L.A.’s next taco sensation is a mariscos truck in Silver Lake
Francisco Aguilar calls out the name on my order. Through one of the windows of Simón, the admiral-blue mariscos truck he parks six days a week at Sunset Triangle Plaza in Silver Lake, he hands me a plate with two tacos — a fish al pastor and a shrimp-filled gobernador.
The always-evolving options for tacos total 10 or so, and during the last couple months of regular lunches at Simón, solo or with friends, I’ve started taking care to request tacos in even numbers. Aguilar and his small crew pair them by happenstance as they’re ready. As a taquero, he leans modernist in his sculptural forms and outside-the-box shadings of taste and texture. Eating his coupled tacos is as satisfying as considering a duo of paintings by the same artist made in two very different moods.
Imagine every element of the classic al pastor taco, subbing fish for pork: the pineapple sweetness, the deep ruddy stain of achiote paste, a slick of guacamole to smooth and unite. There are also departures from tradition. Onions appear two ways — fried for crunch and caramelized (splashed with soy) for umami. Cilantro, as on most of Aguilar’s tacos, appears as fronds with soft, small leaves or tiny white buds. With all its moving parts, the overall effect is delicate, delicious subtlety.
For his take on the gobernador — which is far more overt than the al pastor, a still-life next to an abstract — Aguilar looks to the quesotaco craze. He griddles queso Oaxaca into a precise, evenly bronzed circle and rolls it into a thin tube stuffed with grilled shrimp and bell peppers, which he sets on top of a corn tortilla with a brambly crown of pickled red onions. Melted cheese crackling between the teeth, followed by the pop of just-cooked seafood? This thing is easy to love and devour.
When it comes to tortillas, and cooking in general, Aguilar is experimental. Currently he buys masa from El Mexicano Market in South L.A. Sometimes he uses yellow corn and sometimes blue, but lately he’s decided he likes the toothy-soft bite that comes from combining the two of them, resulting in beautifully mottled canvases on which to create. There will never be such a thing as oversaturation in L.A.’s taco culture, but wild cards are always welcome, and Aguilar rates a categorical free-thinker.
He was born in the United States and raised in Oaxaca City in Mexico. After graduating from culinary school there, he worked in restaurants that included Pitiona, a staple on best-of lists for its tasting menu focused on traditional Oaxacan ingredients. He returned to the U.S. at the start of this decade with a plan to open his own restaurant. Aguilar’s cousin Alexis Chacon grew up in Los Angeles and believed in his talents; last year Chacon partnered with Aguilar on launching a lonchera to help establish him locally.
The cousins test-ran early locations in Culver City, Venice and around West L.A. In April, thinking that Hollywood might be a better fit, they were driving up Sunset Boulevard through Silver Lake when they noticed the patch of park flanked by food businesses, including ever-busy Pine & Crane, Coffee Memes and the Win-Dow Silver Lake dispensing burgers and fries. They pulled to the curb for the day to see what the response might be like. Nine months later, Simón feels settled in as part of the community.
Why introduce himself to Los Angeles via mariscos? Aguilar says the medium feels like “a playground in my head,” a template receptive to his imaginings.
These restaurants are so defining of what it means to eat and live in Southern California — that they’ve earned a place of honor for all time.
Among leche de tigre-laced ceviche and a classic, tangy coctel churning with fish and octopus, Aguilar tinkers with four variations of shrimp aguachile. The most traditional version ripples with the heat of chiltepin chile and has a limey pucker to rival Gilberto Cetina’s tautest citrus marinades at Holbox. Food obsessives have been zeroing in on Aguilar’s aguachile negro, made by charring tomatillos until they’re blackened and then pureeing them unpeeled with ice and Worcestershire sauce. Lime juice jolts this one too, but a whiff of campfire mellows the sting. Habanero and garlic also haunt the sauce; their combined flavors curl around the shrimp and half-submerged hunks of avocado.
I return for the aguachile rojo, which hasn’t been the most popular of the bunch but which Aguilar keeps on the menu as an evocation of Oaxaca. Its base is chintextle, a Oaxacan smoked chile paste blended with (among many ingredients) avocado leaves, shrimp heads and lots of garlic. The tastes are earthy and herbal and ultimately warming — a fun paradox for a chilled seafood dish.
The taco that for Aguilar most reps his home state is the pescadilla, a folded fried taco synonymous with the Costa region of Oaxaca and the neighboring state of Guerrero. I remember relishing the pescadillas at the heartbreakingly short-lived Tamales Elena y Antojitos in Bell Gardens, where the Lorenzo-Irra family illuminated the Afro-Mexican cooking of Guerrero’s Costa Chica. Their pescadillas were thin and shattering; Aguilar’s are puffy, nearly a masa empanada, encasing shrimp and tilapia in a marinade of tomato, onion, cilantro and oregano. He anchors it to the plate with a dense bean puree and showers it with finely crumbled cotija.
I urge you to order one, though the more I try from Simón the harder it is to breeze through the standout tacos in one sitting. A duo of shrimp and bacon delivers straightforward pleasure. So does the taco inspired by enchilada suiza, condensing its rich comforts into grilled shrimp, swirling molten cheese and sharp salsa verde; it disappears in four bites. Palm-sized soft-shell crabs, when they’re available, are fried and sparked with pickled onion, finely diced pico piña and dots of chipotle mayo.
Baja-style tacos, built from fried shrimp or fish, sport the telltale squiggles of mayo and the curly tuft of cabbage. They’re familiar and exactingly pretty … and also the least interesting thing on the menu.
Aguilar drifts away from seafood with a carne asada taco; I recommend it mostly as a vehicle for his half-dozen prismatic salsas. He makes salsa macha full of mulchy, crunch and nutty flavors; guacachile I could basically drink; and a carrot-habanero situation that tastes as earthy-sweet and hot as it sounds. The newest addition is the most special yet: salsa de chicharrón, a traditional condiment smoky with morita chiles and winningly chunky with strips of softened pork rind. It’s amazing on any of the tacos but particularly rewarding on the soft-shell crab for the crackle-squish textural contrasts it lends.
The salsas live in a cabinet along the truck’s side panel. They’re hard to miss; the colors are magnetic. Use them liberally, whether you’re taking your mariscos to go or claiming one of the shaded tables in the plaza. Aguilar usually quotes you a time; if no one else is around the turnaround is quick, five to 10 minutes.
I should disclose, though, that the word is increasingly out on Simón. Last time I was there over the holidays, a crowd milled around the truck. I noticed a daunting line of orders stretching along the metal ticket holder above one window. It took nearly 45 minutes before I was enjoying my fish al pastor and gobernador.
Mostly I didn’t mind. Exciting, creatively assertive tacos like these never stay a secret for long in Los Angeles. Nor should they.
3667 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, instagram.com/simonfoodla
Prices: Aguachiles, ceviches and seafood cocktails $14-$16; tacos $4.50-$5.50
Details: Open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Limited seating in adjacent plaza. No alcohol.
Recommended dishes: Aguachile negro, aguachile rojo, fish al pastor taco, gobernador, pescadilla
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