Sunday, September 9, 2007

Los Angeles, day 3

Late Thursday morning I was headed for the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City when I happened to pass a Oaxacan place I had heard about and stopped in to check it out. It's more of a restaurant than a stand, and I took a seat in the semi-outdoor dining room, which is separated from Venice Ave by only a clear plastic wall and a bus stop.

I told the waitress I wasn't very hungry, but that I wanted to try something particularly Oaxacan. She was happy to make a couple of suggestions, and I decided on a memela, one taco de tazajo, and a glass of horchata. In a moment she returned with the horchata, along with fresh chips and some delicious crisp, spicy, dark salsa, which was surprisingly refreshing in the heat of the morning in the basin.

The memela, a thick fresh corn tortilla covered in beans, lard, and cheese, was fantastic. And the tezajo, beef cooked in the regional style, was also good, even if a little tough.

But the highlight of the meal really was the horchata: quite sweet, but still distinctly ricey, and topped with a pinch of crushed nuts - easily the best I've had.

I had hoped to pick up a sweet tamal to go, but unfortunately they wouldn't be done for another hour. I thanked my hosts for the good meal - and the horchata in particular - and contently got back into the traffic. I didn't even really mind that the museum was closed.

Los Angeles, day 2

After work Wednesday, I headed to Los Feliz to check out a taco stand on Hillhurst Ave recommended by my friend Jack.

Yuca's was opened by Jaime and Socorro Herrera in 1976 and has been meet with great praise almost ever since. Hanging out at my table in the canopied dining area for just a short time, I could tell this taco stand was a staple of the mostly norteamericano neighborhood surrounding it.

Given that Yuca's specializes in Yucatan style cuisine, I decided on tacos de cochinita pibil. The tortillas may not have been handmade, but they were good, and they were doubled up, which I always apppreciate. And the shredded pork was wonderfully fruity and more tender than any I think I've had. Altogether, a great meal.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Los Angeles, day 1

Last week, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days in Southern California. Having never seen that part of the country, I was pretty excited about the trip - to see the desert, the Pacific Coast Highway, and of course, the tacos.

I arrived late Tuesday afternoon, dropped off my things at the hotel, and headed straight to East Los Angeles, intending to check out King Taco, an old chain of LA taco stands that seems to be well-loved. I pulled onto Olympic Blvd around dusk and there, among the smog emission stations and carnicerias, taco trucks were lining up for business along the sidewalks, and I changed my mind. My first stop was El Korita.

I was a little self concious in my flashy rental car, and being the only gringo on the block, but the warm smile of the man walking up to the truck at the same time and offering for me to order first (wearing a black shirt in the photo) put me right at ease. I ordered one taco al pastor and one de lengua, then stepped into the grocery across the parking lot for a bottle of Coke.

In no time my tacos were ready, and served through the window of the truck in beautiful, fresh, handmade tortillas with onions and cilantro. The lengua was tender and delicious, and the pastor, mildly sweet and spicy and juicy and cut from the rotisserie behind the window of the truck and, may have been the best I've had.

Dinner on the trunk of my rental car:

Though satisfied from El Korita, I was excited to try more, so I stopped at a truck across the boulevard and ordered two more - one chorizo and another al pastor. The man preparing the food signed through the window to ask whether I wanted roasted jalapeños and onions and I smiled back and nodded yes. I picked up the tacos and got back on the freeway.

As the sun went down, I drove west toward Santa Monica and took in the city. I parked on the pier, found an empty bench by some guys fishing, and sat down for the rest of my meal. The tacos may have suffered a little from the forty minutes in the car, but along with the friendly faces on the pier and the cool ocean air, it all made for a great welcome to the west coast.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Los Parados

I found myself on Ashley Phosphate Rd yesterday afternoon and stopped by Los Parados, an old favorite spot that I hadn't visited in almost a year. In that time they've grown from a small place with a few tables and a bar looking into the open kitchen to a much larger restaurant that includes the adjacent storefront. Thankfully, their delicious tacos al pastor seem not to have changed a bit.

Saturday, August 25, 2007


Went to El Progresso again this week, mostly because my friend likes one of the waitresses there. The agua fresca and the tacos were alright, but I think I'll wait until tamale season to return again.

The churros we picked up at La Tapatia on the way back downtown, on the other hand, were great. And the pan dulce made an excellent early breakfast the next day.

