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Food

Man Bites Taco

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Tito’s Tacos serves multiple generations of loyal customers.
(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

Though my mom’s dog likes Apple Pan Hickoryburgers, Patio Chicago Dogs, Gelson’s rare roast beef, Oat Thins, kosher salami and basically anything from Jerry’s Deli that isn’t cole slaw, what the dog likes best is a hard-shell taco from Tito’s Tacos in Culver City, stripped of salsa and the mantle of shredded lettuce. When mom goes to Tito’s for tacos for the dog, she always gets them with extra cheese. Dogs love the taste of cheese.

Tito’s is a taco stand near the fast-food corner of Sepulveda and Washington Place, next door to a branch of Lucy’s Mexican Food, hard by the famous Johnnie’s French Dip Pastrami. (Johnnie’s meals-for-two used to be awarded as prizes on “The Gong Show.”) The lines can be long at Johnnie’s and Lucy’s, but the lines are always the longest outside Tito’s take-out windows, Westwood-movie-line lines sometimes, throngs of the kind of Westsiders who are portrayed neither on “Baywatch” nor on “90210": lawyers, gardeners, construction guys, students, Anglos and Sansei and the Mexican-American equivalent of Sansei , lots of kids, even the occasional knot of surfers. Everybody likes Tito’s tacos, which do that crisp, greasy, belly-filling thing that sometimes you’ve just gotta have. The lines move fast.

Inside, the lines move faster. Video games squawk: boop-boop-boop- beep .

Before they were replaced by Taco Bells on the one hand and taquerias on the other, there used to be a lot of joints like Tito’s, joints that served sort of post-Mexican Mexican food, Mexican-American stands where the tacos were always fried, chile con carne was always on the menu, and the guy behind the counter looked at you funny if you asked what was inside a burrito: meat, beans and cheese . . . what else? A couple of decades ago, not many of us knew from carnitas or cochinita pibil .

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Tacos, burritos, guacamole and salsas at Tito’s
(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)
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Tito’s is a high-volume place, where chips go from the fryer to giant galvanized trash cans that serve as storage bins, freshly fried tacos are stacked in long rows, salsa is made in a drum. People eat at long picnic tables, either inside or out, gray cardboard takeout cartons forming tabletop Stonehenges. The menu at Tito’s, painted on a wall behind the counter, is not long--tacos and enchiladas and tamales, two kinds of burritos (with beans and without), tostadas and chile con carne, rice and beans. The menu boasts that Tito’s uses 100% Steer Beef. Tito’s has the deeply nostalgic bean ‘n’ chip smell of Mexican restaurants from back then.

Enchiladas are cheesy and goopy, tamales uncheesy and goopy. Tostadas are crunchy, bean-smeared platforms that taste mostly of fresh iceberg lettuce. Inside the burritos are meat and beans and cheese (30 cents extra), the meat being the same stewed (100% Steer) chunks in a mild red chile sauce that used to be served everywhere from El Coyote to the cafeteria in the UCLA Coop (my favorite restaurant in the world when I was 8); the beans being the fragrant kind that smell less like beans than like fried; the cheese being the bright orange salty kind that seems to exist solely to turn rubbery when it melts. For an extra six bits or so, you can get a little Styrofoam cup of “guacamole,” which probably contains about as much actual avocado as “Krab” does crab but which serves the essential purpose of turning things tart and green.

What you’ll actually eat are tacos. With cheese. Just like the dog.

Tito’s Tacos
11222 Washington Place, Culver City, (310) 391-5780.

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