately; I'll have to ask about that.
I'm still figuring out the soft corn tortillas. They're oddly firm, almost elastic, not the pale, easily-split white fabric that jeopardize so many taco-eating experiences. They're also quite stuck together, so I can't do that taco-filling-shuffle I like to do**. The tortilla chips, though, are crisp, golden and shiny, so I'll try the hard shell tacos next time.
They also do tortas in a comforting way; the torta ahogada has white beans, guacamole, tomatoes, onions, whatever filling you picked (the soy chorizo is the best bet here), and then griddled with honey chipotle.
The other gripe some visitors have is that it's expensive... for tacos. They're a deuce fifty for one, six-fifty for three. Hugo's expects you to go for combos.
The Atwater location has a large parking lot for the stand's size. Hugo's is open from 10 to 10 every day.
* But don't get soy cheese. Vegan cuisine hasn't figured that one out yet.
** I'll explain. Soft tacos almost universally come in two tortillas. I like to slide one tortilla downward a bit and even out everything, so I get a longer bed for my filling. ... what?
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Mexican, Vegetarian/Vegan, Healthy/Organic, Glendale/Atwater/Eagle Rock, The Valley )
Inside is a series of rainbow tattoos on black, as if Mummenschanz was given paintbrushes and primary colors and told to create a madman's postmodern playhouse. A salmon slatted wooden wall divides the boisterous interior in half. But the real display is culinary: Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger are the visionaries behind the Border Grill and its sister cafe Ciudad.
The tables are more sedated: battered blonde wood with Spanish romance-movie prayer candles. Warm chips are placed before you with a trio of thin salsas, from a spirited green jalapeño to a snarky tomato red. The guacamole is a well-made, creamy dome of coolness, so nod when asked if you want some.
If you're not sampling from the ample list of tequilas, pick one of their signature mixed drinks, such as the Paloma Blanca (Herradura Silver and lime) or the Blood Orange Margarita (Sauza Hornitos Reposado with blood orange juice). Both are sweet and sour bombs, heavy on the Cointreau and strong, in a kind of "wrestle your tongue to the floor and take its lunch money" sense. (Bianca: "That's all right!") If you're not drinking-drinking, I urge you to get the homemade jamaica, a hibiscus cooler that's not absurdly sweet like the dispensers of roiling scarlet liquid at most taco stands.
On to dinner. Slow-roasted, shredded pork marinated in achiote is an idyllic concept anyway, but Mary Sue and Susan's take on Cochinita Pibil is rich and tart, almost a moody mole sauce. The roasted plantains are slightly dry and more decorative, but the black beans are thick, the white rice level-headed, and the tortillas soft and almost fluffy. If it's available, try the Dungeness Crab Enchilada Verde, a lush mix of flat soft tortillas with crab and cheese support, drenched in an hoja santa cilantro crema.
Dessert here gets points for pretty. The Mexican Chocolate Cream Pie is nothing you'd expect, a flat wafer of baked meringue topped by a firm mousse and a crown of chocolate curls... but I'd have to hand the prize to the vengefully puckery Key Lime Cheesecake. We left feeling beauti-full and fairly useless.
Border Grill is an excellent date place, and can be pricey for some; drinks range from eleven to thirteen bucks, and dinner can be up to eighty for two people, but it's a classy respite in Santa Monica. What did you want?
Parking is valet, or park in the storied lot across the street. Reservations can be made online.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Mexican, Healthy/Organic, Santa Monica/Culver City )
Hiding in a corner of an auto repair center, the Gateway location is a local goodie; the red and yellow walls are demarcated by framed folk art and the occasional crucifix. It's busy at three in the afternoon on a Thursday, the chatter of the locals and of the radio in Spanish.
The salsa bar contains the usual chopped and diced magnificence, featuring a chunky red pico de gallo with a sting, a surly scarlet, and a sly green that refuses to take a back seat. The tortillas are made on the premises, honest and slightly puffy.
What to do, what to do... the soft tacos al carbon are minimalist works of art, with cubed meat--and nothing else--piled on the homemade tortillas; add salsa, cilantro and onions yourself from the bar. The chicken is quite good, the carnitas slightly dry and aloof and carne asadan in its texture. Note insane tablecloth at left.
The adobada burrito is a brooding, spicy red porkly beast, barely contained within the tortilla; the meat-to-everything-else ratio is lower than at El Gran Burrito, but there's a nice quality to the guacamole and pinto beans mixed within. The burrito's structural cohesion broke down on the last third, and I (even I) had to use fork and knife to kill the beast.
Undecided about which meat to order? You can go halfsies, I'm told. Order a nearly-too-sweet jamaica or a tall, stately bottle of Mexican Coke to cool down the spicy bits.
The parking lot is small and shared with the auto repair shops; escaping from it can be trying during rush hour, what with the soup-line of cars waiting to pour onto Pico.
* I always appreciate untranslatable punnery: David está comiendo...
