Friday, November 21, 2008

La Frontera:A taco tour of South Gate,Walnut Park, and Lynwood

Tacos El Gavilan, the night life, the low life

Tacos Rosa,la fiesta del barrio

TJ style tacos de birria de res, El Paisa

Suadero at El Gordo with stewed onion

A little bit of Mexico in Walnut Park, Tacos El Gordo

Tacoing in Los Angeles is normally an uninteresting endeavour for me.There are so many reasons why you can't find many exceptional taco stands or trucks in LA, at least not on par with what you would find in Mexico, but I also don't expect to find great tacos here.Carne asada and al pastor, the two most common selections at carretas and taquerias in LA are the easiest to mess up.Most LA stands have the wrong cut for carne asada,poor quality meat,and are not specialized; at a retail price of a dollar this is hard to pull off here in the US.Pastor should have a marinade made from scratch, be roasted on a spit, and cut properly by a specialist.These things just don't happen and the taquero is often leadened with too many types of meats to be good at any one.So, I go with organ meats or other fillings which usually work out OK from a good stand or truck.The tacos of arroz con chorizo, cochinita, and guiso de chicharron by la Veracruzana on Breed St. are excellent.

While cruising through South Gate, Huntington Park, and the environs looking at different restaurants I stumbled on some recent taco finds that led me to explore the street food scene down there a bit more.This area is where the new Mexican and Central American immigrants to LA are arriving, which makes it a prime location for excellent Mexican food, El Salvadorean, and Honduran among others.The 'hood has a definite reputation for gangs, drug dealers, and danger, especially Cudahy, which makes it an intriguing place for dining on the edge.My kind of place. But, don't believe the hype, check it out for yourself, it's a bustling family oriented community, more like Mexico than even East Los.Here are a few stops from my taco trek.

The tacos:
El Paisa-Lynwood
El Paisa in Lynwood is the mothership of a small chain of Sinaloan seafood restaurants around Los Angeles.On weekends, El Paisa's small taqueria across the street from Mariscos El Paisa serves Tijuana style tacos de birria de res.The largest internal immigrant presence in TJ are Sinaloans, and the neighborhood around South Gate is full of Sinaloan restaurants, hence the connection.In TJ, Sundays mornings are for eating birria de res with friends and family, I have many favorite stands in Tijuana, and now I can count El Paisa as my go to place in LA for my fix.These of course are not as good as my favorites in TJ, but are solid, and are drenched with the traditional cumin upfront flavors and authenticity.Try 'em here and look 'em up when you cross the border.

El Gordo-Walnut Park(corner of Center/Santa Fe) daily 10AM-10PM?
This stand is a real Mexico style street stand.The dueno(owner) makes the meats at home and his taqueros work the stand.El Dueno hails from Colima and has brought his state's style of street tacos to the fine city of Walnut Park.The choices are suadero(some of the best around), asada, al pastor, buche,chorizo,and tripas.The meats are prepped and cooked at home, except the asada and al pastor, and then some are finished in a concave fryer on site with all the meat mingling together, apparently this is common in Colima.The result is dynamic flavors and melt in your mouth tenderness, the suadero is one of my favorite LA tacos right now.Salsas and condiments are fresh and delicious.There is a scene here, cars lined up, and hordes of people trickling in constantly, the requisite pirate DVD pitch man.The taqueros were friendly, but said no pictures, the boss' instructions.El gordito, the Dueno's son popped in to collect money from the taqueros at one point, with a mildly pompous demeanour,employees treading cautiously in their more sophisticated comebacks.Come to think of it, I think they called it El Gordito after the little stinker left!Haven't seen an operation like this around town.Usually there is an owner operator here in LA due to the economics of selling tacos.Business must be good!

Tacos Rosa(8451 Santa Fe at Poplar)-Walnut Park
Rosa is a sweet Salvadorean woman who has opened a taco stand on her front lawn.Ever been invited to a Latino graduation party or fiesta?Many times there is a taquero there cranking out hot and fresh tacos while "Te Quiero Wo" or "Camaron Pelao"blasts in the background.If you've never been privy to such an invitation here is your chance.Rosa worked in several Mexican restaurants, cooks like a Salvadorean mother, and with some tips from her local Mexican butcher has come up killer asada and birria de res.She asked if I wanted everything,"por supuesto", so she put a topping of frijoles bayos on top my tacos.Mmmmmmm!She's only open on weekends, maybe by 7PM.
Tacos El Gavilan-Huntington Park
I found a couple of late night taquerias in Huntington Park, the first one I stopped at had about 20 cops inside and out and 10 customers being held inside for questioning.Didn't get to try these.Then, Tacos El Gavilan is was.3 security guards(1 armed), 22 shaved head cholos, 5 Rancheros, and 30 loud-mouthed hienas.Tacos were awful, I had, well...... can't even remember .....they were that bad.Flavored wood chips on a stale tortilla.The salsas were probably canned alonside wilty, sad condiments.Never-the-less, the entertainment factor was high, a parade of cholas with coprolalia and clothes 3 sizes too small.There are no changing rooms at the Alley.Two drunk nacas even sat down at my table and then got mad at me because I told them they were welcome when one of their friends told them to move."Eh, sit here, that table is that fools" "Well, you're welcome to sit here" "sabes que %$#&$"Eh, did that fool tell you to leave" "No, I actually said she could stay" "oh" I would not have these tacos again, but the show? Maybe I'll go with a mulita, can't screw that up too much, next time just to get a glimpse of true Mexican American teenage nacodome at its finest.Que lastima!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Fatima's Wild Ride at Alexis Greek

Roasted pepper salad

Bolinhos de Bacalhau

Crab cakes, a la Fatima
Lula a Lisboa, calamari savory sweetness from the hands of Fatima

Frango piri piri(chicken in piri-piri sauce)

Bacalhau a Braz, one of the great cod recipes from Portugal

Would you care for some chouricos darlings?

