Thursday, November 15, 2007
A few weeks ago, I wandered over to MacArthur Park and hit the tamale festival! I was even thinking about going back again the next day for the one treat I missed, and then I realized that I would have to be crazy to do that. Besides tamales, there were tortas, tacos, pupusas the size of LP records, and even some new things I had never ever seen before!
Let the fun begin!
I personally feel like tamales are like meatloaf. The tamale you grew up with is the tamale by which you judge all other tamales. It doesn't matter if it was from the church, a neighbor, the lady with the grocery cart, or if you are lucky, your family (and if you are unlucky, the grocery store. Poor thing).
The first stand we tried were the tamales from one of the event organizers, Mama's Hot Tamales Cafe. They definitely had friendly servers, in spite of the long day and long lines.
As for the tamales, the masa was extremely fluffy with good texture, but they weren't like MY tamales. I add red sauce and the pan drippings to my masa to make it heavier and richer. So fluffiness is not my thing, but I know that is many people's preferred style. They seemed to be overwhelmed, as was every booth. They needed about 10 more food vendors. Each line was about 30 people long.
The tamales suffered a little for the overwhelming rush. They were uneven (as homemade tamales usually are). The masa in Bob's chile verde tamale was still mushy and raw. he returned it for a chicken with green sauce, and was happy with that. I thought my beef with pasilla was a little skimpy on the meat and heavy on the masa. Of course, that again is relative and I know people who will argue about the proper masa vs. filling ratio for much longer than you care to listen. The mole tamale was fair to middling.
But Mama's chile queso tamale blew me away. It was the perfect tamale. Lots of cheese and just the right kick from red jalapenos. The cheese kind of reminded me of Asadero, the cheese in the market that is just labeled "Quesedilla". I tried to find out what kind of cheese it was. They said, "Jack" but it was too stringy and rich. Finally I asked an old lady inside if it was queso fresco and she nodded. I am thinking Chihuahua maybe? Maybe it was a combo of different cheeses. That is definitely the tamale to go for if you only have one tamale this year.
Tamales innards do not photograph well. hence my hesitation with the tamale eating contest. This is the beef tamale I tried to cut open daintily with my jagged plastic fork:
He is so patient.
There was entertainment all day. Some of the daytime performers didn't get much of a crowd. Some of them were upstaged by the giant sign. But he had heart.
Unlike some street festivals, the streets were kept clean of debris and trash didn't pile up. In spite of a lack of tables, the park has so many walls to sit on, and of course there was grass. Some people just plopped right down on the curb.
All of the food vendors had really long lines. So we made lots of new friends. One of my new friends showed up with this tamale and was very unhappy. I bit a crispy edge, and I think it was overcooked rather than intentionally crispy. I didn't want to just tear apart this person's food, and the only way she could describe it was, "wrong." Most Central American tamales differ in size, wrappings and fillings, like green olives. I have certainly never seen a big, flat tamale before.
My new friend also turned me on to a whole new world: Cueritos Preparados. They take one, giant chicharrón and cover it with a salad and cueritos, which is pork skin marinated in vinegar. Pork skin on pork skin. It would be a lifesaver for anyone on the Atkins diet. Both the chicharrónes and Tostada bag in these pictures are perched on big jars of cueritos.
And if a giant Chicharrón is too inconvenient, you can have it served in a bag of Tostitos to easily eat while walking around the festival.
This is probably the most impressive flame and resultant smoke cloud i have seen come off of a grill. Now, that's a fire!
By the time I got to the front of the Mexico Lindo line, I discovered they didn't have tamales. But I didn't care because everything else looked so good. Especially my guilty pleasure - the bacon and jalapeno dog. The bacon makes the meaty dog even richer, greasier and smokier. This is the hotdog of the gods. Screw Pink's and everyone else. This will be my last meal if I ever go on that killing spree.
They also had the world's biggest pupusas, but I just couldn't hang. Besides the hotdog, I also got a taco pastor that was fantastic (and they let me dress it myself).
This guy must have been important, because he walked around back and all of the vendors gave him food. He was still cool enough to let me photograph his stash. Speaking of dignitaries, there was a list of invited city councilmembers on the website, and it was like a scavenger hunt for me trying to catch Tom LaBonge stuffing his face with tacos, or Bernard Parks going Chicharrón Wild. But no such luck. Maybe they will be in the tamale eating contest tomorrow!
