We've seen puffy tacos before in Los Angeles. Classy casual chef Josef Centeno's downtown spot Bar Amá offers them as a near rite of passage for anyone looking to break into LA's Tex-Mex game. But after Bar Amá, the next best place to get crispy, fried puffy tacos around town is...where? Anywhere?
One place: Arturo's Puffy Taco, in Whittier. Aside from Bar Amá's upmarket version, Arturo's is virtually the only place you'll find the decidedly Texan fried delight. In fact, Arturo's prides themselves on doing a lot of things in the supposed Tex-Mex tradition—with varying levels of success. There are Texas burgers and hot dogs wrapped in tortillas and something called Texana Strips (more on those later), if you weren't already grasping the theme. The best part? Everything's cheap, so you can run through the menu while barely breaking a $20 bill.
Ordering is simple—Arturo's is a walk-up window sort of place, so scan the menu board to the right and then press your nose up against the screen until someone inside notices you. The puffy tacos ($2.75 each) are offered in an array of meats, including carne asada, chicken, carnitas, and a pile of thickly stewed beef, known as a guisado. Which protein you proceed with is entirely up to you, but let it be known that the chicken is probably your best bet.
While the moist, shredded bird doesn't contain much reason for lip-smacking on its own, the tender juiciness is a welcome addition to such a hulking, crispy shell.
Others, like the carne asada, come packed with thick, salty bites that have played around on the grill for a bit, but lacking any sour cream or wide splash of salsa, you may be in for a touch of dry mouth.
A word about those tortillas: they're plenty airy, with tenement-thin walls that give in at the edges with just the slightest provocation. What's left is a slightly more dense, chewier bit of interior masa that acts as the structural support for your taco, keeping track of all that loose shredded cheddar and those wayward strips of lettuce. It's a nice composition—at once crispy and chewy—that makes you understand why these things could be so popular elsewhere in the country.
The same can't be said of much else on the menu. The Texana strips, so beguilingly named outside, reveal themselves inside the dining room to be nothing more than low-grade tortilla chips topped with unmelted cheddar cheese and swimming in a tangy, almost unpleasant avocado sauce. The so-called Mexican dogs are really just squishy beef franks wrapped in a corn tortilla and deep fried until the edges are a disconcerting black. Yes, you'll find a little rivulet of melted processed cheese inside, but it's not enough to keep the need for ketchup packets at bay.
As for the Texas Burger, it's...well, it's a cheeseburger.
Unless they're using pure Austin ranch beef or flying in the commercial white buns from a Gerland's Food Fair market, this thing doesn't qualify for Texas citizenship in any way. It's not even particularly large. At least the patty is well-griddled and there are a few crunchy pickles to add some tang and texture.
Arturo's Puffy Taco is a great destination for anyone looking to get a peek into the window of a TexMex world, but it lacks the finer points of the regional food speciality. What you're left with are the puffy tacos, crisp and wide and really, really fun to eat—and not a lot else.