One of L.A.’s best pop-up taquerias touches down in Boyle Heights
In September, Jonathan Perez was settling his roving taquería, Macheen, into an open-ended residency focused on breakfast and lunch at Milpa Grille in Boyle Heights. While developing new menu ideas, he noticed that baristas Xuan Carlos Espinoza and Joel Espinoza (also set up long-term at Milpa Grille, their pop-up is called Cafe Cafe Mobile) were brewing pour-overs using beans farmed in Puebla, Mexico. Thinking about Puebla, Perez’s mind veered toward its most famous specialty, mole. Maybe he’d make one that incorporated coffee?
The notion took form in his taco de pollo en mole blanco. Its white sauce may be neutral in appearance but in taste, it spins like a color wheel. Over the phone, Perez detailed the galaxy of ingredients: white chocolate, coffee, heavy cream, sunflower seeds, golden raisins, star anise, cinnamon, whole clove, peppercorns and, as thickeners, torn bolillo and animal crackers.
Perez braises chicken in dashi as an umami booster before shredding it and tossing it in the mole. In the flavor melee, sweet and savory align rather than spar; the balance allows the spices to come forward and throw off sparks.
Spread over a jagged-edged, inky blue corn tortilla, the look of the filling reminded Perez of the walnut-tinged sauce for chiles en nogada. A sprinkle of pomegranate seeds rains over the taco in homage.
This kind of made-in-Los Angeles ingeniousness has defined Perez’s cooking since he began Macheen five years ago. Raised in Compton, he was on his way to becoming a professional skateboarder when a car accident at 17 changed his life’s course: After recovering, he dedicated himself to the kitchen.
Writer-impresario Bill Esparza helped delineate Perez’s emphasis on tacos by giving him a slot in the 2016 Tacolandia festival. His unbound style — salmon two ways, say, with grilled Little Gems over a tortilla stained orange by chile cascabel, dressed in a cross between salsa macha and XO sauce inspired by a trip to Hong Kong — won him L.A. Taco’s annual Taco Madness competition last year.
Prepandemic, Macheen set up regularly at Smorgasburg L.A. events downtown on Sundays. Perez had added massive breakfast burritos, their griddled tortillas barely containing the molten innards, to the weekly-changing lineup of alta cocina tacos.
At Milpa Grille, where he sets up Monday to Friday, he decided to dial back the flourishes of edible flowers and spoonsful of roe for his tacos and double down on fundamental appeal.
Perez bases his birria taco on his mother’s recipe: Before coming to the United States, she migrated from Guatemala to Tijuana at an early age. In the beef, you can taste wafts of garlic, the herbal twang of bay leaf and the bite of Mexican beer. Perez finishes simmering the meat in a red wine demi-glaze infused with guajillo chilies. Onions marinated in citrus deliver crunch and brightness.
This is the winning outline he follows for his taco compositions: complex, saucy, deeply considered richness with keen blasts of acid for contrast. Onions pickled escabeche-style offset suadero, with the soft ropes of brisket anchored by pureed chori beans and tomatillo-spiked avocado salsa.
Planks of pork belly, their crisped edges tingling with red chile and vinegar, flop over the sides of their tortillas. Refried black beans billow around the pork in dark clouds; dollops of avocado salsa and squares of grilled cactus lighten the landscape. I go auto-pilot on this one, blinking in surprise each time one is devoured in 90 seconds.
The corn tortillas come from Tortiyas LLC, an organic offshoot of the La Jolla Tortilleria brand. Plush flour tortillas for fish tacos are made in-house using fat rendered from the suadero. A smear of roasted jalapeño tartar sauce brings fleeting smokiness to beer-battered cod, with a pretty overlay of frisee and watermelon radishes. The fish taco has been something of a secret menu item: Customers ordering takeout through an online link via Macheen’s Instagram page will need to hack the system by requesting a listed taco and then asking to sub in a fish taco in the notes section that pops up at checkout. It’s worth the workaround.
The breakfast burritos are still brutes — intricate, comforting in texture and flavor, stupefyingly filling. Perez scrambles eggs until fluffy with Swiss cheese; he likes its creaminess and nuttiness. (I do too.) Tater Tots, dusted with dried chiles and spices when they emerge from the fryer, lie in wait with their sneaky crunch. There are the meaty options: birria with chipotle aioli, pork belly with avocado salsa and Filipino longanisa (a favorite) with salsa macha. There is also a pair of vegetarian choices: grilled mushrooms, marinated in al pastor-style spices, and Brussels sprouts frizzled to papery crisps.
I’m in the habit of asking for extra avocado salsa and salsa macha to pour over the burritos and the staff is gracious about it.
Burritos reheat magnificently at home. Tacos? Tacos are a moment. Milpa Grille, which also still serves Deysi Serrano’s Mesoamerican-inspired enchiladas and protein-vegetable bowls at lunchtime and into early evening, has a small streetside patio with spaced seating. Customers bring out their food from the restaurant; there’s no table service. This is, for me, the least fraught way to dine outdoors right now.
Sometimes I race to my car to eat the tacos hot there. I have taken them back to my apartment too. But they taste best the way Perez intended them — their elements just married, eaten minutes, if not seconds, later, at his base of operations for the foreseeable future, in the neighborhood that is the epicenter of L.A.’s limitless taco culture.
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