That guy's stash turned me on to the shrimp cocktails and tostadas at Mi Linda Sinaloa.
Between eating binges, I wandered around taking lots of pictures of ducks and trees. I became fascinated with the vendors, and that will have to be its own post. I couldn't resist these children either, breaking my own rule about photographing children without asking their parents first. The second kid looks like he might have been being abducted, so maybe I am off the karmic hook.
Every fisherman has a story about the one that got away. By the time I made it back to Mexico Lindo during my rounds, the gigantic tortas were gone.
Look at them; they're monsters!
Sometimes it seems like the only people who actually eat at Taix are the musicians. Taix is kind enough to actually give the performing bands drink and meal tickets. I've never even eaten in the restaurant itself, but I've spent a lot of time in the homey wine bar, where I can listen to local bands while I dine. Whenever I cozy up in the warm brick-interior listening to the edgy jazz, I wonder why I don't come here every weekend.
From the street, Taix can give the impression that it is past its prime. Sometimes there is a fine line between a restaurant being an institution and being outdated. From the looks of it, one would expect heavy white sauces, ladles of butter, and bygone delicacies like duck a l'orange and seafood crepes. Nothing could be further from the truth. Taix is more of a countryside French bistro, serving soups, steaks, and even a throwing a few pastas into the mix. Choose from the menu wisely, and you can have one of the best meals in town at the best price in town. The weekend shows in the wine bar have given this place a much-needed shot in the arm and Taix has become happening again.
The Taix family first opened the restaurant in their downtown hotel in 1927 as a family-style chicken joint. It has been in its present location since 1962, and is now in the capable hands of Raymond Taix and his son Michael, who is the third generation of the family working in the restaurant.
I like Taix. I really like this place. It is amost "our place." Besides the nice comfy banquettes, funky wallpaper, and amber on tap, they have an award-winning wine list that includes some pricey vintages. The little wine bar would be so relaxing if the soundman didn't CRANK the music so loud between bands. I asked him once if he could turn it down just a tad. He snapped, "I already did." and walked outside. He came back in five minutes later and turned it up even louder. I have to say, in spite of the volume, the DJ does play some great stuff, obscure blues, a weird Tina Turner cover, and some songs you are going to have to pull out your Nuggets albums to look up. And I do owe him for rescuing my favorite coat one night when I left it on a chair.
I like Taix even more now that I have noticed their weird fake rose garden in the main dining room. It reminds me of the Madonna Inn. In the spring, the flowers change to wisteria and other pastel fakes.
Taix has simple appetizers; their cheese plate is about as basic as it gets. But when you are drinking and watching a good band, it is actually a much better snack than hot wings. I don't quite trust them enough yet to try the escargot. The place is too old-fashioned, and they are a little too inexpensive. The onion soup is rich, hearty and obscene with an overabundance of cheese. My friend Ralphie, who eats there an awful lot, swears by their Salade de Saumon (Poached salmon on mixed greens with marinated cucumbers).
The petite rack of lamb is excellent, if just a tad gamey. The dauphinoise potatoes that accompany the dish are spectacular. The aged New York steak is tender and meaty, but a bit generous in addition to a soup or appetizer. I usually can't finish it. The braised short ribs are served in a rich reduction and fall right off the bone. In fact, the short ribs may be the best item on their menu. Unfortunately, the bistek is disappointing. On the night I tried it, the charred edges gave off a slight fishiness, as though the steak had been cooked right on the heels of a salmon (Salmon have heels?). I am also not fond of the Maitre d’hôtel butter on the steak, which contains far too much parsley for me.
The Pennettes Monégasque (Penne pasta with tomatoes, garlic, basil and olive oil) and Poitrine de Poulet Frais Grillée Diable (Grilled fresh breast of chicken with mustard, garlic shallots, capers, lemon butter sauce) are both good choices if you are not in the mood for steak. But I have to say, the braised short ribs and New York steak have stolen the show for me every time.