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Mexican, West Side/West Hollywood, Santa Monica/Culver City )
My Kind of Mexican Restaurant
3447 N. Verdugo Road (in Montrose)
Phone: 818-957-2711 | map
Do this: drive up Glendale Blvd. until it turns into Verdugo. Drive up Verdugo until it swerves left into Cañada Blvd. Continue until it serves back into Verdugo. Make a U-turn at Chiquita Place. By this point you're slightly lost but flirting with Montrose, and hopefully looking at the La Cabañita awning. Locals know this place, and rave about it.
The restaurant is separated into two comfortable rooms, replete with hardy rustic chairs, square tiled tables and a moody pastoral wall mural. Mariachi horns and choruses thrum overhead. It feels really, really comfortable; I dig this.
Whatever their kitchen does, it's deeply homey and satisfying. The chips are very very crunchy and shiny and sturdy the way I like them. Load-bearing chips. They are nearly overdone but benefit from that slightly burnt, corn essence. There are two salsas: a dark russet that provokes runny noses, and a thick green.
On my first visit I tried a pair of soft tacos, both piled high on sturdy corn tortillas. The carnitas (onions and cilantro) are a little more savory than the chicken (lettuce and crumbled white cheese), and both benefit from some pico de gallo shaken over them. The black beans are souplike and luscious, the short-grained rice a perfect accompaniment. Flavor erupts all over the tongue.
All this with an iced tea falls under a lunch special that, with a 20% tip, arrives at eleven bucks... and there's so much more to explore on the menu.
I'm typing hungry right now, which means 1) I'm going quickly, and 2) my descriptions suck because I'm overwhelmed with the thought of coming here again.
There doesn't seem to be much parking, but it's a quiet, near-residential street, so there's hope. Anywhere there's a Mexican restaurant with a diacritical tilde in the name, there's hope, my friends.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Mexican, Glendale/Atwater/Eagle Rock )
There are quite a few locations, more a series of cultural holes in the wall than a chain per se. Ours on Sunset, next to La Parrilla, is a little odd; there's an outdoor counter-order place, and an indoor restaurant. You want the outdoor stand, with the rickety aluminum chairs and tables. Grab a heavy bottle of Tapatio.
I have a guilty cholesteroholic craving for the empanada de camaron: flaky and still dripping from being freshly plucked from its boiling sea, rendered an unrecognizable dark red inside and utterly blissful. The fish tacos, also batter-fried to a post-atomic-bomb red, are fluffy and falling apart, in a very tasty corn tortilla. Some favor the ceviche tostada as a better bet, however.
The seven seas are all about the fish, o'course, but i always try an eatery's pastor burrito if they've got one... and they've got one, nearly forearm-size and of uncertain structural integrity. The pork is hearty and well-marinated, staining the tortilla with all kinds of oranges, yellows, browns and other indications that this onion/beans/corn/rice-laden mule will line your throat and stomach most satisfactorily.
Top all this with a coca mexicana--you know, with sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup--and you will be of practical use to no one for the remainder of the afternoon.
Hey, what happened to the website?
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Mexican, East Side/Downtown, Los Feliz/Silver Lake/Echo Park, Seafood )
The Feesh, He Eez Calling Me
422 E. 1st Street (Little Tokyo location)
Phone: 213-625-0566 | map
4803 Eagle Rock Blvd. (Eagle Rock location)
Phone: 323-257-7167 | map
Websites (neither very useful) 1 | 2
Too often I neglect the seafood of Pacific-side Mexico. All manner of pescado and camarones dishes escape my attention in favor of addictive beef and pork dishes. Yet the gilled, sombrero-toting hombre lounging on the hook is very understanding, and helps me to overcome this shameful dereliction of piscivorean duty.
Some reviewers say that the tacos are "smallish." I'm not terribly sure what they mean; I've seen smaller. The Ensenada-style fish taco is perfectly battered, lightly roofed with cabbage and guacamole, and has a lush aftertaste. The shrimp taco looks similar but of course has the slight toothsome bitterness of good shrimp.
The ringleader of this icthyo-themed circus is the ponderous Callo de Hacha, the scallop burrito (although they have highly recommended scallop tacos too). Dense, warm and loving like a heavyset abuela, its half-dollar-sized scallops are a little softer and have less snap than scallop sashimi. I find myself exhaustedly, helplessly eating beyond the "Comfortably Full" marker.
The salsa bar has a lot of goodies, including a white sauce for your fish tacos, a marmalade-esque medium red, and a pumpkin-colored nemesis. They do have addictive beef and pork dishes, too, if you're fish-avoidant.
The Little Tokyo location is a dingy little corner restaurant, that recently expanded and cleaned itself up so that it's a dingy little corner restaurant with a trendy cantina attached. Oddly enough the restaurant isn't open terribly late (about 9pm) despite the music and drinks next door.
The Eagle Rock location is a Craftsman house, painted olive green and cornflower blue, surrounded by a beautiful tree-shrouded patio. There are other Señor Fishes (or, um, Los Señores Fish?) in South Pasadena, Alhambra, and Duarte. Please go introduce yourself.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Mexican, East Side/Downtown, Glendale/Atwater/Eagle Rock, Seafood )