Thursday, September 30, 2010

Jonathan Gold's 2nd Annual Union Station Speakeasy Fundraiser for the Zocalo Public Square-October 9,2010


The party kicks off at 7PM

I have been a Zocalo Public Square supporter ever since I attended my first talk titled The Mexican Restaurant, moderated by Jonathan Gold a couple of years back.

The Zocalo Public Square strives to connect people to ideas and to each other in an open,accessible,non-partisan and broad minded spirit. Their free talks feature everything from politics, to the environment, to finance, and yes, food and drink.

That is the reason to support this non-profit, a vital part of LA's cultural scene, but the reason to come to this fundraiser is that it's one of the best parties in town. Program director Dulce Vasquez is all business with that clipboard, but the blue cocktail dress is puro pari(100% party). The team at Zocalo knows how to mix business and pleasure.

It was also my first chance to talk with Mr. Jonathan Gold himself, free from the usual horde of bloggers and food scenesters.For those of you who primarily cover sponsored events, it's not such a big deal to pay for one of these every now and then, I mean it's the Zocalo. This is an organization that we should stand behind. The only bloggers in the LA scene that laid down the coin for last year's fundraiser were Jo of My Last Bite, Neil of Food Marathon, Sara of the Delicious Life, the Zocalo's official one woman promotional team. I must say, that I did get some discount tickets that night courtesy of Brian Saltsburg through Pleasure Palate, who I met for the first time that evening.I also met the lovely Kat Odell at the Speakeasy,and got to hang out with Bricia Lopez of Pal Cabron, we'd only met a few months before. what a great night!

You still may say to yourself, oh, that's too much money.I have a simple formula for these types of functions, first off, I can consume the ticket price in drinks alone,as easy as falling off a log, and oh did I. The food was great, too, perfect to anchor my alcohol intake. I was drinking,meeting all sorts of interesting folks,and enjoying cocktails made by some of the best mixologists in town up until there were about only 15 of us left. That included the Zocalo staff and Jonathan Gold, who always manages to close a place down.

And, I'll have to say that, I've had a pretty exciting year as a blogger since the last Zocalo Speakeasy, and I can't help but think that this event was part of that success, certainly through the connections I made. It's kind of like throwing a coin in the fountain, it brings good fortune. Support the Zocalo and let the good Karma begin.

I arrived early last year eager to dig into what was at the time for me, brand new. The New Coktailians. This is the title given to the invigorated Los Angeles cocktail scene by Mr. Gold himself,that is drawing attention all over the US and on an international level. Los Angeles is where it's at for bar hopping.

The first drink of the evening took place at the absinthe station, where I enjoyed the newly liberated absinthe, and a glass of champagne with an absinthe foam.

And then I had all of this!The Rye Manhattan was my favorite of the night.

This year, some of the best bars in LA will be serving their signature cocktails:Cana,Cole's Red Car Bar,Las Perlas,Rivera, and Seven Grand.

The food will be served by:Comme Ca,First and Hope,Grace,Jar,Lazy Ox Canteen,Providence,Rustic Canyon,and Susan Feniger's Street.

This party has everything:premium cocktails, the best chefs in LA, a great crowd,witty conversation, and dancing.

This event is comfortable, a chance to talk to the Zocalo staff, the chefs and bartenders, and even Mr. Gold himself. My first real encounter with J. Gold was a pleasant experience, just as I would have hoped. I also met one of my best friends here, Jo Stourgaard of My Last Bite.It was a beautiful evening.

So, get into the swing of things and dig up your best vintage attire, and plan to stay a while. Imbide, feast, chat, and dance the night away in support of one of Los Angeles' most valuable organizations.

I plan on being there, too. I'll be the one passed out on the last subway train to the NoHo Redline station.