The daily specials pique my interest, but I always end up there on a weekend. So I have yet to try the Rabbit. And they have been roasting chicken for what, eighty years? So it must have been perfected by now. If nothing else, the specials are certainly reasonable:
Monday - Our famouse Taix roast chicken with Bordelaise Sauce - $10.95
Tuesday - Coq au Vin: Traditional French dish of chicken simmered in red wine with mushrooms- $10.95
Wednesday- Braised lamb shank - $14.95
Thursday - Tender roast pork loin - $11.95
Friday - Braised short ribs simmered in Cabernet with carrots $14.95
After the bands start, it can become difficult to find your waitress. They don't want to interrupt the entertainment. So I often end up having to crash the little cashier area in the back of the bar to ask for the check or order another round of drinks.
In spite of the slight irritations of earsplitting mood music and disappearing waitresses, I still love Taix. On a recent night, I was sinking into my chair with my belly full of steak. The Atomic Sherpas started playing, and we finally got another round of beers. The girls all started dancing, and it was a beautiful night. At one point, the Sherpas were playing a very slow, sappy song. I looked around around the table and we all exchanged easy smiles. Everyone had that contented, vaguely stoned look of peace and satiety. I felt so warm, full of good food, listening to good music, and surrounded by friends. It occured to me that this was one of those moments I would remember for a long time.
Live music Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Usually post-punk free-form jazz bands.
1911 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90026
( I guess it is officially called the 321 Lounge, but everyone I know calls it The Wine Bar).
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
I just got back from Sebastian's in Burbank, the latest restaurant to be crucified by Gordon Ramsey, get buried, and come out all shiny and new on Kitchen Nightmares. When I walked into the dining room I was absolutely giddy, "There he is! The guy who yells! he just greeted me! The guy who yells just greeted me!" I had to run into the bathroom and call my friend, Lynn, who I was planning to meet because I was so excited about the Moody Chef. She asked incredulously, "Are you calling from the BATHROOM? I'm standing out here waiting for you!" Neither Lou nor the cute waitress were there.
One of the 2 bathroom stalls was out of order, and whatever was going on caused a dip in the floor that they had attempted to cover up with a rug. I tripped on it twice. I can't imagine what will happen when some old lady breaks her hip.
Of course I walked in just looking for problems. The tablecloth had black charred dust on it, there was a very, very dead rose in one of the vases, and my bread plate was chipped (we never received any bread to put on the bread plates). The menu was also covered with a light dusting of powder, and I could only assume it was from the pizza ovens. At one point the entire place filled with a plume of smoke, and all of the doors had to be opened.
My friend, Lynn, is also a super-picky food critic. I said, "You know, with all of these Ramsay restaurants it seems to be attention to detail. How hard would it be to throw away that shriveled black rose? They don't see it?" Lynn pointed out, "There is a Trader Joe's selling flowers ACROSS THE STREET." I also noticed a hole where the wall had been opened up near the floor and some electrical pipe was exposed. A work in progress. They can't hide that? Ramsey would be SO MAD his forehead would wrinkle up like a sharpei!!!
The menu, which was once a confusion of -
"Pick a flavor"
"Pick a meat"
"Pick whether it should be a sandwich, salad, or main dish"
had been pared down. Now there were a few appetizers, and about 6 salads. The pizzas and sandwiches still had the weird flavor combo thing. At some point Moody Chef (Was his name Sebastian? I don't know) overheard me say, "I want steak AND hot wings". He pointed out that I could have a sandwich with the "flavor combination" of buffalo wings and steak. What? Ugh. Buffalo steak? Can't people just TELL what flavors don't go together? Every single sandwich - Parmigiana, etc, would have been fine with chicken, but with steak or portabella? No thank you. Bad combinations.
My friend pointed out that every flavor combination on the sandwiches and pizzas contained just one ingredient too many. It almost sounded good, and then - gorgonzola? No! Everything had one extraneous flavor that ruined it. It seemed like there was still some serious denial happening with Moody Chef.
We ordered buffalo wings, which were mushy and unevenly coated. My friend assumed they were frozen. Probably. I'm so used to Sysco foods coming out of kitchens everywhere, and all of the fish and meats from freezers, it's sometimes hard to tell. I'm almost becoming desensitized to the subtleties of texture other than "Bad". My palate, however, is still super-sensitive and the chicken was obviously fried in the same oil as the fish.
