Serious Eats

Los Angeles: Amazing Tinga Tacos with a Smile at Tacos Clarita

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[Photographs: Clay Larsen]

Should you find yourself pitching along in El Sereno, a hilly eastern suburb of downtown Los Angeles that's sandwiched between Alhambra's Chinese food takeover and the mansions of South Pasadena, you'll probably end up talking to Clarita Trujillo. It seems that the whole neighborhood knows her, and she makes quick friends of every stranger that crosses her patch along Huntington Drive.

You could say that Trujillo is perfectly built for this sort of bold socialization—small and elderly, but whip-smart, with flashy lipstick and a fast smile—but that would deny her true passion: cooking. She's the name behind Clarita's Restaurant, better known as Tacos Clarita, a bright yellow taqueria borne from decades spent in a Mexico City kitchen.

Trujillo may not be a household name anymore, but she certainly enjoyed a dose of small fame after her cooking caught the attention of an L.A.-based Spanish language morning show a few years back. And while patrons used to flock to the Boyle Heights version of Clarita's, a leasing issue forced the restaurant to close up shop in 2010, according to an L.A. Times article on Trujillo from 2011.

Now, Clarita's is up and running again in El Sereno, a few miles from the original location, but often with a fraction of the customers. Still, Trujillo floats around the sparse dining area and outside, haranguing passersby into trying a tamale or coming in for a sip of horchata. Truth be told, a lot of folks walk on without taking Trujillo up on her offers, but they're missing out. Tacos Clarita is serving up some of the tastiest handcrafted Mexico City tacos you'll find in the area.

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First, those tamales that Trujillo likes to offer up to anyone on the sidewalk. They come thick with pressed masa and stuffed with either pork, stewed chicken, cheese and jalapeƱos or a chocolate-y mole concoction that can be a bit overwhelming. They're moist enough, but aren't bursting with flavor from inside their wrapped corn husk. Still, a spoonful of the pale salsa roja easily livens up the party. Similarly, the quesadillas are straightforward interpretations of a longtime classic, but by themselves aren't enough to pull you in off the street. The flor de calabaza (squash blossom flower) quesadillas come warm and exceptionally cheesy, with onions and those wilted calabaza bits that give a nice textural contrast and punch of earthiness, with just the faintest touch of caramelized sweetness.

For all of her smiling proclamations, Clarita Trujillo really ought to be talking up the tacos. Full of simmered meats and laid open on a bed of perfectly plancha'd tortillas, it's the tacos that showcase Clarita Trujillo's true passion. The tinga is her specialty, a fully realized mound of shredded beef that arrives smoky and succulent, mixed with little bites of translucent onion. It's juicy and spicy and savory, even without the extra cilantro, white onions, and splash of salsa.

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And as good as that beef is, the tortilla might be even better. Thickly patted and wonderfully griddled, each masa round arrives with deep brown blisters and crisped edges. It's airy and soft in the middle, almost like a thin puff bread, with a dash of salt and lime for flavoring. Other taquerias wish they patted up tortillas this tasty.

You'll also find big piles of carnitas on the menu. Without the crispy, fatty fried edges, these aren't pure perfection, but the tacos are served chunky and salty, with a tenderness that works well with a surprisingly complex salsa verde. Piles of shredded chicken are stewed in juices for hours and come drenched in a chile-tomato sauce, imparting deep satisfaction with each bite. You won't need salsa for a taco like this, just an open mouth and a few napkins.

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The al pastor is a fun take on a non-trompo version, where the pork is marinated and chopped into workable bites alongside lots of onion and citrus. Once fully cooked, the meat is given a sear on the griddle to create some of that same smokiness and texture you'd find at a true pastor spit around town. If anything, Clarita's version is juicier than your regular street al pastor, owing to its time in the marinade, instead of slowly spinning in the open air.

In everything at Tacos Clarita, you can feel a sense of personality. Far from a dingy Eastside taqueria that sniffs out gringos with suspicion, Clarita Trujillo and the team that cooks behind her are beacons of positivity, family and kindness. Her smile and warmth transcends language barriers, and her cooking does much the same thing. Go to Clarita's for the tacos and stay for Trujillo. Or maybe it's the other way around.

Tacos Clarita
5026 Huntington Dr., El Sereno, CA 90032 (map)

About the author: Farley Elliott is a writer and comedian living in Los Angeles. He writes about strip mall food for LA Weekly and covers the LA beer scene for KCET.

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