Are we living in the golden age of the California taco? We may be — or at least it can seem as if we are when your tummy’s full late on a Saturday night. Nobody finds it odd that Roy Choi, the local chef with the most international attention on him at the moment, became famous making Korean short rib tacos on a truck, nor that Walter Manzke, one of the half-dozen chefs in town capable of running a high-end French kitchen, opened the taquería Petty Cash. Wes Avila, who has cooked with Alain Ducasse, prepares diver scallops and Cook Pigs Ranch pork at his Guerrilla Tacos with the same care he took with those exalted ingredients at Le Comptoir.
You can find tacos here from almost every region of Mexico, from Baja sting ray tacos to Zacatecas goat tacos; from Sinaloan marlin tacos to Yucatecan tacos made with pit-roasted pork. You can find tacos made from every conceivable part of the pig. You can find the crisply fried shrimp tacos at the Mariscos Jalisco truck in Boyle Heights, which to a lot of people I know is enough. If you spend a half hour on the road either east or south of downtown Los Angeles, you are nearly guaranteed to discover a kind of taco whose existence you had never even contemplated. Did you know that Toluca-style lamb barbacoa tacos vary in small but important ways from Guerrero-style lamb barbacoa tacos? Neither did I, until just last week.
This brings us in a roundabout way to the Colonia Taco Lounge, the newest and possibly most consequential restaurant from Ricardo Diaz, in the southwest corner of La Puente, an area not previously noted for its fine cuisine.
You may remember Diaz from Cooks Tortas in Monterey Park, which was dedicated to whimsically constructed Mexican sandwiches, or from Dorado’s, his ceviche bar up the street. He was one of the people behind Guisados, which introduced the Eastside to a kind of stew-based taco popular in Mexico City; he is set to open the crunchy-taco house Duro in Silver Lake, and he continues to serve the region’s best guacamole, aguachile and fried huauzontle at his Bizarra Capital in Uptown Whittier. Diaz comes from the clan that has run the El 7 Mares seafood chain for a generation. He was raised in the Mexican family-restaurant tradition.
So it may come as a surprise that, unlike his other restaurants, Colonia is basically a bar — a family-friendly bar perhaps, with plenty of kids crowded in on Sunday mornings when the soccer games are on the corner TVs, but a bar nonetheless, windowless, fragrant and gloomy even at noon. A bartender slings all sorts of tequila and mescal, as well as the inevitable craft beers and cocktails like the cucumber/vodka Pepino Vaso, which you may or may not prefer to the Streetcart Named Margarita. I tend to prefer the micheladas: iced beer zapped with chile, seasonings and lime. One version is made with puréed green chiles and Sour Apple Saison ale from Epic Brewing Co. in Utah, and you can nurse a tart, massive Applechelada through at least a half-dozen tacos.
When you walk into Colonia, after your eyes adjust to the dimness, you wander over toward the far corner of the bare dining room, where the day’s list of tacos and cocktails is scrawled on a series of chalkboards on the wall. You will attempt to parse the difference between the tacos caseros, in which the fillings are prepared to order, and the tacos guisados, involving stews that have been simmering all afternoon. You will notice the fair selection of vegetarian tacos, including one with cheese and butter-soft chayote squash as well as the deep-fried doradito tacos stuffed with gooey mashed potatoes. (They probably won’t make the seared queso fresco “campion” taco for you without the bacon bits — it’s one of those “substitutions politely declined” places — but you could always ask.)
You will try to figure out the surf ‘n’ turf plate, which includes one taco with horchata-battered shrimp and another taco made with smoked beef. The “nachostada,” a fried tortilla heaped with melted cheese, tomato salsa and spicy chorizo, is an invention that would be formidable enough to make the reputation of any food truck in town.
And then you order at the counter, settle into a booth and watch in amazement as taco after taco appears on your table, served one at a time: tacos of braised lamb barbacoa; of pork belly stewed with jalapeño oil; of soft, stewed pork skin, chicharrones with avocado and a spoonful of beans; or with carnitas cooked down to a luscious softness with pumpkin. If you are lucky, you may be able to experience the tacos made with duck confit and guacamole, which sell out in a flash.
Delicate tongue tacos with green salsa are especially good, as are the tacos of chicken tesmole, an herb-intensive Oaxacan preparation thickened with corn. The best tacos in the house may be the ones made with florets of battered, fried cauliflower — crunchy, soft and then crunchy again; the sulfurous funkiness of the vegetable mellowed and made soulful by the sharpness of the capers in the salsa and the merest touch of cream.
Your table is covered two-deep with tiny plastic plates no longer containing tacos. You have seen the bottom of a michelada or two. You are probably not contemplating dessert, but the squares of jellied quince served on sharp queso añejo are worth considering, as are the soft little cylinders of sweet potato dabbed with cream.
Colonia may have seemed like the end of the earth when you drove over here, but on the way home you may notice that it is a mere five minutes past San Gabriel if you’re coming from the west.
Colonia Taco Lounge
LOCATION: 13030 E. Valley Blvd., La Puente, (626) 363-4691
PRICES: Appetizers, $5-$9; tacos, $2.50-$5; desserts, $4-$5
DETAILS: Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Lot parking.
RECOMMENDED DISHES: “Nachostadas,” cauliflower tacos, chicken tesmole tacos, duck tacos, “campion” tacos, sweet potatoes with cream.