Thursday, April 13, 2006

Walking the Walk -- Taquito Talk

Cielito Lindo
23 Olvera St. E
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 687-4391

Juanita Cafe (Juanita's)
20 Olvera St. E
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 628-1013

La Noche Buena
12 Olvera St. E
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 628-2078

See links below for further information.

The very first restaurant I remember visiting, at age 3, was the venerable Lupe's in Thousand Oaks. I was three years old. I had a hamburger. On my next visit I had taquitos, and I've been hooked ever since. Lupe's waitresses used to wager on how many taquitos I could down during a meal. They usually lost. Not long after, my culinarily-challenged mom discovered the frozen Mar-kes brand taquitos (before they became "Marquez" and changed their recipe much to the worse) that came six to a box, complete with a frozen baggie of the unique creamy avocado puree that seems only to appear on taquitos. I was perfectly happy to have 'em for dinner three times a week, and mom was happy to fry and oblige.

So when I heard a few years ago about the "world-famous" taquito joint at the bottom of Olvera Street, I had to check it out. And Cielito Lindo is certainly famous. Their website claims Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, and Marlon Brando as enthusiastic -- albeit dead -- regulars. There's almost always a line there, and while there are some token other items on the miniscule menu, everyone's ordering taquitos, including me. But after years of performing quick "drop me off and drive around the block" maneuvers with my wife to procure them anytime we were within three blocks of the place, I got curious about the other taquito joints that line the East side of Olvera Street. Last week, I decided it was time for a taquito walk, just to make sure I was really addicted to the best taquitos on the block.

I love Olvera Street, for shopping, food, the swirl of mexican trinkets and clothes, the competing mariachi bands, and the genuine history at the heart of the city. Starting at the bottom of the hill, on the corner of Alameda and Cesar Chavez, is Cielito Lindo itself. A shack, a decaying sign, a counter, dudes rolling up piles of shredded beef machaca into fresh tortillas and dropping 'em into two big, wok-like deep fryers, a couple dozen at a time, serving 'em up fresh, hot, and perfectly crispy at the edges. There are two or three indoor tables, but this is street food, best eaten sitting on the brick planter wall right across from the shop. The taquito is like a mexican hot dog in that it has only three ingredients: meat, container, and sauce. But the sum is greater than its parts. Cielito Lindo's are undeniably delicious, and frankly closer in vibe to my old Mar-kes frozen favorites than what you'll get if you order a taquito at a restaurant. These have no salsa fresca, no chunky guac, no finely grated white cheese, and certainly no fuckin' sour cream. If you must taint your taquito, get the "combo" that comes with beans and cheese, and put a little of the smoky red salsa picante on your paper plate.

The Cielito Lindo taquito itself is almost chewy. The meat is sinewy and subtly seasoned. The sauce is tangy, and so thin that it's hard to believe it came from an avocado. It coats the slender golden-brown taquitos like hot green candle wax on a supermodel's fingers. You can't eat just two; I prefer them the way Mar-kes used to dish 'em up: by the half-dozen.

But on this day, I settle for two, and move on up the street.

Juanita Cafe, a few doors up, has people buying stuff besides taquitos, but taquitos are still the top item on their menu. As they should be. The differences between Cielito Lindo's and the fried rolls of goodness here are subtle, but noticeable. The machaca is a little more adventurously seasoned, and simultaneously fluffier and more substantial. The fried tortilla fights back a little, but isn't as downright leathery as the one down the road. And the sauce, the all-important sauce, is a scoche tangier, slightly thicker, with a little more of a kick. And a fiery salsa rojo similar to CL's is available for you heat-seekers.

I'm here to tell you that Juanita's makes the best taquito on Olvera Street.

Next up the street is El Rancho Grande. Same deal here: a wider range of menu items, but taquitos still get prime billing. Now to non-taquito lovers, no doubt all taquitos taste alike. But for me, this one just kinda sucked. Flavorless tortilla, average beef, and sauce that was over-whipped into a sort of avocado meringue. Not unlike the knockoff crap from those companies whose frozen taquitos, sadly, replaced Mar-kes.

Next up, La Noche Buena (ah, remember the delicious and festive Christmas beer of the same name from Dos Equis? No longer available in this country... I've asked) showed real promise. The taquito shell fried up a little bit flakier that the others... not chewy at all, but light, almost reminiscent of an eggroll skin. Nice. The sauce, too, was more complex: closer to guacamole, with visible bits of cilantro swimming in it. Add a little salsa verde with big chunks of onion and cilantro from the giant bowl on the counter, and you've got an attractive set of taquitos indeed.. But the final result was disappointing. The slightly acrid taste of overtaxed cooking oil -- or perhaps less-than-fresh machaca -- spoiled what was the best-looking taquito of the bunch.

Then there's Rodolfo's, the last taquitoria at the top of the street. And here, humble reader, I've let you down. I miscalculated my taquito intake on the way up the street, and was just plain too full to sample their deep-fried tubes of glory.

The waitresses at Lupe's would be very, very disappointed in me.

But perhaps it's a boon for you. You don't want to hear my take on EVERY taquito joint on Olvera street do you?

So do me a favor. Go to Rodolfo's. Let me know how it is.