Cactus! Pozole! Tamales! We couldn't visit Los Angeles without getting into our fair share of Mexican. It's estimated that Hispanics and Latinos make up 48% of the population in Los Angeles County, and of that group 80% are of Mexican origin.
Los Angeles is said to be the second largest Mexican city in the world. We couldn't wait to dig in!
First up: Lotería Grill at the LA Farmers Market. Owner Jimmy Shaw opened this stall in 2002 and has since expanded to five locations around Los Angeles. Shaw grew up in Mexico and although he isn't Mexican by blood, he says "my heart is very Mexican".
The menu is extensive and dizzying. Tacos start at US$3 each for vegetarian options of which there are four, including cactus salad; zucchini and roasted corn succotash; mushrooms with epazote (a Mexican herb); and potatoes with roasted poblano peppers.
You can choose from appetizers, soups, salads, tacos, burritos, tostadas, sopes, enchiladas and more. We're all a bit stunned for choice and take several minutes to decide.
Mole poblano con pollo sope US$5.25
I'm down with the chicken mole poblano for breakfast, served on a sope. Sope is made from masa (ground maize) that is flattened into a circle and then pinched upwards on the sides into a tart-like shape. Sope are panfried so the edges are slightly crisp but its primarily soft and tender, making a tasty base for the tender shreds of spiced chicken, shredded lettuce and queso fresco fresh cheese.
And how could I turn down the chance to have a cactus salad? Nopalitos cactus salad is made using the paddle cactus, although Americans commonly call this a prickly pear. It's not particularly strong in flavour, a hybrid of choko mixed with an overcooked green bean plus the slightly stickiness of okra.
There's a jumble of paddle cactus, fresh tomatoes, lettuce, black bean puree, coriander and salsa verde cruda (tomatillos and serrano chillies) topped with a crumbled queso fresco fresh cheese. The salad is light and refreshing, and the taco has substance but is tender and soft too.
We later chow down on an cinnamon roll from Bob's Doughnuts and when we walk past again at 11am the queue is a dozen deep.
Tamales Liliana's Restaurante
A couple of days later we hit up Tamales Liliana's for, you guessed it, tamales. It's a short drive to east LA and Liliana's appears out of nowhere, set back from the curb with its own on-site carpark. The menu is completely in Spanish with a few English translations, although judging by the predominantly Hispanic crowd, this doesn't really present a problem.
Tamales Liliana's dining room
The dining room is clean but basic, and there are plenty of families here having dinner tonight. Television screens in each corner are tuned into the NBA finals.
A basket of tortilla chips arrives at the same time as our menus. They're hard to resist, amplified with the flavour of corn and addictively crunchy.
Green and red chilli sauces
The tortilla chips are the ideal vessels for the accompanying pots of chilli sauce. We debate about which one is hotter, but I'm convinced the green is spicier than the red.
There are more than 120 different variations on the menu which is probably how our order for three ends up looking like this:
Dinner for three
Tostadas ceviche de camaron US$3.75
First up is the prawn ceviche, a pile of prawns cooked gently with lime juice, and livened with tomato, coriander and two fat slabs of avocado on a crunchy tostada shell.
Tacos carne asada US$1.50 each
Tacos with carne asada, or grilled steak, are generously piled with cubes of flash seared beef, dressed with coriander and onion and a side of thinly sliced radish.
I'd been keen to try the pozole, a dish not commonly found in Australia. It's a huge bowl of comforting soup filled with fat rehydrated hominy beans that look like giant flattened corn kernels. Hominy has a mealy texture and it's not particularly sweet like the sweetcorn we know.
Digging down into the homestyle soup brings forth chunks of pork and chicken with shredded cabbage and radish providing crunch. A side dish of condiments allows you to add your own rationing of onion, coriander and as much fresh lime juice as you please.
Tostadas and soft tacos
There's no shortage of carbs either as they bring out baskets of both tostadas and soft tortilla wraps.
Chicharron en salsa verde con arroz y frijoles US$11.75
Suze orders the chicharron en salsa verde expecting a dinner of pork crackling, but who knew that Mexicans eat their pork skin crunchy and soggy too? The strips of pork crackling have been cooked into a green salsa until resolutely soft and mushy, still tasting of pork fat but somewhat bewildering without their signature crunch.
Filete al gusto al ajillo US$12.50
Lex wants to sample the fish and orders his cooked with guajillo chilli, lending a smoky sweetness to the fillet of fish.
Tamales chile rojo con carne and tamales rajas con queso US$1.50 each
I'm all over the tamales. They're only US$1.50 each, arriving in an extra layer of greaseproof wrapped around the corn husk.
I go on the waiter's recommendations and order their two most popular tamales. The chile rojo con carne holds soft shreds of pork in a spicy red chilli sauce. Rajas con queso is a hidden surprise of poblano chile mixed with white cheese. The masa itself is drier than I'd expected, but eaten together with the filling, it all evens out okay.
