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El Huarache Azteca #1 ~ Highland Park

10:45 AM PDT on May 29, 2008


El Huarache Azteca ~ 5225 York Blvd. Highland Park, CA 90042  (323) 478-9572

The most valuable piece of Los Angeles real estate should be whichever abodes currently bookend HP's famed El Huarache Azteca. Some days I imagine living next to this spectacular restaurant and swelling to King Kong Bundy-sized proportions before dying at age 41 of a massive coronary. Instead, El Huarache's neighbor is one pissed off family man in a 'beater. Park in front of his shit, and you might get your tires popped. Just warning you, I saw him lose his temper.

But the restaurant itself is no less than saturated with home-cooked love. This is soul food and everything makes you "ooh" and "aah" when you get it on your tongue, with flavors rich, pleasing, and often unique. A small dining room of red tile rocks a corner shrine to the Virgin. Then where a counter to order should be is just a tiny kitchen crammed with 3 abuelas and one large dude, hustling to and fro, standing over an Everest of sizzling meat with adjacent peaks. The cozy energy in the air is charged with a feeling of family, no matter if you recognize the faces or not. Everyone simply seems at home here.


Since El Huarache can do no wrong, one visit is surely not enough to dally in their few specials and nice selection of meats, which achieve a splendid golden tan under the cook's skilled hands. Their barbacoa is phenomenal but only served on weekends. So why not start with a huarache, that beautiful mess! A flat oblong of fried masa smothered in asada or pastor, drizzled in rich cream and sprinkled with crumbled cheese, its doughy base resembles something you'd Whack-A-Mole with, as much as anything you'd put it in your mouth. This naan-like flatbread looks like something attacked by a munchies-bent Mexican Jackson Pollock, who I picture in a retardedly happy mood, layering whatever ingredients he happened to have spazzily from this jar and that on the last slice of toast and inadvertently creating a miracle.


Something about it looks dry before you taste it, but a well-made huarache can be among the creamiest combinations of flavor in the Southland(s). The smooth consistency and subtly sweet taste even conquer the normally dominant strains of chopped onions and fresh cilantro, which co-star on the huarache. Azteca's meats are super sublime, spiced and marinated with elaboration and served steaming right off the grill. For the hardcore, and as a reminder to the rest of us to go nuts with the red sauce, each table holds its own small bowl of tiny, dried, lethal-looking chiles.


Similar in a sense are Huarache's quesadillas, especially the quesadilla con calabaza, which is a house favorite. This one doesn't look like a standard quesadilla but hey surprise, more like a huarache! It is a folded flat bread of noticeable thickness, again with the crumbled cotija cheese and stuffed down the seam with lots of squash and melted goodies, looking like a tiny edible version of that futon you once tried to stuff into your car. The first bite tasted exactly like movie popcorn,  with salty, buttery cheese and a corn base. Despite a solid appearance, the whole dish is inexplicably gooey and soft, disintegrating in savory, stringy nibbles between the teeth. I'm typically not trying to eat squash as an free-willed adult, but here it contributes an earthy, herbal flavor to the crazy party going on around it, striking a nice cord with the cheese specifically. It's a good way to get a lot of veggies while eating awesome food.


This joint is also famed for its juices. Oh shit! After a recent hot Saturday on a 7-hour field trip with over 100 kids to see MASK the Musical, you better believe life had me knackered. So if you're hung over or dehydrated or just plain pooped, these'll cure what ails ya. Piña brims sweetly with pulp. Housemade Horchata is a step above many, floating tiny scraps of cinnamon bark in its sugary water. It still has a lightly powdery consistency which didn't completely blow me away, but it felt like drinking something natural nonetheless, and nothing like a soft drink.


How about some tacos?! Isn't that what we're all kinda here for?

The tacos are orgasmic at El Huarache Azteca, some of the town's very best, I say. The adobado had the purest, freshest tastes. The pork shines like its straight from the deli, with so much strong, clean flavor. Look at the color above, no gray, no red... The tortillas (a great taste themselves), the top one grilled to a crisper texture than the soft underbelly tortilla, are filled with so many tiny bits of pork, the taco could almost be a breakfast cereal. Some bits are charred, some chewy, but each small nub splits apart with oil and juice that hint of a dozen different seasonings. Grilled onions add sweetness, while some of the meat is salty, and cilantro is the only other player, providing some spark. The whole thing is very wet and undeniably incredible. The asada is composed of bigger cuts of meat and is slightly tougher, deliciously oily, and a completely kickass showcase for the eatery's wicked talent with meat!


It seems El Huarache's got one of those legendary grills that kisses everything it touches with inspiration, flavor, and some form of magic. People often visit me, especially former Southern Californians, and say they want killer Mexican food cuz they can't get it in wherever-the-fuck. If it's one of the gals dem, I'll take her to La Parilla in Boyle Heights, where we can drink fruity booze, trip out on the decor, and make googily eyes over rooms full of smiling family units and mariachi singers. The fellas I'll bring here to El Huarache, where the family-heavy environment and warmth are scaled down, but are still tangible in the kitchen's warmth and dedication to excellent eats. Besides the dope mural of Popacatepetl and Iztaccihuatl, there's no need for much ornament or pageantry at El  Huarache Azteca--the festivity, beauty, and artistry are abundant in the food.

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