For more information go to the event's website:
Union Station Speakeasy
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 9, 2010 | 7:00PM

General Admission Tickets=$185, click here to purchase

Non-Profit Employee Rate=$150, click here to purchase

Young Professional's Rate(Must be under 30 yrs of age)=$125, click here to purchase

Click here for corporate packages

If you would like to purchase tickets
by check, the mailing address is:
5042 Wilshire Blvd. #288
Los Angeles, CA 90036

For more information
please call (213)381-2541

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Mole de Panza- Puebla, Mexico: The Zen of Menudo

Menudo is another one of those Mexican foods that is best prepared by a specialist. It seems that all Mexican households have someone that keeps the family recipe. In Aguascalientes, it's my cousin Benjamin Romo. He can conjure up a a pot of menudo that can stop conversation a half block away. I've only had it twice, but its scent and flavor shall rest with me in my tomb, along with the congregation of of a lifetime of cherished pleasures.

In Puebla, the cow's stomach soup known as menudo is called mole de panza. The preparation and ingredients of menudo vary from state to state, or region to region. Some parts of the country, menudo is red, others it's white. Sometimes there is hominy, sometimes there isn't. Two states of Mexico with a similar style of menudo, say white, may vary not in color, but in the stomach parts contained in the recipe. The one thing that all menudos have in common is that they are a weekend specialty, and allegedly one of the greatest hangover remedies known to man.

It was just good fortune that led me to the small eatery run by Don Pedro, who makes mole de panza with the same recipe handed down by his Hidalgan father, Antonio Garcia. His mother was Pueblan. The marvelous soup I enjoyed last summer was fashioned precisely as it was fifty years ago.

It is a rule of thumb that when you see guy with just a couple of tables and one pot sitting on a burner, you must abandon your itinerary and have a seat.

Because this is all Don Pedro does, he is open during the week as well, it was a Thursday morning that I happened upon this place.

My friend and driver, Rodrigo, accompanied me on this trip, and recommended I try O-Key soda, a very local beverage that's not found outside of the state of Puebla. I took such a liking to this soda that I begged Bricia Lopez of Pal Cabron to grab some from her suppliers so that I may drop by to quench my O-Key soda lust every now and then.

One striking difference in the ingredients of mole de panza is the use of cilantro instead of oregano. Don Pedro ties a bundle of cilantro in cooking twine and drops it into the pot. The ingredients are minimalist in mole de panza, tomato, garlic, cilantro, dried chiles, beef stomach, and hey...why are you giving me all the ingredients? I didn't want the recipe, just the gist of the dish. Don Pedro just smiled and said, "I can give you the recipe, show you how to make it, even buy you the ingredients, but you can't duplicate my soup."

Out of respect, I asked if I should put any condiment. He said a little lime is fine, but really,it doesn't need anything else. Many people like lots of onion so I put it on the table. This has been the only compromise in the last fifty years, some chopped onions.

Rodrigo and eye dug in, and our eyes met with mutual amazement. "Riquissimo!" The taste of quality elements, a long and slow cooking, and perfection in a half century old sequence of movements. This is the Zen of menudo. A culinary life dedicated to meditation, and introspection about a single practice, a single bowl of out-of-this-world soup.

Mole de Panza Don Pedro
500 block of 6 Poniente, near 5 Norte
Heroica Puebla de Zaragoza, Mexico

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

For Unlawful Carne asada Knowledge-Mexicali Taco & Co. Takes Los Angeles

An aged rib eye steak is purchased by weight at Sonora Steak in Hermosillo, where locally raised Angus is famous all over Mexico.

Carne asada is perhaps the most misunderstood filling for a Taco here in Los Angeles. There’s hardly a stand or truck that doesn’t have asada on their menu. Yet, in my quest for authentic carne asada here in Los Angeles, I’ve come up empty.

In Mexico, it is also found in every state in some form, and the scent of the streets at night is full of the aroma of charred meat, but carne asada is a northern specialty. You won’t find asada on the streets of Mexico City, and asada isn’t significant in other southern states. Throughout states like Sonora, Sinaloa, Baja California, Durango.Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, and Coahuila carne asada is vibrant and exciting.

Taco Kiko fires the grill in the hotel zone of Mexico's carne asada capitol, Hermosillo, Sonora. The night air fills with searing flesh and mesquite. The streets of Hermosillo are a carne asada cook off every night.

In Los Angeles, carne asada is the least common denominator, inexpensive skirt steak purchased at Costco, Smart and Final, or some other poor source, cooked on a flat top, wrapped in a store bought tortilla with dull salsas. Mexican-Americans and non-latinos alike indiscriminately choose taco trucks with the only criteria being that it costs a buck.