Still no more signs of the taco van at the College. Maybe it was a mirage.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

El Progreso

For lunch today, my friends the Petitpain brothers and I headed to Rivers Ave to visit La Cabaña, a Mexican place we've passed many times, but never tried. It wasn't open yet, though, so we kept driving north along Rivers and turned onto Remount Rd, looking for another new place to check out. Also wanting to escape the heat, we passed a few taco trucks and eventually settled on a restaurant called El Progreso, situated next to an old strip mall which is home to a few other Latin-American businesses.

The dining room was busy, with a lot of the customers eating from the buffet. Our waitress spoke excellent English, and was able to easily answer the few questions we had. (When I asked for a translation of "cachete," though, she moved her eyes around as she searched for the word, then smiled, shrugged, and pinched her cheek.) The buffet did look pretty good, but we all ordered tacos and sopes from the menu; somehow tacos al pastor are always the first thing I want to try at a new place. Once we had ordered, we sat back at our corner table, drinking our agua de tamarindo and exchanging smiles with the women making tortillas in the kitchen while we waited for our food.

The pastor was alright, but quite different than any of us had tried before; it was a little more spicy and it seemed to be cooked in a sauce. (I asked the waitress whether this was a regional variation, but she didn't really have an answer.) Honestly, I doubt I would order it again. But the tortillas and the cachete on my sope were pretty good; between that and the warm atmosphere, and the promise of tamales de puerco on the buffet, I'm sure we'll visit again.

When we went to the counter to pay, I started to tell the woman at the cash register, what I'd ordered.

"Dos tacos y..."

"And one sope and an agua fresca?"

I smiled and said, "yeah."

Now thinking that she spoke English, I asked whether they were open every day of the week, but she only furrowed her brow and called our waitress over to answer. Sometimes there's a nice give and take to even an awkward conversation on the border.

On the way back downtown we stopped in at La Tapatia to try a churro and I picked up some pan dulce for breakfast tomorrow.

Monday, August 13, 2007

New Favorites

When taking a friend on their maiden visit to an obscure lunch spot I've raved about, I always have my fingers crossed that it'll be a good day in the kitchen. So when I met my pal Jonathan out at El Palenque this weekend, after a couple of months of building anticipation, I was especially happy to be served some of the finer tacos I've had there - fresh tortillas, and cabeza and pastor de puerco at their best. The only small disappointment was that the Coca-Cola Jonathan ordered was the familiar, norteamericano variety and not Mexican Coke, which is typically made with sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup. Altogether, we had a fantastic meal, and I think he's hooked.

On the way there I stopped in at a panaderia in the shopping center just a little further along Remount Rd. La Tapatia is a little grocery and bakery with a beautiful display of various pan dulce, bolillos, churros and other delicacies. With the help of a man who was doing some repair work in the kitchen, I picked out two pieces of pan dulce for breakfast the next day. The two women at the counter were friendly, and enthusiastically asked me if I knew Spanish; I told them I was trying to learn.

Monday, August 6, 2007


Had lunch today at one of my favorite spots; el Palenque is a restaurant and butcher shop on Remount Rd, in the heart of North Charleston's spanish-speaking community. I hadn't been there in a few weeks, and I was a little disappointed to see that they had replaced their very cool graffiti style painted sign ("Restaurante y Carniceria", "Tenemos mariscos") with a much more conservative one. But the tortillas and chorizo were fresh and the cabeza, which I had never tried before, was delicious. El Palenque's aguas frescas are always good, and intense heat of the afternoon made the agua de melon especially refreshing.

On the way we stopped by our most long-running favorite, Las Lupitas, but found them still closed for renovation..

Last week I spotted two women selling sopes and boxed lunches out of the back of an unmarked van parked at a construction site on the College of Charleston campus. It's not exactly a taco truck, and prepared meals aren't quite as exciting as items made to order, but it was the first time I had seen what seemed like authentic Mexican food being served downtown. I stopped to talk for a minute, and they told me they would be there every day, but I haven't been able to go back and try it out yet. Maybe I'll make it by this week.

Saturday, July 28, 2007


Today, a few friends and I took a trip to Summerville to try out a little Japanese restaurant called Little Tokyo. It's a long drive from Charleston for a lunch break, but it had been passionately recommended by another friend, and we were all pretty curious.

