There were days, if you can believe it, when the strip of La Brea between Venice and Wilshire housed little more than an all-night Mexican drive-thru and a couple of mattress stores. Desperate days, before Adam Fleischman dropped from the burger clouds with his first Umami outpost just south of Wilshire. There were even days before the El Chato truck started parking behind the bus benches on the southwest corner of Olympic, pressed in by dumpsters and a locked-up auto repair shop.
Dark times, indeed.
Now, El Chato is arguably one of the most popular taco spots west of the LA River, nightly churning out hundreds of orders for cheesy quesadillas, meaty burritos and small Jalisco-style tacos with a ton of flavor. The diminutive trailer is now buzzing with four or five moving, sweating bodies, each chopping and flipping and bagging and taking money as is their station.
The line, once so scarce I gave them a Christmas card with $20 as a bribe to keep them in the neighborhood, routinely fans out towards the intersection with little regard for time or human life.
So what happened?
Basically, what happens between Venice and Wilshire didn't stay between Venice and Wilshire. Back in 2008, Los Angeles's angelic (cherubic?) food critic Jonathan Gold declared the carne asada one of the best things he'd eaten in recent memory, while in 2009 Susan Feniger chimed in to GrubStreet about the "amazing tacos." After that, the rush was on.
El Chato has been my taco truck nirvana for years. They consistently execute on a level that most other guys can't shake a spatula at. The buche here is soft and subtle, with little of the rubbery funkiness that can plague worse preparations around town. Paired with some mild salsa verde and a tong-ful from the menacing bowl of soaked habaneros and onions, the buche is a fast ride in a smooth car. Be sure to refuel with the sugary-sweet horchata.
As Gold attests, the carne asada comes finely diced and well-dosed with salt. After spending a few minutes on the plancha, tiny corners have crusted up nicely without drying out. Here is where El Chato's salsa roja is crucial. It is deeply smoky, a rich and thick burnt orange, speckled with seeds for extra kick. If you or someone you know suffers through mild jarred salsas at home, this may not be the truck for you.
The heat of El Chato's flavorful salsa never overpowers the other components, only amplifies like any reputable condiment should. When paired with the abundantly moist al pastor, shaved from the deep red vertical spit and warmed through on the plancha, the resultant bites will satisfy you in a very deep way. It is spicy and porky and complex, with the achiote rub balancing against the cool cilantro flecks.
The entire El Chato taco menu is a murderers' row of $1 can't-miss basics, each with its own distinct flavor profile and strict adherents. If you ask nicely, they'll even heap on some grilled onions and a crispy jalapeno or two.
This may be the closest I'll ever come to writing a love letter to one of my favorite taco spots in all of Los Angeles. (Unless they threaten to leave again.)
Southwest corner of Olympic and La Brea Mid-City Los Angeles (map)