Mexican Meal That Was Born in East L.A.

Times Staff Writer

It was a dark and stormy day, and I headed for East Los Angeles in search of soul-warming, home-style Mexican food. As I sipped a steaming cup of champurrado, inhaled the faint spice of cinnamon and chewed the tiny lumps of masa that remained in the thick, soothing drink, I knew I had come to the right place.

Super Taco is small--only four tables plus an ample jukebox. And it becomes very cozy as people crowd around the counter to place their orders, then find seats wherever they can. The three who joined me were eating cocido and sopa de albondigas. The cocido came with little bowls of red rice, which the women stirred into the soup along with generous squeezes of lemon juice. One of them spooned out the shredded beef and arranged it on a crisp fried tortilla to make a tostada, which she finished off with lettuce and other garnishes from the tiny salsa bar.

The albondigas were big, light meatballs flecked with rice and seasoned with a faint touch of mint. Zucchini, carrots and celery also bobbed about in the steaming, burnished red broth.

I had ordered a torta, a sandwich of carne asada in a big French roll. The roll had been partially split, then painted with a thin layer of beans, filled with the meat, lettuce, tomato and other ingredients. Served open side up, it bulged at the sides like a dugout canoe with a load of good food.

As if She Were at Home

The woman who prepared it worked as if she were at home, cutting into a fresh avocado for a few slices to place on top and taking a new container of sour cream from the refrigerator for the spoonful that she would place in the center and sprinkle with pale cheese. It was all so fresh and light that I felt as if I had eaten a snack rather than a sturdy meal.

The food may be fast, but the service is warm-hearted. For lunch one day, my friend ordered a burrito. When she had trouble folding the floppy flour tortilla that hung like a doily around the filling (carnitas, beans and rice), the woman took it back and showed the proper fold, like mom helping a member of the family.

It would be silly to patronize Super Taco without trying the specialty that inspired the name. The tacos are fine, although nothing fancy. Just soft tortillas--the small, cocktail size--and meat. Then you fill in the remainder from the assorted salsas, chopped onion, pickled chiles and lettuce at the salsa bar. In these tacos, simplicity is an attribute. There is no need to disguise the quality of the meat with sauces and seasoning. The tacos de lengua (tongue) were especially good. Although plainly cooked, the meat was tender, juicy and full of flavor. So much of it was packed into the tacos that the little things fell apart in their red plastic basket.

Speaking of falling apart, be careful when ordering gorditas. These are fat cakes of masa that are fried, split and stuffed with beans, meat, lettuce and cheese. You have to eat them at once or the moist filling softens the masa into mush.

Only an Enclosed Stand

Super Taco is hardly more than an enclosed stand leaning against a large building that houses a religious bookstore. This neighboring structure is a brilliant example of someone's creativity, brilliant referring to the brightly colored broken crockery that studs the rough walls. It's also a handy landmark for Super Taco.

Lunch hour tends to be crowded, so go early or late to be sure of a seat. Turnover is rapid, however, and many people order food to go. Prices are low --$2.25 for a bowl of cocido, which comes with rice and tortillas, $1 for a taco. This is in inverse relationship to the quality of the food, which outdoes that served in some of the city's more pretentious Mexican restaurants.

Super Taco, 3818 Brooklyn Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 263-8389. Open 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Cash only. No reservations. Park on street.

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