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It’s Time for This Hidden Cal-Mex Taco Dorado Specialist in the Arts District to Shine

[dropcap size=big]B[/dropcap]etsy Leon wants to give you a piece of her childhood by way of a taco dorado. Chuy’s Tacos Dorados is a two-year-old taqueria in the Arts District, and a recently opened Van Nuys location, that serves gloriously fried tacos. But Chuy’s as it currently stands has only been around for about a year. 

If you remember driving by and seeing a different name, it’s because they were previously named “Medtillas.” It was similar to their current concept but in addition to their food offerings, they also sold CBD infused tortillas they made them in-house. In 2018 after the FDA made it illegal to sell infused-food, they stopped selling CBD products and pivoted to just selling the food made from Leon’s family recipes. To avoid any confusion, Leon changed the name to Chuy’s Taco Dorados, both as a nod to Leon’s father’s nickname and the recipe he passed down to her. 

At Chuy’s, they do everything just as their great grandparents would—no cutting corners. Take for example the carne desebrada (shredded beef), it’s simmered for six to eight hours. Their cheese? Shredded daily. The frijoles puercos are made daily, refried with chorizo. All of that comes from Leon’s dedication to serving food that she grew up with. She’s made it her mission to only serve food that meets the standards of comida casera (home cooking).

A burrito at Chuy's Tacos Dorados.

“I want them to taste just like I would serve them in my home. I want to serve comida casera,” Leon offers as the defacto mission statement of the taqueria.

As for their tacos, there’s a lot of precision involved in getting that delicately crunchy shell. The first step in preparing the tortilla—which she informs me are sourced “from East L.A.”— is to heat it up to make it more pliable. A cold tortilla tends to crack and spill all its contents during the frying process. Then they add the filling, your choice of potato or shredded pork, but the most crucial components for the frying process are temperature and timing, which fluctuates depending on the number of tacos being fried. She uses corn oil.

It was both about access and adjusting the tastes to reflect Angeleno’s cheddar-loving sensibilities.

When Leon was developing the recipe she found that an extended fry results in an overly hard taco shell. After four months of trying, she found the sweet spot that results in a brittle tortilla exoskeleton without drying out the inside.

A Change to Cheddar for the Better

Each taco at Chuy’s is dressed with lettuce, onions, and plenty of shredded cheddar cheese. The last ingredient is where Leon’s tacos begin to deviate from what she grew up eating. “In Mexico, we used queso fresco or cotija but you can’t get good Mexican cheese here,” explains Leon. 

Since she couldn’t access good quality Mexican cheese she opted for sharp cheddar, based on a recommendation from her aunt. It was both about access and adjusting the tastes to reflect Angeleno’s cheddar-loving sensibilities. “The cheese is good, you find good things, and you mix them and make something amazing,” Leon says.

In that way, the tacos dorados at Chuy’s are a form of taking back a dish that’s been heavily commodified—the hard shell taco—and bringing it back to being made with that old school Mexican love and attention to detail.

The results are undeniable, the shell has an audible crunch while still managing to be airy. The tacos with shredded beef are a perfectly packaged gift that has a mellow beefy flavor that’s only enhanced by the salsas. The cheese starts to melt once you pour salsa and the various flavors and textures combine wonderfully. The potato tacos are equally good, the insulated potatoes are creamy and welcome the taste of tomato in the salsas. The quesadillas are made with shredded beef and potatoes which sing of chipotle; smoky, spicy, and slightly sweet.

From Sinaloa to Baja California to Los Angeles

Leon grew up in Tecate, Baja California where she developed a profound love of tacos dorados. “Down in Mexico you eat taco dorados like once or twice a week, a potato taco, of course, is the go-to,” says Leon. Naturally, the potato tacos are her favorite. “The tacos de desebrada were more of a luxury because we couldn’t always afford meat.”

Her family migrated from Sinaloa to Tijuana before she was born, eventually settling in Tecate, where Leon was born shortly after. In Sinaloa, her great grandparents (on her father’s side) owned a restaurant, and one of their specialties was tacos dorados. Though she never got to eat at the restaurant, her father knew the recipe so he would make them at home.

A quesadilla at Chuy's Tacos Dorados.

At 24, Leon left Tecate and migrated to Las Vegas then moved to Monterey Park in 2015. In the states, she noticed that what she knew as tacos dorados were markedly different than what she grew up with, and she believes part of that has to do with the difference in the eating habits in the U.S.

And that’s the thing about Chuy’s, it’s a lesson in simplicity and a reminder that food is often too abstracted. It's a kick in the ass that reminds you: The best foods are simple.

“Here in the states everyone is tight on time, you work so hard and everything, so what do you do? You eat out,” Leon argues. “I wanted to try a potato taco and what do they give me? A premade hard shell, then they put hashbrown, then they put lettuce, then cheese, and a packaged salsa. Every time I tried them I was disappointed.”

Where Salsas are Served Warm and Made with Beef and Chicken Broths

The two salsas at Chuy’s are a bit different than what you may be used to: They are served warm, because to Leon, salsas are a form of consomé. The salsas are tomato-based but the secret is they add a bit of beef and chicken broth. The green salsa is a spicier version of the red, made with jalapeños, and you might find yourself thinking of drinking a few containers and wondering why this salsa isn’t standard with all tacos dorados. Both of the salsas at Chuy’s are simple but infuriatingly effective.

And that’s the thing about Chuy’s, it’s a lesson in simplicity and a reminder that food is often too abstracted. It's a kick in the ass that reminds you: The best foods are simple. When asked what Leon’s parents think about her tacos in the Arts District of Los Angeles, she answered with a smile, “They love them.”

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