We are all familiar with the celebrity chef. What may be more elusive is the concept of the celebrity taco -- a taco so well known that it has managed to work its way into the general consciousness even of people who may have no idea of its form, provenance or location.
The galbi taco is one of those -- it managed to bubble its way up into the culture long before most of us had ever seen a Kogi truck -- and so is the crunchy shrimp taco at Mariscos Jalisco in Boyle Heights. Guisados’ tacos toreados probably falls into that camp, as does the B.S. Taqueria taco with lardo and clams.
But the celebrity taco of the moment may not even be a taco at all -- it is the burrito de birria at Burritos La Palma in El Monte, a small burrito that is for all intents and purposes a taco.
The La Palma burrito was voted traditional taco of the year at this year’s Tacolandia festival. It was well-loved on Yelp even before taco blogger Bill Esparza ran across the place. O.C. Weekly’s Gustavo Arellano was moved to name it one of the best 100 dishes in Orange County this year -- it is nowhere near Orange County, but he thought it ought to be.
Long before I ever visited, I had heard all about the suppleness of the handmade flour tortillas, the fresh juiciness of the tomato salsa and the spiciness of the birria, made here with stewed beef in the Norteno style instead of the Jalisco-style stewed goat. (Burritos La Palma itself is a branch of a small chain based in Jerez, Zacatecas, where goat birria is the rule, but we tend to endorse diversity in all things.)
So when I nosed up an industrial stretch of Peck Boulevard, I wasn’t sure what I’d expected to see -- a tiny shack with a huge line perhaps, or a buzzing taco table, or a battery of trucks like the one you see at the weekend tire-yard complex down on Avalon.
What I wasn’t expecting, I guess, was the tidy, low building that actually does house the taqueria, a space that could probably be retrofitted into a 7-Eleven should the need arise: a few small tables, a couple of bullfight posters on the walls and the homey fragrance of stewing beef and beans.
What is a La Palma burrito de birria? A slender thing, a toasty, stretchy tortilla wrapped tightly around a few tablespoons of mildly spiced shredded beef. The standard order is at least two or three.
You can get them con todo, with beans and cheese tucked in with the meat. You can get them as an especial, in which case they will be topped with sauce and melted cheese, and will greatly resemble a plate of enchiladas. You can get them stuffed with slithery stewed pork skin, a beautifully spiced chicken tinga, or with carne deshebrada, which seems to be a less-spicy version of the birria enhanced with potato. They are all captivating in their plainness -- almost wholesome.
And the next time somebody mentions that great Zacatecas burrito place they’ve heard about out in El Monte, you will smile knowingly. Because you’ve been.
5120 Peck Road, El Monte, (626) 350-8286. Open daily, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.