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East Los Angeles

Tacos 101 With Bill Esparza ~ Part 2: Condiments, Meats, and Tortillas

As a public service to the taco lifestyle, we have asked famed street gourmet Bill Esparza to drop some taco knowledge in this ground-breaking series we call TACOS 101. Read Part 1 here.

Condiments

This is an essential skill of the taquero. The best stands actually pair salsas with their menu items. The red salsa is for the buche (hog’s maw), but try the green salsa on the suadero (brisket). It’s okay to have only one or two salsas if you are specializing in a single item, or just a few items. More isn’t better if the salsas aren’t good.

Nina's salsa bar in East Los Angeles

The salsas should be colorful, fresh, and stylized. The station should be maintained, and the vegetables should be vibrant and fragrant. The area should be clean. A poorly maintained condiment area, especially when things are slow, is a sign that you’re dealing with a hack, or a careless taquero. You’ll know when you come across a top tier stand by the condiments.

Where’s the Beef?

In Mexico, taqueros are specialists. Carne asada should be flame roasted with charcoal or mesquite. Anyone working carne asada shouldn’t be cooking any other meats. If it is cooked on a flat iron, it isn’t asada, it’s called bistec (steak). The verb asar means to roast, and you can’t roast on a flat iron. Al pastor (spit roasted pork in adobo) or adobada (adoboed,a regional name for al pastor) is performed by a lone specialist. If you have asada and al pastor, there has to be a minimum of two taqueros. Brisket, buche, tripe, chorizo, longaniza, eyes, brains, cheeks, tongue, sweetbreads, and head can be done by a pair of taqueros, or a single taquero. These are called tacos de fritanga in Mexico City. A stainless steel comal with a convex grilling area is the beacon for this style of cooking. Chorizos, briskets, and offal are mingled and fried in the well of the comal, while the brains, head, and other delicacies are steamed. The selection is usually around six different meats, but there are places that have all the aforementioned cuts.

Lengua (tongue) Tacos

Fish tacos are performed by a specialist, with the only other menu item being shrimp tacos. This is done in a stainless steel comal with a concave well for frying. Some fondas serve great home-style fish tacos along with a larger menu like Mariscos Becerra in Playas de Tijuana, or McLulu’s in Loreto. These are sometimes cooked in a cast iron pan, just like families do in their home kitchens.

The quality of the meat and selected cut should be of the upmost importance. Seasoned taqueros select the proper meats, fish, poultry, and vegetables for their tacos, and have professional knife skills. Poor knife skills are a dead giveaway that you’re dealing with a weekend warrior.

Tortillas

Handmade or recently made? Flour or corn? Crispy or soft? Store bought? Made from scratch or from corn flour?

The tortilla is important. Hecho a mano means handmade on the premises. Recien hecha means they were purchased from a tortilleria. The northern states of Mexico, especially in Sonora where they do the best carne asada, flour tortillas are common. These range from small taco sized flour tortillas made from scratch or from a tortilleria, or the sobaqueras, thin flour tortillas the size of a pillow case. In the south and central regions of Mexico, corn is king. Corn tortillas are used in every state in Mexico, always depending on the cuisine, and some states use both equally.

Cheap store bought tortillas are a no no, but there are some quality brands out that the taquero might choose because of the neutrality of the tortilla or for deep frying, but in most cases, there’s no excuse for this. Homemade tortillas please!

The use of store bought tortillas is too common in Los Angeles. Let your taqueros know that you’d rather pay a few cents more for the real deal.

Lastly, the range of tortillas whether they’re made from corn or flour is vast in Mexico. Different textures, consistencies, and flavors are available. This is another area lacking in Los Angeles. A corn tortilla from one truck to the next is that same soft, bland, wrinkly wrapper. Look out for the stand with a signature tortilla.

Previously: Part 1. Next: Part 3

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