Tacos al vapor may not be the most immediately lovable members of the taco family. The tortillas are steamed instead of griddled, which means that the delicious smack of toasted corn has been replaced by a kind of puddingy softness, and it is often difficult to keep them from falling apart in your hands. The colors of the proteins involved fall strictly within the 50 shades of gray.
At the most authentic places, or at least the places whose lines lead you to believe they are the most authentic, you are less likely to find user-friendly meats like carne asada or spicy pork al pastor than you are various parts of the cow head – cheeks, forehead, lips, tongue, brain, and sometimes nerves -- steamed to an even succulence and chopped into slithery nubs.
Yet there is a kind of beauty in the kind of tacos al vapor you find at El Canelo in East Los Angeles: an aesthetic of extreme softness, of slithery bits, of plainness. There is often a touch of revulsion involved – "I am not supposed to be eating this!'' your brain screams a moment before you bite into a translucent strand of nerve – and then the feeling of exultation and relief when you realize you have not just survived but enjoyed the challenge. A good stand will have a decent variety of condiments: El Canelo's thin, orange habanero salsa is excellent; spicy, but not so much so as to detract from the roller-coaster ride of the meat.
The line at El Canelo is long, the cleaver men are virtuosi, and the tab, $1 for each small taco, is extremely low. On Taco Tuesday, the price plummets to 50 cents per taco from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. The last time I went, I couldn't help reflecting that for the price of a high-end Los Angeles sushi meal for two, you could have 950 beef lip tacos instead.