The verb asar means to roast. Meat cooked on a flat iron is not roasted, hence isn’t carne asada. In Mexico this is called bistec. Carne asada is cooked over mesquite, flame roasted. The marinade is simple: rock salt, lime, and mesquite. Carne asada is found at stands, taquerias, and large dining rooms that serve parrilladas(grilled meats brought to the table on hot plates or braziers) and paquetes(package meals). In each of these settings, mesquite is the engine that fires up the traditional flavors of northern carne asada. It must be present.

At Xochimilco, also in Hermosillo, the team of roasters cooks behind a thick pane of glass allowing for a more formal carne asada experience in the Mexican style steakhouses of the north.

Carne asada is a specialty. The taqueros that prepare the meat only cook carne asada. A small stand can have one taquero preparing and cooking the meat, with an assistant or two for customer service. A taqueria will have a team of taqueros, one to three men to roast the steak over open flames, a taquero or two to chop and plate the tacos, a counter man, and maybe some other taqueros doing other disciplines, maybe al pastor/adobada, fritanga(fried meats and offal in a stainless steel comal),or birria. In the large restaurants that serve parrilladas, there will be a bunch of guys trapped in a hot, smoky room piling on the grilled steaks and offal for the mob of hungry carnivores in the restaurant.

The meat is special and the cut is of paramount importance. In Sonora, where I believe the best carne asada tradition exists, it’s all about the cuts of meat. There is no ranchera. The prized arrachera is about the most prestigious cut, a lower skirt steak that is supple and juicy. Every country has a different way of taking apart a steer, so even though the skirt steak is similar, it’s not the same. Palomilla(top sirloin), New York, diezmillo(chuck), aguayon(sirloin), cabreria(rib-eye), lomo(loin), pulpa(round), and many more. Blends are used like at Tacos Jass in Hermosillo, Sonora, where the house steak blend for carne asada is comprised of palomilla, New York steak, and diezmillo. The taquero should be able to tell you the cut, and why he chooses that particular slice of meat, or blend.

Tijuana style tacos of carne asada at Taqueria El Poblano are a blend of New York steak, top sirloin, round, and chuck.A dollop of creamy Baja style guacamole seals in the flavors.

The meat should be high quality, not discounted meat that will go bad in a day, just so you can come in at a dollar. In Sonora, locally raised Angus beef is inexpensive and yes, a taco of carne asada is still between 10 and 12 pesos, a little under a dollar. At taqueria El Poblano in Tijuana, a blend of New York steak, pulpa, palomilla, and chuleta de lomo(T-bone) allows them to come in at around a dollar per taco.

In the US, real carne asada taco cannot be realized at the dollar price point, and grilling with mesquite can only happen in a restaurant. A quality cut or blend must be roasted on a mesquite fire, placed on a quality home-made flour or corn tortilla, and either dressed by the taquero, con todo(with everything), or by the customer. Recently made tortillas from a tortilleria are okay too, called recien hecha. The only way you can hit the dollar mark is with cheap,dull and dry ranchera, store bought tortillas, and basic condiment.

A whole cut of juicy cabreria, rib eye, is the house specialty at El Dorado in Hermosillo, Sonora.

Condiments include a variety of roasted, fresh chili, and dried chili salsas. Onions, lime, and cilantro are standard.

In the Mexican style steakhouses you can order trios of beef cuts with all the accompaniments: frijoles puercos(refried beans with pork lard) or maneados(Sonoran style refried beans with cheese and pork chorizo), stewed cowboy beans, grilled onions, salad, tortillas like the sobaqueras(large,ultra thin flour tortillas) of Sonora, roasted chiles, and whatever else come with the house paquete, or package. At this style of eatery, you make your own tacos of carne asada. At Xochimilco restaurant in Hermosillo, you can get paquetes(packets) of three meats like arrachera, ribs, and tripas de leche(milk soaked tripe), or sirloin in the place of arrachera .Other Mexican style steakhouses offer cuts, or both. At a nearby steakhouse a little ways away in Hermosillo called El Dorado, rib eye,or cabreria, is the house specialty.

