The Merry-Go-Round of Meat – Leo’s Tacos, Los Angeles
Venice Blvd. A street filled with too many cars, sign-spinners on the corners and Affordable Portable cell phone stores all around. When I was working in this area near Culver City/Mid City, I’ll admit, I wasn’t very into it. It is cluttered, busy and pretty much in need of a major manicure. Walking around here, it was common to be approached by drugged up runaways or all-day bus riders â€“ harassing me for some change. But this is Los Angeles, love it or leave it. The good thing is though, things get much better here in the cloak of darkness. After the sign spinners have spun their asses off, cell phone shops have closed and the day zombies have retreated, one thing does stand out on Venice Blvd. â€“ the taco trucks.
I usually don’t pay attention to the taco trucks for some reason. I love my taco stands and tables because I can stand there and watch. It’s as close of an experience as you’ll get in Mexico â€“ it’s real street food. Just visit York Blvd. in Highland Park or Pico Blvd. near Pico/Union area. When Jeni and I were in Mexico City last, there was sheer excitement and assurance. For what? For the fact that no matter which taquero we approached, we were in good hands. Tacos as low as 10 for $1. Nice.
But as usual, for the last 4-5 years, Bandini of Great Taco Hunt has scoured only the best for Angelenos. Although he doesn’t favor the offals and entrails as much as I do, one thing he does love is al pastor. Especially from this particular truck on Venice Blvd. My friend, who some of you may know as the twitterific, Tricerapops, texted me one night to meet him here after he had read Bandini’s posting. Yes sir! A man with triplets needs to get out and breath some smoggy LA air once in a while, right?
We parked in the taco truck lot, which was also a gas station, and met up with Tricerapops. There were about 10-15 people standing around. Some ordering from a cashier who stood outside the truck, some people loading up on their condiments and some people just hanging out.
Aside from the food being prepared in the truck, there were also a few people huddled around a spit. One look at the yellow object atop the spit like a star on a Christmas tree, I knew why Bandini had been so excited about this place. Al pastor con pina tacos… a Mexican favorite. Instead of the usual white onion placed on top for aroma, a pineapple is set in. From wikipedia, tacos al pastor is a dish that originates in Puebla, Mexico, by way of Lebanese immigrants. If you’ve had delicious shawerma, you’ve basically had a less spicy version of al pastor!
What is different here than other taco stands that offer pineapple with their al pastor tacos is that the pineapple is kept atop the spit. I’ll explain why this is critical. Al pastor con piÃ±a isn’t a new thing. Plenty of stands and trucks do offer the pineapple topping, but it’s not the way I like it. I’ve eaten some taco stands run by families from Guerrero and Jalisco. I get really stoked when I see the pineapple on the spit but the horror begins once the taquero cuts the al pastor and pineapple slices onto the griddle. Aye! From there, they chop up the meat and fruit into something similar to a bizarre stir-fry from a bad Chinese take-out place. All they need now is hot & sour soup and a fortune cookie. Ugh! The ‘Mexican stir-fry’ is now flavored by the grease from the previous cooked meat, which could be anywhere from buche (pig stomach lining) to lengua. Not that it’s a bad thing but flavors are lost! By now, your pineapple taco has gone from Mexico to China in like 5 seconds. Just not my thing. This needs a major rewind.
I stood by the taquero operating the spit. Like a cellist with his bow, he swipes the mass of meat with his sharp knife. In the other hand, a warm tortilla catches the fallen meat. The meat is moist, flavored nicely and never touches the griddle once.
And with one flick of the wrist, he lobs a thin slice of pineapple into the air and catches it with the taco “mit”. All of this happening in pure harmony. This is not as easy as it looks because the taquero must also watch that the meat “merry-go-round” never gets burnt. He has to know when to turn the heat on or off. Not cooked long enough, you’re going to get trichinosis. It’s overcooked and you’re suddenly eating at Chipotle. It has to be just right.
And here is the final product. The moist meat, red salsa and sweet, smoky pineapple slice marry together to become this small, flavor-packed bomb. And only $1. I do have to say that I think the salsas can use some work but as a whole this is the experience close as you’ll get to Mexico City. The taqueros of Leo’s are from Oaxaca, but they offer Mexico City-style (D.F.) . In all fairness, I have been here at least three times already and twice, the al pastor meat was perfect when the place was crowded. When the lines were dead, I noticed the meat was only mediocre. Just keep that in mind.
I also recommend trying the al pastor con piÃ±a in quesadilla form for a take on Mexican ham and pineapple “pizza”. Ask for less cheese (poco queso) so that it doesn’t overpower the delicate pork slices and pineapple. This was delicious â€“ like candy!
La Brea/Venice (76 Gas Station)
Everyday 6 pm – 2 am