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Food

Newsletter: There’s no better place than Los Angeles to live the taco life

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A taco árabe from Los Originales Tacos Arabes De Puebla, a food truck that parks on Olympic Boulevard in Boyle Heights.
(Patricia Escárcega / Los Angeles Times)

Recently I reviewed Chinitos Tacos, a taquería in Lakewood with a charismatic chef and a compelling menu of Asian-influenced tacos. At his restaurant, Beeline Krouch pulls from a wide storehouse of Japanese, Chinese and Southeast Asian ingredients and sauces — including ponzu, lemongrass and a custom five-spice marinade — to give his braised and grilled taco meats flavor and depth. (A must-try dish: The burnt cheese taco with five-spice barbacoa.)

The cross-cultural innovation showcased at Chinitos Tacos is a hallmark of L.A. taco culture. In L.A., we have tacos grounded in Peruvian flavors (Pablito’s Tacos in the San Fernando Valley); tacos that evoke Algeria and Morocco (Revolutionario North Africa Tacos); and tacos as a medium for Korean barbecue (Kogi BBQ). We even have tacos that capture the fortuitous intersection of Lebanese and Oaxacan flavors (X’Tiosu Kitchen).

I love how chefs use tacos to express their heritage and history and to celebrate the flavors that feel like home. And there’s probably no better place on Earth to chart the dish’s endless permutations than present-day L.A.

I thought about this recently as I stood in a Boyle Heights parking lot, waiting in the October chill to order what is perhaps Mexico’s proto-“fusion” taco: the taco árabe.

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Los Originales Tacos Arabes de Puebla sells tacos árabes in Boyle Heights.
(Patricia Escárcega / Los Angeles Times)

Los Originales Tacos Arabes De Puebla, a food truck that rolls onto Olympic Boulevard every Wednesday through Sunday, is operated by the Villegas family, natives of Puebla, the east-central Mexican state that is one of the country’s important culinary crossroads. The truck sells everything from cemita sandwiches to the exquisite corn flour pastries called molotes. But its specialty is the taco árabe, a dish tied to the wave of Lebanese and Iraqi immigration to central Mexico in the early 20th century.

Tacos árabes are traditionally made from cumin-scented pork cooked on a rotating spit, the meat swaddled in a pita-like wrapper.

At Los Originales, the tacos are a swirl of deeply savory pork layered with strands of Oaxacan cheese and zigzags of hot sauce. The truck uses thick, fresh flour tortillas in place of pita, and the meat is garnished with fresh avocado slices. The north-of-the-border tweaks would probably irritate purists. But the taco has never been a pure thing. The árabe taco at Los Originales is another reminder of the ways — sometimes big, sometimes small — that food changes when it migrates from one place to another.

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And when you take a bite of the taco: The pork is salty and rich, threaded vaguely with spices more commonly associated with Lebanon than Mexico. You are tasting a moment in history when cultures intersected, but you are also tasting something vital, energized by new hands. And it is delicious.

Tell me your thoughts about the taco life in L.A. by emailing me at patricia.escarcega@latimes.com.

ASK THE CRITICS

Do you read blogs or message boards to find restaurants to review?

John P., email

When people find out I write about restaurants for a living, one of the first things they ask is: How do you find restaurants to review? The short answer: I get ideas from everywhere and everyone, including blogs and message boards. Along with blogs, social media has become an indispensable tool for sparking story ideas and finding new restaurants.

But even more so than Internet finds, I rely on personal recommendations (my colleague Amy Scattergood has been generous about pointing me toward interesting restaurants). And then there are the restaurant review ideas that seem to rise fatefully and mysteriously, usually when I’m driving around aimlessly and stumble onto an obscure-looking strip mall that is hiding the best beef noodle soup in the neighborhood. Los Angeles is blessed with a lot of those kinds of places. If you have any recommendations, email me at patricia.escarcega@latimes.com.

Strawberry shaved snow set at Spoon by H
A strawberry shaved snow set at Spoon by H, a dessert and Korean food cafe by chef and owner Yoonjin Hwang.
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times)
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