A Hamburger Today
Los Angeles: Calle Tacos in Hollywood, from a Truck Inside a Restaurant
That chunk of Hollywood Blvd., near where it bisects Highland and the corners clog up with tourists waiting patiently against the Do Not Walk hand, is ritzy and dirty and hot and loud and very, very well known. For out-of-towners and new arrivals, there's this beating sense that success is possible here.
Maybe you're just the guy in the Zorro outfit, mugging the camera for money. Or maybe you're the attractive blonde inside Grauman's on the big screen, earning someone else's lifetime in 90 short minutes. For Calle Tacos, pseudo-parked just down the street from all the bustle, success is a dream with little chance of being realized.
You know you're in trouble when you walk into Calle Tacos and find one-third of a taco truck staring back at you. The conceit is that the tacos you can get here rival any of those found on the loncheros and latenight trucks peppered throughout the city. But as with most ideas stretched out along this section of Hollywood Blvd., the lack of authenticity (and quality) makes for a disappointing experience that I'd like to think even the tourists could see right through.
Step up to the order window, under the traditional truck awning, and stare into a fully realized kitchen, gleaming under fluorescent lights. Although al pastor earns high billing on the menu board, there is no spinning trompo of pork. While carne asada is by far the most popular option, the kitchen smells more like Lysol than smoky meats or sizzling fat. Salsas are doled out in small plastic cups, prepared and scooped somewhere out of sight. For a place so small, and with a visual gag as inviting as their Frankentruck, not having any kitchen eye candy or do-it-yourself salsa bar feels disingenuous.
The tacos arrive on slightly oily store-bought tortillas, slick enough to not feel crumbly and dry, but lacking any charred bits or leftover bits from the grill. Inside, chopped cilantro and white onions can't do much to give the tacos any star power. The al pastor never finds any depth, instead it just sort of rolls around in your mouth, lacking crisp corners or any deeply flavorful citrus notes. There is a hint of the achiote that gave the meat its burnt orange look, but not enough save the poor fella.
Similarly, the carne asada is dry and limp, never reaching full potential as the juicy, salty swarm of beef you know is possible elsewhere. The second level salsa roja (there are mild and hot options, although neither break the top of the thermometer) tastes legitimately homemade, with a smoky thickness reminiscent of El Chato. It's a welcome addition in the way that good ketchup can make you eat a few more tasteless fries than you otherwise might.
The fish taco is fine enough, assuming you can find the fish. Delicately fried to a golden, flaky brown, it's definitely down there, waiting to be found. The problem is the unsightly squeeze of chipotle mayo (heavy emphasis on the mayo side of the equation) globbed on top and cooling underneath. With about two-thirds less of that stuff, Calle Tacos might be on to something.
Indeed, their closest attempt comes with the carnitas, a quietly porky affair that doesn't try to do too much, if only because it isn't able. No special rubs here, no heated marinades that infuse the hog with heat or cumin or habanero or anything else. This is straightforward braised pork shoulder, delicately fried at the edges and with enough taste to give that salsa something to play with.
As touristy spots go, Calle Taco is in a particularly well-trafficked one. With the amount of daily visitors no doubt poking their heads in to get a look at the truck-inside-a-restaurant concept, you'd like to imagine a world where the food would be better. Unfortunately, it isn't.
6508 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood (map)