Wednesday, November 24, 2010

My Pasadena Taco Adventure

First off, thanks to everyone who left comments, emailed me or sent me text messages about ideas for my 500th post. Out of a couple dozen suggestions, two common themes emerged: I should either do some kind of marathon-type thing with lots of pictures, or I should make or go out for a big meal with friends.

But I've got a couple big meals coming up in the next two days: an anniversary dinner with my parents tonight and, of course, Thanksgiving with a bunch of friends tomorrow. So I started gravitating towards the idea of something a little more ambitious, something that would be fun to do, photograph and write about.

Then the other day it hit me when I got a craving for a taco and decided to go someplace new: why not wait until the weekend and go to a lot of places I'd never been before in Pasadena? A Pasadena Taco Crawl, if you will. After considering options for a few minutes, I decided I couldn't hit up eight or ten taco joints in a row. I can't eat like I used to, so I decided to break it up into two rounds. My friend Tim, my guru on Mexican food, came with me for the first round.

Rosarito is down Colorado by Sierra Madre Blvd, although Tim explained to me that this is the third location of the restaurant that he has been to in his time living in Pasadena. (The previous one was that old house-looking structure right next to the In-N-Out on Walnut, a place I'd passed by countless times.)

I stood around outside for about ten minutes waiting for Tim to show up (I'd gotten there early) and I could tell the place was popular: three out of every four cars entering the parking lot, shared with several other businesses, were all coming here. Tim arrived and we went inside. He advised me that the al pastor is his favorite taco here, but I inquired about the chicharron (chile-rubbed pork) and he admitted he had never tried it. Even though we'd decided in advance to only get one taco at each place we visited, we each ordered an al pastor and a chicharron (99 cents each).

A few minutes later they were ready and I eagerly took a bite of each. The al pastor was great, but the chicharron was phenomenal: tender, slightly spiced, melt-on-your-tongue delicious. It's always nice to start out on a high note, but I knew at the time this was most likely going to be be the best taco of the day. (It was.)

This was my first time at Rosarito and I loved it.

Farther down Colorado, almost to Rosemead, stands El Super Burrito - for those who do not speak Spanish, that means The Super Burrito - a blue and white structure I have driven past no fewer than one thousand times in my life but never stopped in. (Tim has had the same experience, and when I described the place I was thinking of, he remarked "That place? Oh hell yeah, we're going there next.")

It was not as crowded as Rosarito, but there were a few people there and they all looked like it wasn't their first time. We each ordered another al pastor ($1.45), the tacos being ready almost by the time we parked our butts at a table.

The first bite was really good, and quite a different sensation from the previous taco. The meat tasted charred, that wonderful smoky taste you get from meat just off a grill. The second bite was just as good. However, by the third bite, it was overpowering. I finished my taco and spent the next several minutes pressing my tongue to the roof of my mouth to try and get the taste out. I could not, so there was only one thing left to do: hit the road for another taco joint.

I would be glad to return to El Super Burrito and try some other items, but I'm not in any hurry. The al pastor here wasn't bad, but it was intense.

We were discussing where to go next. "You know," Tim said, "there's this weird-looking place in a weird-looking location we could try."

"Holy Moly Guacamole?" I asked, having noticed it for the first time earlier in the day.

We walked in and were greeted by a very friendly girl.

"What's your most popular taco?" I asked.

"The asada," she replied without hesitation.

"What's your favorite?" I asked.

"Um," she cracked a smile, "I don't like tacos. Not at all."

I did not see that coming. But, seeing as how I'd already had two al pastor tacos, I ordered another ($1.25). We sat down to wait and were quickly given chips, salsa, and two kinds of hot sauce - a very hot one and a chimichurri sauce, the flavors of which I could not place.

The taco came out after a few minutes. The meat was tender but had an almost fruity taste to it, a sweetness to the meat that was not unpleasant, but it needed some heat. I spooned some hot salsa over it and it was much better. As soon as I finished the taco I noticed that it was perhaps the saltiest taco I had ever eaten. I started to desperately crave a cerveza.

I'd planned to go to Puebla Tacos up on Lake and Orange Grove, but I was relatively sure they don't have beer, and I really wanted one at this point. Puebla Tacos #2, however, on Villa and Allen, is a sit-down place that serves beer. I hadn't planned to eat at any places with waiter service on this day, but my thirst won out. We sat down at a table and I ordered a Pacifico, Tim a Bohemia.

It took a while to place our order (the waitress apologized for the wait, however, and all was forgiven) but we eventually each ordered al pastor tacos again ($2.25). It took less than half the time to get the food than it did to order it. The meat was tender and spicy, stewed with onions as sweet as candy. Unfortunately, the tortilla was the worst of the day, a dry, stale shell that interfered with every bite of the meat. I added some onion and cilantro to try and get some more flavors in there, even adding jalapenos to the last couple bites, but I just could not get past that lousy tortilla.

I would return to Puebla and have a burrito or something else, but if they think serving a tortilla like this is good, I doubt I will ever order a taco from them again.

Lake Taco, not surprisingly on Lake Ave (just below Mountain) isn't much to look at from the outside - a khaki-colored building housing it and a beauty salon. I've eaten a lot of meals in this part of Pasadena in the last year but have not been here, having always been happy with La Chona and El Taquito Mexicano. But this adventure was about trying new places, so we went there next. I knew this would be the last stop on this part of the tour, so I ordered another al pastor ($1) and took a seat.