We split a bacon-cheddar-mozzarella-red onion pizza that Lynn invented from the make-your-own-pizza section. Moody chef was tossing the pizzas himself. The dough was fantastic. Cheddar and bacon were ingenious on a pizza. But the underside of the dough had a black, charred oiliness towards the center that left a pool of oil the color of absinthe on the plate. Not very appetizing.
We had asked to have the steak halved in the kitchen for us. It arrived in one piece with some nice new potatoes and an odd nouvelle cuisine sculpture of vegetables. Lynn mumbled something about them not splitting it for us as we'd asked and Moody Chef ran right over. Which meant he was listening to every word we said. The steak, which we assumed was a Ramsay dish, was half-excellent and half-awful. The tender part of the steak was nicely seasoned and one of the best steaks I've had lately. The rest was fat and gristle.
At one point Moody Chef came over to chat, and asked if we'd seen the show. I started in on it, and my friend later said she would never have admitted it to him. But I wanted to see what he would say. He said, "You know that show is not real, don't you?" Oh Boy!!!! This was getting good! He continued, "We don't even own a microwave. They brought in the microwave for the crew to warm up their meals, and then pretended it was mine."
I said, "It did seem like your moods changed very quickly, so there must have been some serious editing." He said, "All the yelling you see, that was late at night, when the restaurant was closed. You'll notice, when I walk off it's night and I'm wearing a black jacket, then magically I'm wearing a white jacket and it's daytime."
I said, "Well, every show has a story arc where he has to break the manager or cook or whoever for them to finally accept the changes. Did he really yell in your face?" The diner at the next table, with a heavy accent, said, "Your nice steak is getting cold." Fuck the steak. I didn't care about the steak. This was the good stuff here. Then Moody Cook said, "Yeah, I'll come back. We'll talk after you eat." Damn! Damn! Damn! Lost him.
I told my friend, who is officially blogging the story, "I wish you didn't have dibs on this one. It's getting good." She was tepid, "It's OK." I asked, "Can't you smell the blood? I feel like a shark sensing blood in the water!!!"
At the end of the meal, when the restaurant was full and he was clearly busy, he asked how the meal was. I said, "It's a shame I can see you're too busy to chat now." My friend gave him her card and said she'd like to talk. He said something about the menu. I said, "No. We're not interested in a review. We're interested in your experience with the show." (Really, I have a lot of questions. How did they get picked, how long was the crew there? How much was Ramsay there and how much was it just the crew? How often did Ransay yell at him? What else did he think was staged?). He said, "I might not be able to say much because of my contract."
I asked, "Ramsay made you sign a contract?"
"Sort of, see, I'm gonna have my own show."
"Like Rocco DiSpirito?"
"No, well, like..."
"Like a cooking show at the cooking network?"
"Well, I can't say...the contract."
As we left I called out, "Good luck with the umm thing!"
I didn't mention that they don't pick people for reality shows because they really have their shit together.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
If you are on the Westside and thinking pastrami, you are probably thinking about Johnnie's on Sepulveda. If you are in South Los Angeles and you are thinking pastrami, you are definitely thinking about Johnny's on Adams. That's Johnny's with a "Y". Two blocks East of Crenshaw, Johnny's is conveniently located just a few blocks off the 10 freeway. This neighborhood stand has been serving up giant, monolithic pastrami dips since 1956.
Even though we are calling this series "Late Night Eats" I know that you know, and you know that I know, that what we are really talking about here is drunk food. So after testing out the "best martinis in LA" over at Liquid Kitty last Saturday night (purely research for this blog of course), my husband (and sober driver) took me over to Johnny's.
At 2:30am on Saturday night, there were about twelve people waiting outside and three women cooking like mad in the kitchen. Everyone in line was really polite, saying things like, "Oh no, after you, I believe you were here first." Everybody knew the bars had just closed. And everybody was acting like they weren't sure if one of the people in line might be drunk and crazy, and they weren't going to be the one to find out. Little did they know that on this particular night I was the drunk and crazy one.