Horchata and tamarindo US$3.25 each
And for drinks, I'm into the horchata almond milk that's spiced with cinnamon, while Suze goes for the tamarindo that masterfully straddles sour and sweet.
Rico flan napolitano estilo casero US$3.50
We find room for dessert too. The wedge of flan is deliciously rich and eggy, and what else to wash it down with than a giant cup of champurrado thick Mexican hot chocolate.
Total bill for three: US$54.90 plus tips!
El Flamin Taco Truck
Crowds at the El Flamin Taco truck
We'd been driving to The Donut Man when I noticed a massive queue in a parking lot out of the corner of my eye. Suze noticed it too and suddenly hollered at Lex "Stop! Stop the car! It's a food truck!" Lex made no hesitation in doing so and we pulled over immediately. Have I told you how much I loved travelling with these guys?
There are four El Flamin Taco food trucks around Los Angeles, each pulling into their regular locations at 7pm. We'd stumbled upon the one in Korea Town, but they also have trucks in Hollywood, Silver Lake and Echo Park.
It's a huge parking lot, the kind without markings and uneven gravel, but that just makes the neon flashing food truck parked at one end all the more exciting. There's a huge crowd of people gathered, and several random folding chairs make for "customer seating".
Off to the side is a giant vertical spit of pork or al pastor, slowly rotating before a gas flame. There's fire and smoke and gleaming knife work as slices of pork are shaved off at regular intervals. The little hat of pineapple on top of the spit is deliberate. Pineapple juice contains the enzyme, bromelain, which drips down slowly and tenderises the meat.
Tacos al pastor $US1.35
With the smell of smoky pork wafting in the air, we immediately order the tacos al pastor. There's a healthy portion of pork and even a slice of pineapple. The corn tortilla is a marvel in itself, more like a thin pancake with a far superior texture and flavour to the store-bought kind.
Self-serve salad and salsa bar
We'd been marvelling at the self-serve salad and salsa bar too. It holds a mind-boggling array of fixings ready for people to customise their own orders. I love that they supply everything for takeaway too, with miniature plastic bags and napkins for diners on the go.
Tacos al pastor with salsa fixings
Salad makes everything pretty! It's hard not to go overboard with fixings, but the salsas, radish, onion and coriander add pep and zing.
Tacos de tripa $US1.35
The tacos de tripa was my pick, and it's amazing. A huddle of deep fried small intestines is salty and crunchy and fatty and good.
Quesadilla with chicharron
Suze picked the - yep, you guessed it - chicharron. We're rewarded with genuine crunch this time, housed in a quesadilla that's far removed from the flattened cardboard-like versions I've seen in Sydney.
The freshly made quesadilla is the real reason, slightly puffy and crisp at the edges and wrapped around a filling of crackling nuggets and molten cheese. It's made at a separate quesadilla cart, the dough flattened to order using a traditional wooden press and then deep-fried until fluffy.
Draped across the top is a mountain of fresh lettuce and queso fresco, soft and crumbly, contrasting with the crunch of pork crackling underneath.
Chicharron pork crackling
You know you want it.
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El Flamin Taco (Korea Town)
505 S Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles, California, USA
Tel: +1 (213) 718 1790
Tuesday to Thursday 7pm - 3am
Friday to Sunday 7pm - 4am
Closed on Mondays
Also located at:
Hollywood - 1720 Vine Street, Los Angeles, California, USA
Silver Lake - 3013 Los Feliz Blvd, Los Angeles, California, USA
Echo Park - 2028 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, California, USA
Opening times are the same as Korea Town
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Tamales Liliana's Restaurante
4929 East Cesar Chavez Avenue, Los Angeles, California, USA
Tel: +1 (323) 780 0989
Monday to Sunday 7am - 9.30pm
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LA Farmers Market
6333 West 3rd Street, Los Angeles, California, USA
Tel: +1 (323) 930 2211
Monday to Thursday 9am - 8pm
Friday to Saturday 9am - 9pm
Sunday 9am - 8pm
Also located at:
Hollywood - 6627 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, California, USA
Studio City - 12050 Ventura Blvd, Studio City, Los Angeles, California, USA
Santa Monica - 1251 3rd Street Promenade, Santa Monica, Los Angeles, California, USA
Westlake Village - 180 Promenade Way, #15 Thousand Oaks, Los Angeles, California, USA
Opening times vary
>> Read the next USA 2013 post:
In-N-Out, Roscoe's Fried Chicken & Waffles, Kogi food truck and Pink's Hot Dogs
<< Read the first USA 2013 post:
Cronuts at Dominique Ansel Bakery, NYC
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7/28/2013 04:17:00 a.m.