Fatima, the Portuguese chef and wife of Alexis Kavvadias, the Greek chef and proprietor of Alexis Greek restaurant, is a force of nature. When I set up our dinner and asked her to say a few words to our group about Portuguese cuisine, we got that and alot more.Fatima has enough energy to light a small city.She's a culinary historian, cookbook author,sommelier,chef extraordinaire, entertainer, prolific conversationalist, and a fitness babe.Oh yeah, we got to see her lean physique, sculpted like an athlete appearing 20 years younger than her age indicates.

My experience with Portuguese cuisine has been through my trips to Brazil, where many dishes from Portugal were adopted by Brazilian gastronomy, unadulterated. Brazilians use bacalhau(salted cod)imported from Europe as much as the Portuguese, and dishes like bolinhos de bacalhau(cod balls)were brought to Brazil and have remained intact in their original recipe.Brazilian confeiterias(confectionery) feature Portuguese desserts like pastel de Belem(pastry from Belem), and pudim(pudding), and Sao Paulo has many Portuguese fine dining establishments like Antiquarius and Bela Sintra in the Jardins neighborhood.

I was turned on to Alexis by a Greek friend who told me it was her favorite Greek restaurant in LA.I was prepared to have a Greek food extravaganza before I went online and saw the Portuguese menu.I'd been scouring the net for a Portuguese restaurant in the LA area and only found Nata's, which has great desserts and a few savories, and Eurocafe with a few daily items like caldo verde(green soup) and a daily specials menu with a different entree each day, but all the way in Claremont.Fatima has a full menu of some of Portugals greatest hits everyday, and they are made with fresh ingredients, defty flavored by the hands of a Portuguese virtuoso.

The dinner:
We started off with the luscious caldo verde, a potato puree with collard greens and a little surprise on the bottom, a chouriço.The chouriço accented the soup with gentle yet deep pork flavor.This is a must have item when doing the Portuguese menu, and the likely house soup you would have in restaurants in Portugal.
The chouriço plate consisted of tender and satisfying pork diversion that's often set out to start a traditional meal.

The crab cakes and cod fish cakes stand alone and are paired beautifully with fresh salad and olives.These are the best cod fish cakes I've had in LA, Brazilian or Portuguese.

Chicken piri-piri, a monument to Portugal's empire as dictated by the Treaty of Tordesilhas of 1494.The main flavoring is from the malagueta pepper, discovered by a Portuguese settler in Brazil, planted in Portugal's African holdings, and rediscovered by Portuguese merchants traveling to Africa, and finally cultivated in Portugal as the piri piri pepper. The chicken is broiled to supple purity with this delicious and mildly, spicy bite.Malagueta is such a pleasing chile, a remarkable surprise to even the most ardent chile lover.

Lula Lisboa(calamari Lisbon style), baked in a crock with fresh tomato, pine nuts, herbs and cooked in a light wine sauce yielding a sweetness born from the chef's craft.There are some secret ingredients at work here.It's going in Fatima's cookbook!

I got to taste everyone else's choices, but now it was time for one of the famous Portuguese cod plates, Bacalhau a Braz,reconstituted salted cod, sautéed with olive oil, onions, potato, eggs and fresh herbs.Put this on your comfort food "best of" list.Salted cod is not easy to pull off for even the most experienced cook, but Fatima coaxes tenderness and heavenly flavor with ease.
I'm only sorry to say that in our fixation with Fatima and her tremendous hospitality, we forgot to order the Coelho estufado(rabbit stew)!! The sea bream, whole fish is also a part of Fatima's Portuguese menu, and that'll have to wait for the return visit.

Dessert was nothing short of transcendent, poached quinces from Fatima's own tree in port wine.Otimo!! The other desserts, a chocolate mousse, and another that escapes me were amazing.

We were given a couple bottles of Monte Velho wine of the Alentejo region, with fruit (blackberry) and slight hint of oak.This is a great red from the deep south of Portugal north of the Algarve coast, where Fatima spends time at her European retreat.A classic soft-centered, and full flavored wine.
Everything seasoned and balanced with expertise, made from scratch, and plated with love.The only canned items were the imported Portuguese sardines, which were still quite tasty. "Listen darling, if I had them shipped fresh they would be expensive and spoiled", chuckled Fatima.It will be hard to order Greek when I come back, eventhough Alexis' reputation proceeds him.I think I will just have to get this Portuguese menu out of my system.Go during the week and chat up Fatima, you will be thrilled by her charm and floored by her cooking.She also does a Portuguese feijoada, and a feijoada de bacalhau for groups.Muito obrigado, Fatima.Um beijo!

Alexis Greek and Portuguese Cuisine
9034 Tampa Ave
Northridge California 91324