I overheard the counterperson telling the guy in front of me something about gunshots the night before. He made a sympathetic "tutut" noise before grabbing his food and moving on. The protocol at Johnny's is that you place your order, then hover around the window. When your order is ready, they pass you a plastic french fry basket and you put your money in it. Then they give you your change with your order. (UPDATE 2009 Shooting at Johnny's)
I took advantage of my hovering time to watch them cook and ask if I could snap a few pictures. I was also eavesdropping to see if I could find out what had happened the night before. My blatant eavesdropping and nosy questions did not seem to please the cook (I heard the word "Koolaid" in her grumbling. So I said, "You're RIGHT. I DON'T know what flavor it is. So why don't you tell me?"). The counterperson cut me off and told me, "Oh, we're just talking about a television show." She clearly had experience in talking to drunk and crazy people. It's not like one stray bullet is going to stop me from going to Johnny's. Not unless it hits me right in the ass, which was probably what the cook was hoping would happen right about then.
I usually just get the pastrami, but for the sake of this review I had ordered more of a variety. I noticed they had just added a fish sandwich to the menu. If it was a catfish sandwich, it would have made my entire night. I probably would have done a little dance. When I asked about it, the finality with which they said, "We're out of tartar sauce." made me not even consider asking for one without tartar sauce. So I got the usual pastrami - piled deli high on a lightly dipped french roll, dressed simply with mustard along with a side of dill pickles and peppers. You can also ask for it double-dipped, but I prefer a light hand with the au jus to avoid soggy bread. The pastrami that bursts from the overstuffed roll is lean and peppery, with just the right amount of grease.
The pastrami burger also cannot contain the overabundance of salty, fatty meat (Yes, that's right, a pastrami burger. Are you warming up the car yet?). They also serve hot links, hot dogs, tamales, and tacos. But honestly, their short menu could be even shorter. If you're at Johnny's it's because you're craving pastrami. And they are going to make sure you get plenty of it. To satisfy your sweet tooth, there is sweet potato pie and Sock-it-to-me cake.
The vodka in me decided to also order a side of chili fries. I'm sorry there is not a picture, but it is very difficult to get an appetizing photo of a big pile of chili under flourescent lights. I couldn't wait until we got home to bust into the fries. The chili was pretty much straight ground beef dampened with a well-seasoned sauce. The fries tucked beneath were still hot and crispy. It was the most wonderful thing I had ever eaten. The nectar of the gods. Angels breath. As the car took a sharp corner, I had to weave carefully not to spill the generous container. I nagged, "Woah, watch it on those curves there, buddy." He said, "I can drive just fine. I'm not the one who's drunk." I said, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry you're not drunk and eating these delicious fries." And I really did feel sorry for him. At that moment I was genuinely sorry for every single person that wasn't zooming around the old Pasadena freeway, nursing a nice buzz while eating the greatest chili fries in the entire world.
Johnny's Pastrami on Adams
(4331 West Adams Blvd. (323) 734-6003
Open 24 hours, 7 days a week. Cash only.
Thursday, November 8, 2007
For the fifth year in a row, Liquid Kitty on Pico has won Citysearch's title of Best Martini in LA.
Liquid Kitty harkens back to LA's dark, Chandleresque side, with dim lights and strong drinks. It reminds me of both the rat pack martini bar Olive, and a little bit of Yee Mee Loo's, an historic Chinatown bar. The Hollywood speakeasy feel is enhanced by the lack of any kind of sign out front with their name on it. Just keep an eye out for the blinking neon martini glass and cigarette.
Every drink at Liquid Kitty is a double. So arrange your sober driver beforehand, because these drinks can really sneak up on you. Especially the dazzling array of sweet, brightly colored cocktails. They may be served in martini glasses, but they are still cocktails - proprietor Dave Childs is a martini purist, "A martini is either vodka or gin with a tiny amount of vermouth." Period. That doesn't mean you have to lose your sense of humor though. "The Liquid Kitty" is a Ketel-One martini with a Camel cigarette (no filter) on the side.