There was no one else in the place but it still took the woman several minutes to put together our tacos. We both thought this meant we were going to get some fresh stuff. Wrong. This was the worst taco of any I tried. It was dry, lacking any flavor, and almost difficult to eat. If I hadn't been so full I would have gone to La Chona for another taco to get this one out of my mind.

The woman was nice and the food was certainly inexpensive, but these tacos just were not good. I imagine I never will return here; there are too many good taco places nearby.

I'd heard many good things about La Estrella but never been, I'm ashamed to say. When I first decided I wanted a taco from some place new the other day, the origin of the idea for this post, it was La Estrella to which I planned to go. There is a location on Fair Oaks but also this one that I went to, on Orange Grove and Garfield.

I decided that even though it was the next day, I should still try the al pastor ($1.10). ("Only one?" the guy behind the counter asked when I ordered. This was a question I received at almost every place I went.)

It was ready in less than a minute and I took a seat at the counter along the windows.

It was simply spectacular, one of the best I have ever had. This taco was so good that even if every other taco I ate on this adventure had been terrible, my idea still would have been worth it. It was generously full of meat, with radishes on the side, an entire half of a lime, and covered with sauce. The pork was tender, juicy, and very flavorful. It didn't need any sauce but I wasn't complaining because the sauce was awesome: spicy, but full of flavor. Too often spicy sauces do not contain much flavor, just a vaguely-chemical heat. This had enough flavor to complement the pork and enough heat to linger in my mouth for a few extra minutes.

I sent a text to Tim reading "La Estrella al pastor is phenomenal!" (Actually, I added another adjective in there for alliteration's sake and to make my point, but I won't be repeating it here.)

This was the best taco I ate during my adventure, surpassing the tacos from Rosarito. At $1.10, this is one of the truly great deals in town. I have a healthy appetite (in case you couldn't guess) but two of these might be enough to satiate me. I wonder how busy a La Estrella location would be if it replaced King Taco in Old Town.

I will absolutely be returning, probably as soon as this weekend, to try their fish tacos and have another couple of these al pastors.

In the evening I stopped by Arturo's, the taco truck in the parking lot on the corner of Fair Oaks and Bellevue. It was a cold night but the place was busy; there were at least 20 people standing around. I didn't want to take any pictures and disturb anyone so I just took my tacos to the car and photographed them there. I got a carnitas and an al pastor ($1.25 each).

The carnitas was a little dried-out, but still tasty. The al pastor was better. I had put some cilantro and onions in a plastic bag and after a couple bites of the meat I added some of the condiments to each taco. They were better that way.

I don't know if I would ever go back to Arturo's. I suppose if it was 2 in the morning and I desperately needed tacos... but I don't really have nights like that anymore, if you know what I mean.

My final stop of the evening, Los Tacos, is another place I have been close to many times but never inside - it's just a few doors down from Porta Via, on the corner of California and Fair Oaks. It's cute inside, slightly more formal than most of the places I visited.

I ordered al pastor, chile verde, and carnitas tacos ($1.60 each) and took a seat in the corner. There were a handful of other customers inside but my tacos were ready in about three minutes. The carnitas was nice, although somewhat bland. Pretty much all the flavor came from the onions and cilantro. The al pastor was the saltiest taco I have ever eaten, even more so than the one at Holy Moly Guacamole. The chile verde was my favorite of the three. It wasn't anything special, but it reminded me of Trader Joe's chile verde.

I don't see any reason to ever return to Los Tacos. To be honest, I don't really see myself returning to any of the places I wrote about except two: La Estrella will now be my go-to place when I'm on the west side of Pasadena; Rosarito will be my spot on the east side.

Thanks for sharing this adventure with me. Thank you for reading, whether this is your first time or your 500th. And have a great Thanksgiving.


Fritos and Foie Gras said...

oh so THAT'S what el super burrito means... ;) Those chicarron tacos look sensational! Congrats on your 500th post!

Michelle said...

I was hoping it would be something like this. Awesome.

Emily said...

Congratulations on the 500th post! I enjoyed that immensely. I have NEVER seen tacos for sale in England so they always seem kind of exotic... :D Have a lovely Thanksgiving!

JustinM said...

Thanks! My English friends call our 4th of July "Thanksgiving." Cheeky bastards.

If you ever make it to California I'll be happy to buy you a taco.

Nosh Gnostic said...

My, my, that was a ton of taco talk.

One observation - When we went to Holy Moly Guacomole there were 6 people seated in the restaurant (two were employees), all of which were eating a caldo (broth based stew) of some kind. One was obviously menudo. I didn't pay enough attention to the others to see what they were. This makes me think that maybe this is what this place is all about, which is exciting to me because I'm a sucker for a great cocido or posole.
I will be doing my own complete investigation on this. In the meantime, it's off to La Estrella to have the winning al pastor taco.

Anonymous said...

straight up E-P-I-C, pp. i feel like i just watched goodfellas or something.

JustinM said...

Wow. That might be one of the 5 best compliments of my life.

The opening of that movie is absolutely perfect. As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.

Irina Netchaev said...

WOW - Happy 500!!!! Quite an accomplishment. Thanks for taking me on the virtual taco journey with you... Awesome!!!