Braziers are brought to your table at Mr. Steak in Ciudad Obregon,Sonora, loaded with arrachera(skirt),ribs,tripe that was pre-soaked with milk, covered by the amazing sobaqueras, thin flour tortillas native to the state of Sonora.

We have restaurants in LA that have whole cuts of carne asada, but they are most often broiled. But just as one should look for Hidalgans when seeking out barbacoa, I look for Sonorans, or Baja Californians when looking for carne asada. I haven’t come across one Sonoran run restaurant, truck, or stand, and maybe just a few Tijuanans preparing carne asada.

So, I’ve been looking here in Los Angeles for a carne asada taco priced over a dollar, like a minimum of $1.75, at least. We have no real specialists doing carne asada tacos, and no Mexican steakhouses with indoor mesquite grills.

While working with Ricky of Ricky’s Fish Tacos at Street Food Mondays, he said he knew some guys that were from Baja, specifically Mexicali, that were doing some great tacos and that he’d be going over there the next day or so and that I should definitely check it out. When I asked what kind, he said carne asada, you know, typical Mexicali style tacos. I said I’d love to go with him sometime, but would be tied up for several days. I had forgotten about the Mexicali Taco & Co. when I saw their twitter handle first appear, and they seemed to be popular already with many in Twitterville. Wait a minute….I wonder what kind of meat they use? An unrequited tweet on the eve of September 7th, left me no choice but to go and see for myself.
@MEXICALItacoCO muchachos. K corte de carnes traen pa asada? Tienen mesquite? Toy muriendo a comer una verdadera carne asada. Saludos

Mexicali and Calexico raised Javier and Esdras have been around for a little over a year, and they are tearing up the internet. They have been super hyped for their carne asada tacos and other taco stylings, but truth be told, they might be the only game in town for the real deal.

The first night out I had a chance to be these affable young guys in action, they are perfect for this business, and really care about the customer’s experience. It was apparent that these weren’t professional taqueros, but they’ve got something on every other stand and truck in town. They’re from the north and know carne asada. They’ve been eating these tacos all of their lives. They know it should be quality steak, and that it has to be cooked over fire. Los Angeles won’t let them do mesquite, so they use a gas fire on their grill. I tell you, the mesquite is such an important element of the flavor of carne asada, but these guys have everything else in place. I commented that everyone else is doing asada on a flat top, Esdras laughed,” Yeah, that’s bistec, not asada.” And, there you have it, seems simple enough. In Mexico this is basic common knowledge just like how much to bribe a cop for getting caught with an open container. I call on all trucks and stands that cook steak on a flat top to rename their carne asada as bistec. Truth in advertising.

Their salsas are nice, and they have carne asada, grilled chicken, and chorizo for their tacos. They make that wonderful creamy guacamole that is served all over Baja California, although it could stand a little more pop, and just a slightly thicker texture. Otherwise, I really like their guacamole, be sure to generously load your tacos with this to make it Baja style.

The meat is diezmillo(chuck), but is fresher and juicier than other places. Using higher ingredients is the real game changer here. At $2, the taco of carne asada here is a steal. The guys were talking about Mexican style arrachera(skirt), not that thin and flavorless ranchera garbage, but a nice flabby cut of steak. Uh, I would even rather pay $3 for that, go ahead Javier and Esdras, you’ve got my vote.

These guys can only get better with time. It just goes to show that a young and relatively inexperienced pair of nortenos can walk in and slay every other taco joint in town. I call them the Golden State of taco stands. They love good food, and just want to make it great just like when they were kids, no matter what. Other taqueros around don’t have the courage or knowledge to serve $2 carne asada tacos. This could be the start of a revolution.

Dreamy, creamy, Baja-style guacamole.

Their carne asada taco is the best place to start. The chopping needs a little work, maybe keeping a sharper knife? But, man, the flavor and texture are beefy, and juicy. The taco is heightened by the addition of that creamy guacamole, and their tasty salsas.

