There's something seductive about mystery, right? The girls like the bad boy because they don't know what he's really about. The allure of the Phantom of the Opera, a man who, as near as we can tell, hangs out in sewers and wears half a mask because backwards jeans were already taken by Kris Kross.
Walking up to a lonely taco spot with an innocuous name, you don't really know what you're going to get. Maybe the asada works here, or the buche, or both or neither or nothing. It's the mystery that pushes me through the door.
At Tacos Al Pastor, there is no door and there is no mystery. A short, stubby taquero stands on the corner of Kingsley and Santa Monica Blvd., trompo spinning and spitting little bubbles of warm grease and pineapple juices. There's a walk-up window and a bubbling cauldron of various other cuts of meat, but the jig is up when you first spy the name along the awning of the tiny yellow building: This place serves al pastor. Ordering anything else just doesn't make sense.
Yet, other options there are. They come in burritos and quesadillas, mixed in with eggs or served with tortillas on the side. The carne asada works as a beefy Mexican staple, but it doesn't pack the explosion of flavor you might be looking for. It's certainly well-crusted, a nod to the smallish man working the trompo and the plancha, but lacks a higher quality cut of beef or a heavier dose of salt. Or both.
The carnitas isn't stewed the way it should be, if only because they don't have the room. The pale pink pork is chopped into the sort of cubes that don't fall apart, a testament to the juiciness (and flavors) lost during the cooking process. They guys inside the standing-room-only hut manage to crisp up the edges, but there's no mystery in that either. Just heat up some lard, toss in a few edges of stewed pork shoulder for a minute or two. It's not the real thing, but a crunchy fried bite now and again may try feebly to convince you otherwise.
The chorizo comes straight from a full, boiled link. As a result, it retains all of the juiciness and packed in flavors that come from the casing, but without some sort of snap or bite, the taco comes off somewhat wet. The man working the griddle would be wise to let these freshly chopped sections of chorizo rest on the hot plancha for a minute.
Yet, despite these shorcomings, all is forgiven with the al pastor. That slowly rotating trompo, pressed down with thin ribbons of pork and darkened at the edges from the vertical flame, is mesmerizing. The slices come fast from the spit and land straight on to your griddled double-stacked tortillas, lacking a chunk of pineapple but no worse for wear. The long-basting meat has begun to fuse together, leaving each swipe of the knife with a sizeable chunk of solid al pastor.
A warm dose of achiote and the acid notes of citrus play in the background, while the smoky, charred edges emerge. The pork is tender and flavorful and seemingly endless, as one lengthy chunk blends into another and another until, before you know it, the taco is gone.
The tacos al pastor at... Tacos Al Pastor... need no garnishment, but a few leaves of cilantro and a diced white onion or two will do wonders for any meal. Paired with a largely unassuming salsa roja, the taco stands tall and shine. That's why the name is on the building, that's why the name is on the taquero's shirt, and that's why Tacos Al Pastor continues to draw in a nighttime crowd, mingling on the street corner. Mystery solved.
Tacos Al Pastor
Corner of Kingsley Drive / Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles (map)