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Can a taco change the world? One L.A. restaurant says yes

An assortment of breakfast tacos at HomeState in Los Angeles.
An assortment of breakfast tacos at HomeState in Los Angeles.
(Wonho Frank Lee )

A couple of weeks ago, I received a care package of tacos Tuxpeños from my colleague Ben Mims, who cooked them from the recipe in Esteban Castillo’s terrific new cookbook, “Chicano Eats.” The chile-stained pork, steeped in a startlingly fragrant guajillo-ancho sauce, anointed with salsa de molcajete made from blistered tomatoes and roasted garlic and cradled in soft corn tortillas, was one of the best things I’ve eaten all year. Those tacos fed me and my family through at least three rhapsodic meals. (I’m not sure there’s a truer expression of friendship than driving across town in L.A. traffic to hand-deliver an insulated tote bag filled with everything you need to assemble perfect pork shoulder tacos. Thank you, Ben.)

All reasonable people know that tacos are bearers of joy in uncertain times. It’s a simple fact I reconfirm every time I think back on those tacos Tuxpeños.

But can tacos also change the world for the better?

I thought about this after eating the new $5 vegan taco at HomeState, the Tex-Mex restaurant with locations in Hollywood and Highland Park (a Playa Vista location is on hiatus due to the pandemic).

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The taco is called the Chicano Batman, a plumped-out, chunky blend of aggressively seasoned soyrizo, potatoes, guacamole and salsa verde. The deft composition — soft, starchy mouthfuls collapsing against the creaminess of avocados — is buoyed by the sweetish mellow heat of the salsa.

Developed in collaboration with members of the acclaimed East L.A. psych-soul band, who offered feedback throughout the recipe testing process, the Chicano Batman is the newest limited-time special from the restaurant’s “Band Taco” program.

All profits from sales of the Chicano Batman taco will be donated to the Watts Empowerment Center, a recreational and educational hub for youth and families in South L.A., and Boyle Heights’ No Us Without You, which donates weekly food boxes to undocumented restaurant workers without access to the American safety net.

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“We try and stay connected to what the community needs. Supporting these organizations just felt like the right thing to do right now,” said HomeState owner Briana Valdez.

So far, the Chicano Batman taco has been a bestseller, raising more than $7,000 for the two organizations in less than two weeks.

The restaurant launched the Band Taco program in 2015 as a testament to the ways that tacos, music and commerce, working together, can be tools for social change.

In the last five years, off-menu tacos have been created in collaboration with artists such as Spoon, Silversun Pickups, Fitz and the Tantrums, and QuestLove, with proceeds going to PATH, a nonprofit that seeks to end homelessness.

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The new Chicano Batman taco at HomeState.
The new Chicano Batman taco at HomeState.
(HomeState)

Valdez, who grew up “all over Texas” with her triplet sisters and extended family, said the Band Taco program is part of her vision for building a restaurant culture that thinks “outside the wall.”

“Creating a sense of family and communities has been a huge driver for us,” she said.

“We also grew up poor and we had government assistance, and our church was always looking out for us. We were supported in different ways from our communities,” she said.

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In Los Angeles, hundreds of miles from the comfort of her “flesh and blood family” in Texas, collaborating with musicians and other organizations has helped her create community in California.

“I feel like all of us are just searching for pathways to connect and not to feel discouraged and not feel super pessimistic and not so powerless,” Valdez said.

“Right now, the needs of our community are right in front of our faces, and we cannot ignore it.”

Music has always been an essential part of the restaurant, said Andy Valdez, HomeState’s director of marketing and sister to Briana.

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In its early days, musicians would often play at the restaurant’s backyard pop-up dinners, Andy said, and it’s long enjoyed a steady clientele of artists and musicians.

It doesn’t hurt that Andy has a healthy Rolodex of musician and industry friends, thanks to many years working in the music business.

HomeState has wanted to collaborate with Chicano Batman on a taco since 2017, but the timing never worked out until now, she said.

“We don’t want to just slap a name on a taco. That’s not the point,” Andy told me. “It’s about relationships and understanding who we are individually, and how we can use our individuality to come together and create something bigger.”

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The Chicano Batman taco will be on the menu at HomeState through the end of the year.

The Valdez sisters recommend eating it while listening to Chicano Batman’s newest record, “Invisible People,” on blast, especially the title song, whose lyrics express a longing for peace and connection: “Everyone is trying to tear us apart / All we wanna do is heal now.”

Have you eaten any world-changing tacos lately? Tell me about it at patricia.escarcega@latimes.com.

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Some news

On Thursday, The Times announced the winners of its Gold Award (the team behind Post & Beam) and Restaurant of the Year award (Josef Centeno’s Orsa & Winston). The Gold Award is named for Jonathan Gold, The Times’ restaurant critic until his death in 2018. The award, as he described it, “celebrates intelligence and innovation, brilliance and sensitivity to aesthetics, culture and the environment.”

Laurie Ochoa, Gold’s wife and deputy editor with The Times’ Arts and Entertainment team, writes that Post & Beam “is an essential Southern California experience, a special night out where people dress up yet feel at ease and, as they walk out the door: happy.”

Writing about Centeno, Times critic Bill Addison refers to his “adaptive, graceful version of excellence in the maelstrom” of 2020. “On a culinary level,” Addison writes, “complexity has always defined his career. No one cuisine or style can express his hyperdrive creativity; his bio includes the poshest tasting menu settings as well as hidden barebone pubs.”

A limited number of tickets are on sale for a special dinner and virtual event with Orsa & Winston.

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Congratulations to this year’s winners.

Have a question for the critics?

Email us.

Our stories

— “Berries are great, but have you ever bitten into a peak-season peach and had its juice run down your arm?” cooking columnist Ben Mims asks. Excellent question. It’s peak stone fruit season, the right time to make Ben’s gorgeous yeasted breakfast cake with peaches and plums.

— In this week’s Newsfeed, Garrett Snyder tells us about Little Pine’s new chef, the next big move from Broken Spanish chef Ray Garcia and the second location of a deli known for its extensive selection of potato chips. Also from Garrett: How outdoor dining has become a lifeline for struggling restaurants.

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Jenn Harris writes about the return of Black Restaurant Week to Los Angeles. Mark your calendars: It starts Aug. 7.

— I write about artist Lauren Halsey, who is creating a pipeline to bring organic produce boxes to underserved South L.A. neighborhoods.

— Finally, some essential weekend reading: Gustavo Arellano writes about a special send-off for local legend Lucy Reyes, who waited on tables for 68 years at San Bernardino’s historic Mitla Cafe.

Lauren Halsey, founder of the community center, Summaeverythang packs produce boxes alongside7-year-old D'yani Luckey.
This week I wrote about Lauren Halsey, founder of the community center, Summaeverythang. Here she packs produce boxes alongside 7-year-old D’yani Luckey.
(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)
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