The cachetada(slap), has a chipotle aioli sauce, a little street taco flair. This is really a vampiro, but Mexicali Taco & Co. is an original, and certainly, a traditional vampiro wouldn’t have a chipotle aioli. Chipotle is always a winner, top with some salsa and guacamole and enjoy sensations of crunch, salt, and sweet.

Esdras recommended the grilled chicken with the vampiro, in this case named because of the addition of garlic. This would be a like a quesataco. It has melted cheese infused with garlic, and the chicken is very tasty, I wouldn’t underestimate this choice of protein. The Mexicali Taco Co’s vampiro is one of my favorite tacos at this stand.

I saw someone else eating a Zuperman, which is Mexicali Taco Co’s version of a mulita, a taco sandwich. It looked great. Everything is fantastic at Mexicali Taco Co.

Esdras and Javier run a solid stand, and they’re bringing the only true carne asada in town, to the best of my knowledge. They will only get better, and perhaps they’ll find a way to cook with mesquite? Lesser miracles have happened. Mexicali Taco & Co is up Wednesday thru Sunday, carne asada is here! Thanks Ricky, not only are you one of the best taqueros in town, you’re also a real foodie, too.

Mexicali Taco & Co.
1st and Beaudry
Downtown Los Angeles
8pm-12 am

Friday, September 17, 2010

Riding the Camarena Tequila Express with Uncouth Gourmand

I would say that it was destiny that I'd end up riding around in a tequila truck. When Mark and Mike from Rebel Industries called me up to take a ride on the Camarena Tequila truck and write about life on the road, I only had one requirement, of course that there's be some tequila drinking. Of course, no drinking and driving! But drinking and parking is alright, if some of the tequila for cooking,JUST happened to fall into my glass.

Tequila?Check!Tacos?Check! I thought this would be a great duo act though, so I suggested one of my favorite chicas, Josie Mora of Uncouth Gourmands. And, let's just say that Josie and I go together like tortilla chips and salsa.I could see us on a food variety show.We could be the Tony Orlando and Dawn of the kitchen.

We also had spicy Camarena girl Jessie. With the beautiful girls,Jessie and Josie, free flowing tequila, and tequila laced tacos, the Camarena Tequila truck was unstoppable that day.

The Camarena family has been in the highlands of Jalisco for six generations, and they launched Camarena tequila in 2010. They come from the most prestigious tequila producing town of Arandas,Jalisco. Their silver and reposado tequilas are made from 100% blue agave. Camarena tequila is perfect for making cocktails, and their approachable price makes them an excellent alternative in the well tequila market. Move over Cuervo and Sauza, because Camarena is the new game in town. The tequilas are tasty on their own, but at under $20 a bottle at Bevmo, it's paloma(tequila and Squirt cocktail) time!

To promote their brand, chef Sevan Azarian put together a tequila based menu. Camarena Truck chef Derek Lund was in the truck's kitchen on this day sending out the FREE TACOS! When the truck pulls up, the anticipation begins.Who will be the fortunate diners? The twitter account shouts out the truck's location and the people rush up to the window.

Josie suggested that we have some tacos, like this carnitas taco from chef Lund. We were there to observe and tweet, but a couple a mischievous souls like us couldn't resist finding some other things to do.

While we pestered the surly chef drinking up all the "cooking supplies" like a couple of fiends, the Camarena team was outside working Hollywood Bl. It's not a bad deal at all. Stop and like them on Facebook, get some free tacos, and a couple of discount coupons on some Camarena tequila.

We started our day on Hollywood Bl. across the street from the Chinese Theater. Seemed like a great idea. I mean, just look at this attractive couple. They were easy going, and looking forward to Camarena's tequila infused tacos. Let me tell you, those tacos aren't infused, uh....the chef just dumps some tequila on the meat. I mean, there's a whole shot in there!

Outside, Jessie and Mark were working the crowds, but this is Hollywood Bl. Lots of tourists and street characters that are out of their mind.Maybe this tourist and whacko trap wasn't the best place. Well we made the best of it.

Mike got in the spirit of Hollywood's Walk of Fame.

And we all enjoyed the honesty of this panhandler.

This woman danced around like she just dropped a bunch of dexies. I think there's a great video of this caught by Mike and Mark. At least she grabbed a taco.

