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Los Angeles: Strip Mall Tacos from a Le Cordon Bleu Chef at My Taco

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[Photographs: Paul Bartunek]

Ah, the strip mall Mexican food spot. There are few greater treasures in life than discovering a suitable taco and burrito operation slapped down in the middle of a run of lamp stores and Metro PCS shops. Thankfully, Los Angeles is filled to the brim with Mexican food and strip malls, which means the overlapping portion of that Venn Diagram is pretty large. There are a lot of good tacos inside L.A. strip malls.

Take the perpetually sunny My Taco on York Blvd. in Highland Park, set in the back of a pale mustard wrap of discount outlets and cigar shops. The unassuming cinder block walls help to hide a seriously cheery interior, with walls painted a wavy light blue and every single wooden chair a kodachrome of pinks, oranges, greens, purples and yellows. You'll find parakeets and suns tacked to every conceivable corner of the dining room.

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By all accounts, My Taco is a place for fun, sun, and tasty Mexican fare. It's also the unexpected home of a Le Cordon Bleu chef who spent time at Palate Food & Wine (now closed) under chef Gary Menes.

It helps, of course, that chef Jorge Garduño's parents opened My Taco in 1994, before handing the reigns over a few years back. Since then, the menu - and the interior - at My Taco have both been revamped, with a few surprising additions to an otherwise straightforward taqueria wall menu. The San Diego-inspired carne asada fries are popular with teenagers in the neighborhood as they arrive full and steaming from their large dinner plate, slathered on with sour cream, guacamole and sizzling chunks of beef. Borrego, or lamb, is also surprisingly listed, and as the house specialty no less.

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Now, lamb isn't altogether uncommon in Mexico, but it's a bit of a rarity in Los Angeles. Most places are happy to stew up some goat or shred some long-simmering beef, but the barbacoa de borrego at My Taco is something different altogether. The thick shreds are seriously spiced with a variety of chilies and slow-cooked for hours. The result is a pile of warm and mostly tender lamb, with a clean dose of earthiness to the meat. There are a few dried bits to bite through, but with a touch of salsa tom the well-appointed bar, you won't need much more than the double-stacked flour tortillas to see you through.

The carne asada is also handled kindly here, medium-sized chunks of dense flap meat that's got some visible scars from the grill. What the beef could use, however, is more salt and a touch of zippy spices to elevate these tacos from passable to fantastic. You'll also find enormous fish tacos here, overflowing at either end of your tortilla with batter white fish that is fresh on the inside but too thickly breaded on the outside. Rather than a light, airy piece of fish with a shatteringly satisfying thin veil of batter, these tacos are heavily dipped to the point of resembling a chicken tender.

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There are also execution issues with the chorizo, which arrived a bit too burned to hold up against the mild flavor. Picking past some of the extra-extra-crispy bits reveals a balanced (if a bit wet) chorizo that plays well with a pile of white onions and some cilantro, but whoever pulled this thing from the fire too late did a disservice to the pork.

There are certainly things to like about My Taco, especially the signature barbacoa de borrego. But many of the other tacos simply suffer from a lack of attention in the kitchen. There are quality ingredients at work and the execution is close, but Garduño's been around the kitchen long enough that many of these issues should be hammered out by now. At the very least, it's nice to know that My Taco exists as it does, stuffed into the back of yet another nondescript strip mall, ready and waiting for the next quick-fix eater.

My Taco

6300 York Blvd. #4, Highland Park (map)
my-taco.com

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