In the early 90's, LA was still struggling with the remnants of cheesy yuppie bars, and all of the old tiki bars were closing down. Feeling like there were no cool bars on the Westside, musician Dave Childs and his old high school friend Cedd Moses started looking for a space where they could open a bar to fill the void. They found out the former punk Club 88 was for lease, and went to check it out. They noticed a bar next door with a 'for rent' sign. They called the owner and ended up buying the place.
Dave and Cedd teamed up with Ricki Kline to design the cool interior. The theme was drinking and smoking, low light and cool music. There once was a time when they also could have won "Smokiest bar in LA". Over time, Cedd shifted his focus downtown to open Golden Gopher, Broadway Bar and Seven Grand. Now Dave is the owner, mixologist, sometimes DJ, raconteur and he might occasionally do an impersonation of the old Zachary All commercials if you ask really, really nicely (Portly long, portly short...cadet. Come on down and see us).
Your proprieter, Dave Childs, and his wife Lynn
Even the bouncers are friendly.
They are all about the music at Liquid Kitty. Monday night is karaoke, and DJs spin during the week. But sometimes they mix it up with a little Guitar Hero or I-Pod nights where you can DJ for 20 minutes from your I-Pod. If they like your stuff, you get a free drink. Every Sunday features live music, primarily old-school funk and blues, with the likes of Carlos Guitarlos and Jake Labotz. Live music is not limited to Sundays, and every once in awhile the Blasters make a super-secret appearance. Stay up to date with their calendar, and sign up for their Yahoo group here. Or become their friend. Every summer, Liquid Kitty throws a Punk Rock BBQ. Check out Heath's post from last summer's BBQ.
This is Saccharine Trust rocking out the Punk Rock BBQ the year before:
The clientele is extremely classy and refined. Especially when those deceptively pretty drinks are flowing.
Sometimes finding a favorite place can be as simple as liking the wallpaper in the ladies room
In spite of their traditional martini philosophy, they certainly don't slouch in the cocktail department. I usually end up drinking about half the colors of the rainbow in one night. Seen above is the Harold and Maude, Rum, banana liqueur, sweet-and-sour and pineapple. Besides the Liquid Kitty and the Harold and Maude, they have started making a very dangerous, yet refreshing mojito. They make old-fashioned tiki drinks, a manhattan called the Travis Bickle and stock single malts like 12-year-old Macallan and 10-year-old Glenmorangie. But perhaps their most popular drink is the Lowlife: a well shot with a Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Parking used to be kind of a pain, but they have valets now and it's well worth it. Now there's nothing not to like about Liquid Kitty. In fact, a guy opening a bar in Chicago liked the name so much he took the name, even though they aren't affiliated. The name Liquid Kitty comes from an old inside joke about a drunk guy trying to discuss finances who couldn't pronounce "liquidity."
Although not everyone buys that story. One night I had dinner at my mom's, then planned on stopping by Liquid Kitty on the way home. My brother told me that after I left my 72 year-old mom told him smugly, 'Elise thinks I don't know what that that means."
Liquid Kitty 11780 W. Pico Blvd, Los Angeles 90064 (between Bundy and Barrington) MAP
Open 7 nights a week, Mon-Fri 6pm to 2am, Sat-Sun 8pm-2am. 310-473-3707.
No cover any night, 21 & over (and they have a bartender who knows ASL)
Friday, November 2, 2007
Sometimes I think the sign out front ought to read:
EL INDIO: PROUDLY HELPING DRUNKS SOAK UP THE ALCOHOL FOR OVER 30 YEARS!
24-hours a day, this Northridge taco stand buzzes with a steady stream of policemen, students, and blue collar joes. But El Indio really starts hopping after the bars close down. Everyone in the valley knows this is the hotspot for post-party tacos. I secretly enjoy eavesdropping on packs of club-hopping young men drunkenly nursing their bruised egos with a hefty side order of sour grapes, "That chick wasn't even that hot. I wouldn't have gone out with her anyways." Personally, I think they're far better off with the carne asada tacos.
I often wander up to the window early in the morning, somewhere between 3am and 6am. At this hour, when restaurants usually stick me with last night's leftovers, El Indio is still willing to freshly cook up anything on the menu. They also patiently put up with my mangled Spanish. (Please understand that all of the conversations I am about to recount here took place in broken Spanish).