At this point Josie and I did our "GET YOUR FREE TACOS" bit. Here she is interviewing a couple of Brits on the street. The best was when Josie was yelling through the window at the La Salsa customers that we had FREE TACOS. But this is Hollywood Bl., and I think people are used to being bothered by crazy people!

We tried to get a megaphone so we could really have some fun, but none of the stores carried any. Hollywood was spared that day.

We had mixed results walking over to the Chinese Theater, tourists were ignoring us, and the crazies? One guy yelled vagabond gibberish at Josie with a menacing scowl on his face. I went right up in his face, looked him in the eye and said, "sir, we just want to give you some....FREE TACOS!" He paused, then kissed my hand.........Hollywood Boulevard.

Jessie was doing pretty good back at the truck ,and we managed to get a nice crowd together before we went off to our next location.

Chinatown Summer Nights was definitely more our speed. Mark arrived early and snagged a parking space, chef had gone off to pick up some more ingredients. I think it's because Josie made a taco pie with all his ingredients. It looked awful, ticked off the chef, but I think it was pretty good. Josie!

The people over in Chinatown were locals, not locos, and they were eager to come over for some tacos. Josie continued to talk up the truck until she was distracted by a Chinese sweets shop.

When we got back, the event's security told us we were in a loading zone and couldn't stay. There were a bunch of trucks at the festival already that had paid, so even though we were giving away free food, it just didn't work out.The trials of the food truck biz. We walked around for a bit to take in Chinatown Summer Nights.I was buzzing pretty good from all the "cooking supplies" by now, but I'd say they throw a fine event. The dance floor was popping, too!

I had a great day with Josie, Jessie, Mark,Mike and the rest of the Camarena tequila truck crew. It was truly an educational experience learning first-hand, the inner workings of a food truck.

Look for the Camarena Tequila truck, enjoy a couple of tacos while you learn about the brand. Pick up their silver and reposado tequilas for your next party.

Thanks for a great time guys. Thanks Josie. We do make a great team.

Learn more at Camarena Tequila

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Tacos Leo(La Brea and Venice): A Tacos Al Pastor Primer

An exquisite taco al pastor from El Califa, D.F.

Getting excited about finding al pastor on a spit is kind of like saying, “Oh my god, I just found this pizza parlor……with a pizza oven. “ I mean, it’s a cooking device, it's standard and just a means to an end. So, when Chowhounders, Yelpers, or other bloggers start woot-wooting about seeing an al pastor stand or truck with a vertical spit, I don’t exactly snatch my car keys and peel out of my driveway. There’s a little more to the equation and I wish to dispel this tendency to prematurely stir our hungry souls.

Al pastor here in LA is done mostly by amateur taqueros, or guys who had cooked for family barbeques. They aren’t trained, skilled, and are habitually cooking on a flat iron, which is the wrong cooking equipment. Mostly, they aren't even taqueros.

The al pastor specialist is about the loneliest gig in the taco universe. The al pastor guy prepares his marinade, and is the first to arrive to the taqueria, carefully loading the vertical spit, called a trompo. He has his own station off in a corner, isolated. He usually takes direct orders from the customer; the guy behind the counter won’t even take his taco orders. If the customer orders a gringa (flour tortilla with al pastor and cheese), or a mulita (taco sandwich with cheese) requiring his prized al pastor, he will carve off some meat for the main taquero station so they can complete the order, ultimately, the al pastor specialist is confined to cooking the pork for other orders and making tacos al pastor.

A taquero slices and catches bits of pineapple from the trompo in one deft motion at Taqueria El Tizoncito in D.F.

But in the al pastor taquerias of Mexico City these guys are the main attraction, so they get to be part of a team. Otherwise, when part of a taqueria with two or three disciplines, perhaps alongside asada, birria, or even fritanga(fried brisket, chorizo, longaniza and offal is a stainless steel comal), they are isolated.

Taqueros have a type of apprenticeship where young men start out taking orders, cleaning, bringing sodas to tables, and handling money. They then become preps, learn knife skills, learn to prepare meat, make salsas, and to be quick at the craft of tacoing. When that bus pulls up to the stand, or there are 40 customers standing around during the peak afternoon hours, you’d better be able to handle the crush.