The restaurant, which is attached to an Exxon station a few miles from downtown S'ville, is a clean, simple place with maybe six tables. It's owned by a Japanese woman, who welcomed us as we walked in, and her Honduran husband, who was hard at work artfully preparing food in the open kitchen. With the exception of a TV tuned in to Fox News, the atmosphere couldn't have been more friendly.

The menu is full of some very inviting traditional Japanese dishes (as well as a few apologetic American options like buffalo wings and steak with mashed potatoes), which made choosing difficult. I decided on the grilled yellowtail neck with ponzu sauce and a small plate of tempura squid to share with the table. All of our entrées included a small bowl of a mild and distinctly delicious soup of fish broth and a few noodles. I didn't see it listed on the menu, but it would certainly be worth ordering a larger serving on its own if possible.

The yellowtail neck was beautifully served with minced daikon - which the owner suggested adding to the sweet dipping sauce - as well as rice, slaw, broccoli salad and a slice of fresh melon. And it was delicious, as was just about everything we ordered, which included gyoza steamed dumplings, curried potato croquettes, and vegetable tempura, but I think the agreed favorite at the table was the yakisoba noodles, stir-fried with shrimp and vegetables in a sweet, rich sauce.

The couple that owns Little Tokyo moved to the area from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and opened the restaurant eleven months ago. New Orleans is also home to two of the guys a was there with - one of them a Katrina evacuee himself - which they shared as we were settling up. It's amazing to consider the ramifications that storm has had throughout our whole country - an awful lot of suffering, but also the opportunity for a group of people to share such a nice experience, in such an unlikely place, two years later.

We thanked our new acquaintances for the delicious meal and spent most of the forty-minute car ride back to Charleston talking about what we'd like to try the next time we have a good excuse to be in Summerville.

~Thanks are due to Molly Hayes for the fine photographs~

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


A few months ago, my friend Jonathan, after listening to me tell another story about the great meal I had enjoyed at one of my favorite taco trucks that afternoon, suggested that I start a lunch blog. I don't know that I had ever read a blog at that point - I somehow doubt that he had, either - but I got the idea. Now at last I've gotten around to it..

This week I ate at one of my favorite spots in the area, the El Jaliciense taco truck at Rosebank Farms on Johns Island. Besides serving the best quezadillas around, El Jaliciense also offers a beautiful atmosphere for enjoying their delightful Mexican cuisine. The truck is parked between a covered farmer's market and the adjacent crops, which lie just before the entrance to Kiawah and Seabrook Islands*. It's operated out of a restaurant on Ashley Phosphate Road up in North Charleston called El Apache.

I arrived a little after noon, and there were about ten customers - more than usual - ordering or already waiting for their food. I got in line and ordered my usual there, two quezadillas de pastor, and grabbed a bottle of Jarritos out of the cooler. The single shaded picnic table was occupied by a few guys from a concrete crew, so I sat on a bench and watched the chickens chase one another around the yard while I waited for my number to be called.

The tortillas and the meat at El Jaliciense are very good, but what sets their quezadillas apart is the addition of fresh greens, tomato, onion, and pickled jalapeño to the usual meat and cheese. I don't know whether it's the style of their cooks or it's simply how quezadillas are traditionally prepared in Jalisco. Whatever the case, the combination of the warm sweet pork and cheese with the crunch of the fresh vegetables makes for an beautifully balanced meal.

When I stopped to pay before leaving, I asked the woman taking orders if she spoke English. I wanted to ask whether they were ever parked there on Saturdays (a question too complicated for my nascent Spanish). For some reason I though she did, but she shook her head and referred me to the man preparing the food behind her. Disappointingly, the answer was no. I thanked them again for the delicious food and headed back to work.

*The establishment of these two gated developments in the 1970s paved the way for the continuing exploitation of what had been a rich and peaceful agricultural sea island community whose livelihood was symbiotic with that of nearby Charleston. The land where the truck parks is owned and worked by a middle aged white farmer whose ancestor is the namesake of the old drawbridge at the other end of the island. He's a kind and quiet man, but more than a little defiant in the face of the development. And though I know he enjoys El Jaliciense's tortas de asada, I've always suspected that he also gets at least some spiteful satisfaction out of helping to provide this fair and friendly place to eat for the hard working immigrant crews who labor inside the gates, where the taco trucks aren't allowed to go.