Los Angeles: Inside-Out Al Pastor at Tacos El Compita

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[Photographs: Paul Bartunek]

If you're trying to make a name for yourself somewhere along the expansive taco crawl that makes up the eastern half of Pico Boulevard, it helps to stay visible. Sure, Tacos El Compita has the brick-and-mortar restaurant, serving up tortas, burritos, and a selection of hearty soups and stews, but once the sun goes down they start to turn heads by pulling all their kitchen equipment outside and cooking up tacos right there on the patio. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the tacos are pretty damn tasty, too.

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It's a peculiar sight to drive by Tacos El Compita once the tacos have been fired up. If you didn't know any better you'd think there'd been a small flood and the kitchen crew was just trying to save their equipment. But, you still pay inside, and you still get your drinks inside, and they keep all the napkins inside... Oh, forget it. It just works, especially on those warm early spring nights in Los Angeles that like to remind you that, for us, summer is almost here.

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People may gawk from their cars at a taco stand seemingly run by Inside-Out Boy, but the foot traffic inevitably steps up to the plate for one very good reason: the al pastor. Slowly rotating on its vertical spit, the ribbons of pressed, marinated pork are allowed to gradually cook through while the resultant juices work their way along the meat from top to bottom. A hefty cross-section of pineapple sits atop the pork throne, giving the final product a nice once-over with spiky citrus notes. With a final swing, a deft hand picks off the crispiest bits, and with change left from a Lincoln you can grab a patio seat with four extremely tasty tacos.

Place your $1.25 taco orders with "everything" and you'll get a pastor plate splashed with both roja and avocado salsas. What could be enough to drown out less spectacular meat instead helps to round out the edges and provide some nice layers of flavor. The pork itself is deeply satisfying in that meaty, sometimes crunchy way. The roja offers a nice coating of warmth in your mouth, while the avocado salsa plays peacemaker, cool to the edges without taking over the tastes that have come before it. And that's just the first bite.

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Already overshadowed by the glistening tower of rotating pork, the carne asada at Tacos El Compita shouldn't be overlooked. There are actually two men working the double-sided outdoor prep and cook stations, and while the al pastor doesn't really have much competition here, the guy slinging carne asada with his back to the street still knows his way around a plancha.

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Started on the charcoal grill, beefy cuts are then splayed out on the darkly seasoned plancha for a quick final sear before catching the cleaver blade and getting scooped up onto a warm, crisp tortilla. A judicious amount of salt won't have you heading inside for a Jarritos, but it will definitely offer a richer bite that shines through the avocado salsa and a pale, admittedly sot of pathetic, swath of pico do gallo.

Once you actually decide to stop at Tacos El Compita instead of just drive by, the novelty of the outdoor cook station starts to dissipate pretty fast. There's no gimmick here, just an al pastor spit, griddled tortillas, and a warm breeze.

Tacos El Compita

4477 Pico Blvd., Mid-City (map)