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Los Angeles: More Tacos Next to a Car Wash at La Cañada Taqueria

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[Photograph: Paul Bartunek]

Barely visible behind Pico Car Wash, just west of the Pico / Western intersection in that nebulous neighborhood (Mid-City East? Koreatown South? Harvard Heights?), sits La Cañada Taqueria. Little more than a cinder block building with a sunny paint job, this hidden taco spot serves up some of the best late-night eats around, no matter what the turf is called.

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Chorizo taco.

Ordering here is easy: just follow your nose. The only thing separating regular patrons from standing right next to the griddle is a single pane of glass and the lovely woman taking your order. It's tight quarters inside, which means you'll be getting a savory noseful before you even open your mouth.

Sizzling thin strips of salted beef are pounded flat and caramelize nicely. Bubbling chorizo rests in its own juices until someone asks for a scoop. Pungent, deeply porky whiffs of carnitas that tingle the home-cooked part of your sense memory.

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Carne asada tacos.

Once on your plate, these tacos taste even better than they smell. The tortillas are of the classic commercial variety, but they spend so much time crisping up on the plancha alongside all the meats, they're nearly a meal unto themselves.

When paired with the overflowing chunks of carne asada, the flavors are smoky and charred, beefy and moist. The long-simmering chorizo, given a final griddle kiss, is slightly spicy and wonderfully juicy in that fresh-out-of-the-casing, indulgently greasy way. These are tacos you keep coming back for.

At $1 apiece, it's no great shame that not every taco hits the mark. The al pastor, for example, isn't quite the real deal, especially given the space limitations in that diminutive kitchen. The lengua could be saved with just a bit more time simmering. Chewy (and possibly toughened up from oversalting), these aren't the soft and savory bits of tongue you might be hoping for.

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One of the real values at La Cañada Taqueria is the stellar salsa bar. Otherwise unadorned, the meaty tacos slide through a side window and right into the lap of salsa world. Onions and a heavy dose of cilantro come pre-mixed and ready for a scoop or two, with wedges of lime to add citrusy notes. The salsa roja is a lesson in restraint, offering a warm, deep flavor without scalding your tongue. My favorite was the creamy avocado salsa. Mixed with cilantro, it brings a cool richness to the deeper cuts like carnitas. And, if you're still feeling the need for heat, grab some pickled onions, carrots, or jalapenos from the bowl.

Los Angeles has an affinity for pairing taco spots with car washes. There's Tacos Tamix, El Pique, Tacos La Fonda and innumerable others we've yet to cover in this column.

Just be sure to keep your eyes peeled the next time you find yourself blowing through this nameless neighborhood en route to some place else. In Los Angeles, behind every good car wash there's a great taqueria.

La Cañada Taqueria

3131 W. Pico Blvd., LA (map)

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