The menu has the usual tacos and burritos, along with homemade sopes and gorditas. For fillings, there are the obligatory carnitas, machaca and carne asada, but nothing here is just run-of-the-mill. El Indio's carne asada never has a trace of fat or gristle. The carnitas manage to hit the perfect balance of crispy and moist, but sometimes they can be just a little dry depending on the hour. The machaca, or shredded beef, is served straight up for tacos, and scrambled with eggs for the breakfast selections. I have also found the machaca taco a tad dry at times, but it's nothing smothering them in frijoles wouldn't fix. The Milanesa is a pounded steak, breaded and deep-fried, kind of the chicken-fried steak of tacos. Again, El Indio kicks ass in this department. Their Milanesa is peerless.
Another place where El Indio rises above the herd is with their refried beans. Frijoles are such a humble ingredient, yet such a critical element for building the perfect burrito. One night I was complimenting the cook on the creamy consistency of the frijoles. I mentioned that they must use a lot of manteca. He said, "Without manteca, they're not beans." They cook the frijoles up in the biggest pot in the world.
El Indio, like Michoacan, is a very common name for taquerias. I also frequent an unrelated place called El Indio on Artesia in Redondo Beach. It's almost like saying, "Mom's Place" or "Joe''s Diner". There are three restaurants in the Valley called El Indio. There is an El Indio Azteca on Roscoe off of Tampa and another on Devonshire near Haskell in Granada Hills. Do not be confused by look-alikes. I am talking about the El Indio at 17019 Roscoe Blvd, just East of Balboa. One day I asked one of the workers, "There are three El Indios? With one jefe? One dueno?" He insisted, "There is only ONE El Indio." I asked about the ones on Roscoe and Devonshire. He repeated, a little pissed off, "There is only ONE." I asked, "Solamente?" And he proclaimed, "Solamente!".
Front to back: tacos milanesa, machaca, carne asada and buche:
El Indio's piece de resistance, the one thing that keeps me coming back 24 hours a day, is the chile relleno burrito (Imagine a choir of angels singing here). A perfectly cooked omelette wraps around the cheese-stuffed chile like a lover's embrace. The creamy fat in the beans makes them so much more than the perfect foil. If this were a Hollywood-style burrito love story, this is the part where the burrito would tell the frijoles, "You complete me." The chiles are not too hot, and there are never any seeds. Many a chile relleno has been ruined by the lazy shortcut of not scraping out the seeds. On my recent photographic expedition, I asked the cook to cut the burrito in half so I could take a picture of the beautiful inside. I was surprised to find something orange. The chile was orange. I asked the cook about it and he said, "Yeah, it's usually (he tried to think of the color in English and then just pointed at his red shirt). I said, "But it's supposed to be (and pointed at my green sweater). Chiles change color as they ripen, so really, you never can tell. I asked "Pasilla?" and he nodded. I could tell he was just humoring me. He was clearly at the point of, "Look, lady, it's just a chile. Let it go."
Amongst taco connoisseurs, El Indio is known for their fantastic buche, which is something you can't find at just any old taco stand. Buche is fried pig's stomach (although I am told that in some areas the term is used to refer to beef cheeks or throat). In spite of the fact that the flavor of organ meats is often too intense for me, I'm willing to try anything once. Buche kind of looks like pig's ears. The meat is neither soft like lengua and sesos, nor tough like cabeza. The taco tastes pretty average at first, like any old taco. As you continue chewing, the sinister gaminess of organ meat slowly rises up and carries you over to the culinary dark side. Compared to other foods I have eaten, I would say it reminded me the most of ox heart. A very pork-y ox heart.
As I was leaving, I stopped to say goodbye at the window. I asked the cook if I could see one of the chiles they use in the rellenos. When he brought out a bell pepper, I was floored. I couldn't believe that all this time it had been sweet bell pepper, not even the semi-wimpy Anaheim green chile. I'm not into sesos or buche, and now I discover that my favorite chile relleno is a stuffed sweet bell pepper? I think the Minutemen said it best:
I Felt Like a Gringo
17019 Roscoe Northridge (Just East of Balboa)
Open 24-hours. Cash and credit accepted.
All photos by Elise for LAist
I Felt Like a Gringo from Ballot Result by the Minutemen