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Los Angeles: Charcoal-Fired Tacos at Casitas Tacos Al Carbon in Burbank

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[Photographs: Paul Bartunek]

During the cold California winter, where frigid temperatures routinely drop below 65 degrees, one might find it hard to muster up the strength to put together an old-fashioned charcoal fired cookout.

Not so at Burbank's Casitas Taco Al Carbon, the L.A. mini-chain specializing in the age-old "al carbon" charcoal grilling methods of Mexico. It's just a shame that the tacos at Casitas aren't all that inspired.

For ages, the art of charcoal grilling has inspired both amateurs and professionals to sizzle up any protein they can find, from yak ribs to beer can chicken to marinated strips of flank steak. If done right, the smoky flavors and crisp edges give way to juicy, tender meat underneath, and that's a taste that speaks any language.

Unfortunately, each bite of these carne asada tacos is an unfulfilled promise. Far from juicy, the beef is cubed into medium-sized chunks, just big enough that your teeth have to work through the tough bits. Each beefy taco pile is woefully underseasoned, with little more than a passing tinge of salt to keep you interested. Without cilantro or any white unions, there's nothing more than a chunk of lime to really hint at what should have been a wonderfully smoky taco experience.

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The al pastor doesn't fare much better, with large cubed chunks of pork looking like they took a quick dip in a marinade pool before being cannonballed onto the griddled tortilla. There's none of the complexity or depth of flavor that charcoal offers the common cooker. Then again, if you're making al pastor tacos without a vertical spit, you're already a step behind the competition.

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The chicken tacos, surprisingly enough, were the most successful interpretation of the al carbon style. Since chopped chicken is much more likely to fall apart on the cutting table, the resulting taco is brimming with tiny scraps of burnt edges, mostly moist breast bits and a tasty selection in between. With a nice drizzling of the surprisingly fiery salsa roja, these well-portioned tacos almost start to make you understand why Burbank seems to love Casitas Tacos Al Carbon.

Like most things, the tacos here start with the best intentions: just fire up a pile of charcoal, throw on some meat and keep the tortillas warm. But uninspired tacos like these just won't cut it.

Casitas Tacos Al Carbon

405 N. Victory Blvd., Burbank (map)

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