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Los Angeles: Westside Tacos Al Carbon at Tacomiendo

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[Photographs: Liezl Estipona]

One of the big gripes about Mexican food in Los Angeles is a lack of options west of, say, La Cienega Blvd. Well, maybe it's more of a knock on the Westside neighborhoods than the cuisine itself, but there is no denying the scarcity of homemade tortillas, bubbling weekend menudo and grilled tacos al carbon the closer you get to the beach. Thankfully, Tacomiendo exists to help fill that gap in all three categories mentioned, plus a whole lot more.

There are actually two Tacomiendos, separated by a couple of miles. Or, in Westside traffic-speak, about 90 minutes away.

For some reason, small local restaurants with only two locations always have a clearly superior one. In this case, it's the outpost in the dinky strip mall on the corner of Inglewood Blvd. and Culver Blvd. Tucking into one of the few storefront parking spots may require some special maneuvering to miss a chunk of the curb, but if you can get anywhere close to the plate glass window up front it's worth it. There, under the glow of an open sign, is the first of many signposts that you're in the right place: a stout Hispanic woman with wrists like anacondas pulling off hunks of masa from a tub, rolling the mass into a ball, and using a press to squeeze off taco and burrito-sized fresh tortillas with alarming speed.

A quick spin on the plancha (no spatula needed here, just fast fingers and years of practice) and you'll soon be face to face with warm, slightly crispy hand-patted tortillas. All you've got to do is walk through the door.

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Once inside, the hanging menu board takes up a large amount of real estate, pushing down the top of the ordering window to about waist height. The available options run the gamut from small plate antojitos like flautas and sopes to nearly a dozen burrito possibilities and just as many tortas. Hamburguesas make an appearance on the board, although I've never seen anyone order one - this isn't Yuca's. There are also a few combination plates available, where your slab of meat comes with a side or two and a stack of those fresh tortillas.

For any college kids on a budget or those looking to fall into a food coma, it's important to mention that many options here can be served "super," which is short for GIGANTICIZE EVERYTHING TO THE POINT OF DELICIOUS ABSURDITY.

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A small menu section is dedicated to tacos al carbon, those charcoal-infused grilled meat specialties we've heard from before. A simple list of meat choices is all you need to know here: pollo, carnitas, adobada, asada, lengua and a few other options down the food chain. In al carbon places like Tacomiendo, the chicken is always a top option, simply because it grills up so well. The coals give off a real smokiness and chars the fattier edges nicely, leaving just enough tenderness on the inside to not have to drown each taco in salsa.

Similarly, the carne asada here is built for success. Flap meat is slapped onto the grill and judiciously seasoned with salt, then left to rest over the flames. No fussing and turning, no poking and checking; just a few guys with tongs who really know what they're doing. A quick flip to give the other side some tasty grill marks, then it's chop-chop and right into my waiting tortilla. The marinated pork adobada beams that orange-red achiote color, but that's about where the colorfulness ends.

For all the flair, the taste is left a little bland. Turning up the heat in the marinade would do wonders here. These bits also aren't handled with nearly as much care, and a few chewy bites can be a real turn off.

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The grilled lengths of green onion are always a welcome, if a bit unwieldy, addition to the plate. Otherwise, it's straight to the salsa bar for the standards like cilantro and diced onions. The deep red salsa roja is as smoky as the grill, with that back-of-the-mouth warmth that is so satisfying. The salsa verde is on the tamer side, but pairs nicely with the freshly fried chips on hand. Make a quick stop off for a few slivers of the spicy pickled carrots while you wait for the main event; you won't be disappointed.

Westside Mexican food apologists can point to a few different options within striking distance of the dreaded 405. Susan Feniger's Border Grill sits just along 4th Street in Santa Monica, while back in Mar Vista The Alibi Room slings Kogi tacos from the kitchen. And, of course, Tacomiendo, a delightful bastion of homemade tortillas and charcoal-fired tacos. But these are a few painfully obvious exceptions to the unfortunate rule: Westside Mexican food continues to be in short supply. Is there any place you'd recommend on this side of town?

Tacomiendo

4502 Inglewood Blvd., Mar Vista (map)
(310) 915-0426

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