Around many kitchens, the lowly potato simply serves as a starchy filler in the absence of meat or a supporting role to meat. After all, potatoes are cheap, easy to cook and season, and readily available all over the world. But at El Atacor #11, the Cypress Park outpost of a dwindling Los Angeles Mexican food chain, the potato tacos are legendary.
Across the tacosphere, the tacos de papas at El Atacor #11 are considered bona fide members of the L.A. Mexican food discussion. They are no low-level vegetarian stand-in for a supreme carne asada or otherworldly carnitas. They themselves are the object of so much attention. Jonathan Gold, that living seal of approval for all things food in L.A., has waxed poetic about the airy tacos he found at El Atacor #11 in 2006. Just this year, L.A. Weekly listed those same tacos in one of their always-divisive top ten lists. All this for a simple potato taco? Apparently so.
On a recent late night expedition (tacos just taste better after 11pm, don't they?), the table ordered up a few plates of tacos de carne to get the party started. First in the batting order is the carne asada, which normally serves as an appetizer for the more adventurous cuts. Except, at El Atacor #11, you might already be getting something funky with your asada. Perhaps it was the late hour or a bit of meat mix-and-match on the griddle, but the asada had an earthiness to it that you don't normally find on such straightforward cuts. The thin bits tasted almost metallic, but didn't have the clean mineral qualities you might expect from beef and salt. If anything, it was an inauspicious start to a night of taco tasting.
Both the carnitas and al pastor arrived as more of a stew than a standalone meat, the sort of thing you might pour onto a tortilla rather than slice off. That being said, the al pastor was a spicy, full-bodied rendition, lacking any hints of char or smoke but poking through with fruity acids and plenty of heat. The carnitas, however, was stewed to blandness, helped only by the salsa verde that arrived seed in and plenty fresh. At El Atacor #11, you also get your choice of red or white onions with your dash of cilantro, although neither version is terribly outgoing.
As is sometimes the case with Mexican food, the best tasting meat item was also the one least likely ordered by you and your friends. When it comes to El Atacor #11 and meats, you should be ordering the buche, a tender mix of esophagus and stomach. When cooked right, as it is here, the thin slices of meat are delicate and soft, with a fatty creaminess and underlying depth that comes with any cut of offal. When paired with the minced red onions and a thin salsa roja on double-stacked corn tortillas, it becomes a the kind of taco that potatoes should be afraid of.
Not at El Atacor #11, where the potato taco is all anyone seems to be coming in and ordering anyway (besides the obscenely long super burrito that is lovingly dubbed 'the porn burrito' online). You can call up a plate of the tacos de papas by the four-pack, six-pack or ten at a time. Depending on how late you arrive, a plate of ten crispy, greasy, cheesy potato tacos layered on with crema and thin house guacamole may be just what you need. For the normal human, a plate of six and a buche taco or two should suffice. These are indeed tasty tacos, firm at the fried edges and tossed on top with a handful of shredded mozzarella and glowing yellow cheddar. Inside, the potatoes are pure creaminess, whipped into submission by unknown forces with seriously large forearms. There is no salt, pepper, or other spice to speak of, simply pureed potato in a golden half-round tortilla. It's as if a pierogi snuck south of the border.
Splashed on top with the thin crema and squirt-bottle guacamole, it's easy to see why this is considered such popular late-night food. However, it's not as easy to understand why the sober side of this city continues to adore the tacos de papas at El Atacor #11. Sure, they are tasty, and warm and filling in that always-satisfying way, but they're never anything more than that. It's hard to fault the place for providing such a simple meal and not moving me to tears, but it just feels like there should be something more on that plate than what I'm getting.
Is El Atacor #11 a victim of its own success? Perhaps. It may also be a victim of its own ingenuity. While fried potato tacos are not new to the Mexican food lexicon, these creamy, crunchy, ten-to-a-plate versions aren't exactly menu mainstays at some of the other venerated spots around Los Angeles. They are strangely, these simple potato tacos, even if you know it's not the taco you should be going home with at the end of the night.
Taqueria El Atacor #11
2622 N. Figueroa St., Cypress Park, CA 90065 (map) Open 7am - 4am