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[Photographs: Paul Bartunek]

You'll never find more than one or two people sitting and scarfing at the Benito's on Beverly Blvd., and you'll certainly never catch a line out the door. But grab a seat long enough and you'll notice one thing: there's always a new customer at the counter. Sometimes in a business suit, often in pajama pants, but always rushing in and taking out their orders. This is a true neighborhood taco spot.

Technically called "Benito's Taco Shop", the Los Angeles mini-chain offers supremely basic taco possibilities with all the loving décor of an 1980s mall food court, plus the added bonus of an "open late" sign. If you're looking for something a little heftier to help soak up the night, the carne asada fries or super nachos are a tasty option but most folks stick to the rolled tacos.

20120212-192568-Benitos-Rolled-Tacos-2.jpgNot unlike various taquito options you can find elsewhere around town, these tight, pre-made tubes of corn tortilla are stuffed with shredded beef and deep-fried. An order of these rolled tacos (three for $4.29 or five for a dollar more) comes smothered in vibrant green guacamole and a hefty handful of orange cheddar cheese, perfectly calibrated to be warm and melty by the time you get it back to your house.

The tacos are crunchy and satisfying, with the added gooeyness from the slathered toppings. Inside, the shredded beef is the same as what you can get in a larger flour tortilla down the menu board, but without enough ounces inside the rolled tacos to really pack much flavor. There's a delicate beefiness, but under all that toppings tonnage, that's about all you'll get. It's a cost-saving measure, but these otherwise tasty rolled tacos could stand a bit more beef, and to be made fresh to order.

At first glance, the normal soft tacos on the Benito's menu board seem astronomically priced—they're around $3 each. These aren't your taco truck Jalisco-style disks though. Big, palm-sized corn tortillas are steamed up and splashed with large spoonfuls of salty carne asada and more of that housemade guacamole. Toss in some low-rent salsa and you've got a salty, smooth, beefy, slightly wet taco that probably won't stay together past the second bite.

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The runt of the small tacos is the carnitas, a vaguely porky attempt at the Mexican staple. Instead of juicy chunks of slow-roasted pork butt, the Benito's carnitas is dry and flat with an almost jerky-like consistency that can't be saved by mere salsas or cilantro. What fails for the other tacos—the weak steamed tortillas, the wet and uninspired chunky salsa—is magnified with the carnitas taco, making you wish you'd ordered up another round of rolled tacos instead.

As the neighborhood slowly passes you by from one of the empty tables inside Benito's, you have to marvel at the Little Taco Machine that Could. Against all sorts of better competition around town, in some ways even against itself, Benito's remains a fan favorite for plenty of people, especially those within take-out distance. Call it the Power of Proximity.

Benito's Taco Shop

7912 Beverly Blvd., Mid-City West (map)

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