The first thing you should look for in an al pastor stand is the trimming of the pork and the appearance of the trompo. There should be manicured rows around the meat. Lumpy, or unevenly cooked pork are signs you’re dealing with an amateur. The spit requires attention, that’s why the al pastor guy is a specialist, which has been the case 100% of the time in the countless al pastor spots I’ve encountered all over Mexico . It is unique to the US that a taquero would prepare asada, offal, al pastor, and other taco disciplines all by himself. These are all separate areas of expertise.

The pork should be quality pork loin, or leg, and the loading of the trompo is very crucial in the cooking process to ensure stability and even roasting.

Al pastor is done with pineapple in Mexico City, and in other areas like Puebla, but although pineapple is a natural match with the roasted pork, it's just a condiment. It need not be present. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. In other parts of Mexico, like Baja California, al pastor is referred to as adobada, but they are the same thing--in Nuevo Leon, it's called tacos de trompo. Regardless of the regional name, it is flame-roasted pork on a vertical spit that's been marinaded in an adobo of dry red chiles(guajillo and or ancho), spices, citrus, herbs, seasonings,vegetables, and achiote paste. The recipe varies from region to region, and from vendor to vendor.

Some use food coloring to get the signature red flavor, some use achiote, some use both and others just feature the natural color of cooked pork.

The fat trompo at Taqueria El Poblano in Loreto, BCS manned by a taquero from Izucar de Matamoros, Puebla represents his countrymen's style of taquero that came to the Baja peninsula and helped develop a local style of adobada

It is also popular in the north to griddle the al pastor or adobada on the flat iron of the trompo because they prefer the pork more crispy. Cooking shouldn’t be finished on the griddle because the pork is still raw, this means you are dealing with an amateur. The griddle is for crisping, nothing more. Your al pastor taquero shouldn’t be dealing with any other meats, nor should he be griddling other meats at his stand.

In Puebla, dual trompos are ready for the hungry afterwork crowd
at Taqueria La Ranas

Your taquero should keep a sharp knife, he is a professional. Knife skills are of the upmost importance in any type of kitchen. Look for speed, precision, uniformity, rhythm, and flair in the carving of the trompo.

The crude mound of earthy red meat stacked on the trompo starts to take form as soon as the spit fires up. The taquero trims around the meat until the pork takes the familiar shape that is a beacon to all taco lovers. This initial cutting of raw pork is sent to the taquero, or taqueros, to cook up for mulitas, quesadillasgringas, vampiros, quesatacos, or any other concoction requiring al pastor. Now the al pastor technician is ready to taco. At this point, all the meat will be carved off of the spit, cooked.

Standard condiments are part of the al pastor experience: lime, onions, cilantro, various salsas, guacamole, and the prized pineapple. The tortilla is made from corn. The condiment station should be clean and the offerings should be fresh and professionally cut. The salsas can be the typical red and green selections, but they shouldn’t be flat--this is another essential skill of the taquero. Look for creativity in salsas and condiments; this is the the mark of a master and a restaurant that takes pride in their work. Some taqueros make only one salsa that they’ve specially paired with their taco and will finish your taco to your liking. Con todo, or with everything, means you’ll receive the taqueros ideal of his perfect taco al pastor. In other cases you’ll complete the taco yourself from a selection of condiments. The experience of the customer is important here--you are now the sous chef to your own taco. Your choice of toppings and proportions can maximize the experience, if you’re not sure, ask the taquero for his recommendations or follow the lead of a customer that knows what they’re doing.

An al pastor specialist loads his trompo in the mid-day solitude at the Leon, Guanajuato Fair, five hours before lines will run 40 deep, and not let up 'til 3AM.

Whether suave, shaved from the trompo directly onto the tortilla, or dorado, sliced then crisped on the griddle, with or without pineapple, it is all al pastor, de trompo or adobada.

Never be passive in ordering tacos. You want a taco, you say, “dame dos taco de pastor”(GIVE me 2 tacos). You don’t want your al pastor griddled? Speak up, you are in charge. Don’t sit there like a deer in the headlights. It’s proper taco etiquette to be assertive and direct.

