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El Gallo Giro ~ Huntington Park

12:22 PM PDT on August 29, 2006

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7148 Pacific Blvd (@ Florence) ~ Huntington Park, CA 90255 ~ (323) 585-4433  (TACO Map)

Having spent some time in Huntington Park in the past year, I have grown to love the area, especially the bustling commercial strip of Pacific Boulevard between Florence and Slauson. One of the most action-packed hubs here is the sizable "El Gallo Giro" restaurant on a corner with Tokyo-sized foot traffic. I met up with TACO-loco editor Hadley and an OG Vegas friend of ours from the juvenile delinquent days, along with his dog, Buster, so that we could tackle the restaurant's formidable best-seller: the torta cubana ($6.95).

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Upon entering, you find your senses gang-banged by the multicolored papel picado decor strung from the walls, the almost too loud pre-recorded mariachi music, and various confusing lines of people. Gallo Giro is usually pretty busy -- for restaurants, this is typically a good sign, no? Unfortunately, the set-up is slow and inefficient: there is one line for ordering at a taco station, one line for ordering tortas, one line for guisados (stews), and then one line used to order homemade horchata, atole, and fresh juices, then one to pay. It's crazy but it suits the place, the aggravation is just part of the Gallo Giro experience.

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The tacos here are good -- actually a little more expensive than the trucks, but the tortillas and ingredients are a little more substantial than most. It is the torta cubana here that is really la estrella. Hadley, reaching to his days in Havana, thought this was going to be a Cuban sandwich: a pressed sandwich with dill pickles, roast pork or ham, and Swiss cheese. But the torta cubana is an entirely different animal, a beast with a belly of pierna (marinated pork leg), milanesa (breaded beef), ham, head cheese, avocado, a chile, a slice of fresh Mexican-style white cheese, and beans.

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If you don't know what head cheese is, don't ask. And skip this next paragraph because ignorance is bliss. I'm one of those guys who will try crazy, weird food and often come back for seconds. For those of us for whom the risk of food poisoning from the local ceviche on your honeymoon in Colombia is just part of the adventure, this explanation is for you: Head cheese has been described as a kind of lunch meat made from "parts of a hog's head, which are boiled together with spices and gelatin, then cooled and sliced, [resulting in] a mosaic of meat chunks." The gelatin melts into the soft bread (baked on the premises) under the interior heat of the meats, contributing to a velvety texture in the overall experience, leaving flavorful pork trimmings strewn across your plate. The sandwich is a huge mouthful and every bite seems to yield a different mouthful of meat, some spiced and thin, others chewy and lightly sauced. The aguacate, cheese, and beans give off creamy sensations as you maw and tear at the layers of carne.

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It was a nice day, so we took advantage of the outside tables on the busy street. Hadley swears that he felt like he was getting Mad Cow Disease with each bite after I broke down the head cheese recipe, but, "in a good way", he assured me. It's not that spicy on its own, so I asked for some red chile to augment my dining experience. The on-site bakery, which contributes the sandwich's delicious bun is also full service, making cakes and all of the standard Mexican pastries. The good folks at Gallo Giro also provide a service to send cash remittances back to Mexico ala Western Union. Apparently, they know their customers well and must be giving the people what they want; like I said before this place always seems busy. In what also might be a measure of their success, they have nine other locations in the Southland, and are migrating north to look for opportunities in Oxnard, Oakland, San Jose.

I guess we can sum it up by saying that El Gallo Giro is a bit more than your average restaurant, and its torta cubana is quite a bit more than your average sandwich. By all means, if you go to El Gallo Giro at any of their locations, try the torta cubana, head cheese be damned. Thanks to their inefficient ordering system where they make the damn thing in front of you, you can ask them to leave off the head cheese if you really want to wimp out. Headcheese or no, the sandwich is still a pretty intimidating one. They do make it easier by slicing it in half for you, but bring an appetite if you expect to finish a whole one. Better yet, split it with a friend, and your arteries will thank you later.

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