Review: In Lakewood, our critic considers burnt cheese tacos and carne asada mac ’n’ cheese
Beeline Krouch, his tanned arms extravagantly tattooed, slides around his small restaurant with the restless energy of a teenager. He passes out free food samples unbidden, jokes with his staff and quizzes customers as they’re halfway out the door: What was your favorite dish?
Krouch is the chef and owner of Chinitos Tacos, a counter-service restaurant that opened last year in Lakewood. Before he opened the taqueria, Krouch spent years cooking in the kitchens of Thomas Ortega, the Chicano “pocho” chef behind Amor y Tacos in Cerritos and Long Beach’s Playa Amor, among others. It was in those kitchens that Krouch got the nickname that lends his restaurant its name: Chinito, Spanish for “little Chinese boy.”
For the record:
4:29 p.m. Oct. 3, 2019A previous version of this story gave the incorrect phone number for Chinito’s. The correct number is (562) 403-0343. Also, the restaurant name is not rendered as Chinito’s but Chinitos.
Still widely used across Latin America, where it’s loosely applied to anyone of Asian descent, “Chino/a” has been increasingly condemned as racially insensitive, derogatory and otherwise lazy. Krouch, who is Cambodian American, has embraced the nickname as a term of endearment, assimilating it as part of his culinary personality. His given name, Beeline, evokes a different part of his personal history: A native of Long Beach, he was named Beeline, he explains, because his family made a “beeline” for Long Beach during the waves of Cambodian refugee settlement in the 1970s and ’80s.
At Chinitos, Krouch cooks lavishly flavored comfort food. He makes tater tots encrusted with cotija cheese and crisp, frizzled bits of garlic. He dredges cauliflower in rice flour and fries it to an immaculate crispness, then dunks it in a sweet chile sauce (a combination, he says, inspired by his mother’s Cambodian-style fried chicken). His carne asada mac ’n’ cheese is a thick, buttery welter of chopped, well-seasoned beef and noodles in a thick, homemade cheese sauce, drunk food of the highest order.
The most popular thing on the menu at Chinitos Tacos is the burnt cheese taco: fried Monterey Jack cheese molded into a chalupa-shaped taco shell, filled to bursting with charred, blistery nubs of carne asada, or maybe a fibrous tangle of braised carnitas. The fillings may change but the taco’s exterior remains more or less the same: a crisp, lacy, wafer-like shell, toasted every shade of sunset orange.
There are fine renditions all around Greater Los Angeles, but the burnt cheese taco at Chinitos Tacos is particularly good: dosa-thin, golden-brown around the edges, and sturdy enough to hold lavish quantities of drippy, long-cooked guisados. The experience of eating it is half crunch, half suppleness, all salt and fat; a juggernaut of pleasure.
It’s tempting to ascribe auteur qualities to the work of professional chefs, to read menus for traces of personal history and examples of vivid individuality. Krouch’s cooking has these qualities, but it’s also deeply practical: That burnt cheese taco is on the menu to sate the Keto crowd, who reject carbohydrates but embrace fried cheese. His marvelous vegetable taco — a sinewy, meaty mix of King oyster mushrooms, yams, battered cauliflower and farmers market carrots — answers a growing demand from his vegetarian and vegan regulars.
And like other modern-day L.A. taqueros, Krouch has remade the taco in his image. His cooking is refracted through the palate of a first-generation kid who grew up on Taco Bell drive-thru fodder but also the home cooking of his Cambodian mother.
His cooking rarely makes direct references to traditional Cambodian cooking, but he pulls widely and frequently from a storehouse of Japanese, Chinese and Southeast Asian flavors. Ponzu gives his carne asada an unusual and welcome brightness; his pollo asado is tinged with lemongrass. His bespoke Chinese five-spice marinade imbues braised lamb barbacoa with a lush, spicy quality.
There’s a soulfulness about Chinitos Tacos that draws you back to it. Much of the appeal radiates from Krouch himself and his restaurant’s feel-good ethos. The chef calls it “the spirit of ohana,” the Hawaiian word for family and connectedness with the land. Every morning, he wakes at 5:30 a.m. to surf the sheltered beach break in Huntington Beach that surfers call the Cliffs, a ritual that sets the tone for his day.
“There’s no anger or any bad stuff in my mind when I come into my restaurant, because I’m relaxed. I’m ready,” he says.
The good vibes are palpable in the dining room, cheerfully decorated with bright gold Mylar balloons and a modest jungle of potted succulents.
On a recent night, his team passed out free samples from the restaurant’s drink menu, which includes a hibiscus-lychee jamaica agua fresca with chia seeds, and a robust Thai tea spiked with horchata. Outside a group of surfers started to gather in front of the restaurant’s storefront, shaking hands, pressing shoulders; at the center of it all, there was Krouch, smiling.
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