I had partially given up on finding authentic al pastor in LA when I was reminded about a post on chowhound back in January by the poster known as Wolfgang. I was looking at my blogroll feed and saw a beautiful, sculptured trompo loaded with al pastor on Eat, Drink, and Be Merry’s blog and I thought, wait, I’ve heard about this place before on…….Chowhound. I remember seeing that discussion, but without any photos or any commentary by a trusted al pastor aficionado like my good friend Dommy, of Chowhound and now Squid Ink. I had forgotten about Tacos Leo until Dylan's post surfaced. Oh, Dommy, why didn't you ever go like you said you would?!

Tacos Leo, located in the Union 76 parking lot at La Brea Bl. and Venice Bl. is an authentic representation of al pastor in Los Angeles, and the only one I’ve encountered that has a true specialist.

This is a professional set up. The owner is Raul Martinez Hernandez and his brother, Rafael Martinez, who is manager and cashier. They started their truck back in January of this year. They come from a pueblo (town) in the south-western highlands of Oaxaca called Tamazulapam del Espiritu Santo, where indigenous Mixe people are located. Rafael told me that his native dialect is Mixe. For many indigenous peoples in Mexico, Spanish is a second language, or was learned alongside their native tongue.

The taquero, Norbeto Martinez Castro is also from Oaxaca, but his style of al pastor was honed in the city of Celaya, Guanajuato, where al pastor is also a major part of the local gastronomy. This is in the central lowlands of Mexico known as El Bajio, where they have their own style of al pastor, although it is very similar to the way al pastor is done in Mexico City. Subtle differences in cooking styles for al pastor throughout Mexico aren’t significant, it's more about the differences in condiments and the color like in Acapulco where all of the al pastor is colored bright orange.

Norbeto prepares the al pastor at Tacos Leo, and mans the trompo. He has a younger apprentice that will take over the trompo so Roberto can get a break, but he’s in charge. It is typical in Mexico for a stand, or taqueria to have an owner who hires professional taqueros. There are no trucks in Mexico, and owner/ taquero types are more common in LA. In the world of tacos, there are restaurateurs and chefs, too!

Norbeto has 10 years behind the trompo--not bad--and learned his trade in the taquerias and stands of Guanajuato. He started working at Tacos Leo about three months ago. He has know brought the authentic flavor of Celaya, Guanajuato to the streets of Los Angeles.

The cooking here is excellent, and Norbeto has the moves and skills of a seasoned taquero, maintaining a handsome trompo. They use quality pork leg at this truck, according to Rafael. The proprietary marinade from the owners at Tacos Leo is tasty, and Norbeto's loading and carving technique shows pedigree in the small layered slices of al pastor. There is a touch of theatrics; the flicking pineapple onto the taco from high atop the trompo, which he executes with cool efficiency. His apprentice isn't bad either, taking over the al pastor station while Norbeto takes five.

Al pastor at Tacos Leo before, and...

after the the condiment bar

The condiments are strong, the salsa roja made with a blend of chile de arbol and morita chiles is the standout.There is also a nice salsa verde with tomatillo and serrano chiles, guacamole sauce, onions, cilantro, radishes, and pickled vegetables. Take care to respect the taquero by finishing my taco to enhance the pork flavors, not to drown them.

In addition to the tacos at Leo’s, you can also get mulitas (taco sandwiches), quesadillas, and other bites with this fantastic al pastor. I don't know about Leo's other taqueros for the various meats offered at this truck, but the al pastor is wonderful. It's delicate, juicy, and you get an engaging flavor from the pork. I order them two at a time so I'm able to enjoy them in that marked time between when the taquero hands you your taco to that first splash on your palate when the taco is at its peak. Getting tacos to go is contraindicated. "Two more please!"

These tacos are the real deal, and the first tacos al pastor in Los Angeles that warrant a special trip. They are delicious. There’s so much more to al pastor than just having a vertical spit, and the presence of pineapple. This is a trade. Finally, a real al pastor specialist has arrived in Los Angeles.

Tacos Leo
Located at Venice Bl. and La Brea Bl.
Sun-Thurs 5pm-2am
Fri-Sat 5pm-3am