Dangerous Dining in LA: Tacos La Fonda

Hi all. In honor of my first post here at blogging.la, I figured I’d post something I thought might never see the light of day–and something I know we all care a lot about. Food, specifically.
See, this would have been my final piece for http://www.laalternative.com: the scrappy little paper I co-edited, along with two other intrepid and immensely talented writers, for about a year. Rest in peace, wee newspaper.
The Dangerous Dining Tour of Los Angeles is something I’ve been wanting to do ever since I had a friend demand that I never, ever, under pain of death, reveal the address of Ruen Pair Thai restaurant (rating at the time: C) on Hollywood Boulevard in East Hollywood. It’s on the east side of the street and has a green sign.
I shrugged and told him ok.
The DDT [heh] concept was born when I realized that of all the really amazing places in L.A. to eat, a large percentage of them are apparently quite hazardous. Considering that living here is a dangerous prospect anyway–hey, we all know we could be killed just walking into the street–especially at Melrose and La Brea–who cares? Life’s short, let’s eat.
So without further ado…Tacos La Fonda.

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DDTL.A. Location #1
Tacos La Fonda (Del 7 Mares): 2135 ¬Ω San Fernando Road, L.A., 90065.
Rating: C
022 Risk for contamination
023 Food Storage
031 Improperly Cleaned/Not Maintained Clean
051 Condition
053 Unapproved Type/Improper Use/Improper Installation
069 Lighting/Light Shields

Tacos La Fonda sits, ebullient with curvilinear graff d√©cor all over its exterior, on San Fernando in the no-man’s land northeast of downtown. It shares a parking lot with a filling station and occupies the spot that would, in less unincorporated areas of Los Angeles, be a 7-11 or an AM-PM. Across the street sits a car dealership, and beyond that the railroad tracks. It’s a gloomy day with autumn blustering over my car. I hesitate before I get out, because there is some guy in a state of disrepair right outside the door. He is blowing into a harmonica. No sound comes out. His eyes are rheumy and misted over.

I work up the guts to exit my vehicle, approach the Tacos La Fonda door–which looks vaguely greasy, if a door can look greasy–and if any building can be said to have accrued a measure of smog, this one has. Eeew. I nod to Harmonica Man, steel myself, and pull open the door.

I am immediately subsumed by a cloud of humid air. The first thing I notice are the peppers in a giant container on the counter; I have never seen anything like it. Ever. Just thousands of peppers contained within a rectangular steel recess. Next to this is a platter with three small cups of blood-red hot sauce and a larger bowl filled with sliced limes. Not those crappy, narrow cuts of lime. These were, like, whole quartered limes. There is a Rock-O-La jukebox in the corner of the room, a redolence of mole and cumin, and a man with a cowboy hat and wire-rimmed glasses sitting right there at one of approximately six Formica tables in the place–it is that small.

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I transition from being afraid for my life to wondering how clean the floor is.

But OK, fine. I’m here for the C rating. Right? Yes. And they’re totally deserving of a C rating. Because it’s like being in someone’s dining room. You see, that’s why places get C ratings. Places get C ratings because they mop the floor once a week. Like you do. They clean out the sink with the same cloth they wipe the counters with. Like you. They sniff the milk to tell if it’s still good before they put it in the mystery concoction on the stove. Like you do. In short, C rating is HOME. We are all C ratings.

I sink into the humid fluffy air like a mother’s womb. Utilizing those international touchstones that are the Illustrated Menus of the World, I point and order: Camarones Rancheros, Chiles Rellenos. I sit down and stare out the window. To my side is a mini Dixie cup with a mysterious herb blend that wafts pungently of oregano, thyme, basil–someone’s garden, dried, hung upside-down in a sunny spot for two weeks, then brought in and divided and metered out into these delicate little plastic cups. There’s also Siracha in the same little cups, but the herbs are much more fun.

A plate of white-corn tortilla chips is put down before me, along with one of those salsa bowls, the kind I’d seen when I came in, to unceremoniously slosh its smoky, blacked, rust-rich contents in front of me. I nearly died.

I have learned over trial and error that there are many factors that go into comprising a quality salsa. Of these, sabor and heat are two separate ones. In this salsa, the oft-twain met: a flavor profile not too hot to cruelly sweep aside the aeons of primordial flavor accrued in some grandma’s old cast-iron, but not so complex or fancy-schmancy it lacked enough heat to smack you upside the head–thunking me into the bluish Stucco wall by the light switch and leading me to wonder if they ever clean the walls around this place.

I could have lived off this salsa. The internal heat of its passage took me to a place where the external world cooled, and looking out the window, I am out of place, a wayfarer, a little girl with orange hair in a Durango luncheonette–oddly the slightly unhinged man is still there with his harmonica–the salsa is soupy, smoky, a smog of red autumn flavors, rich and robust–the autumn wind is gray outside, the one narrow road flows its passengers along, completely unawares of the religious conversion ongoing in this wee dinerette.

At a table across from me a middle-aged, sun-raisined man pulls his thick cowboy hat low over his ears while his bonneted wife, opposite him, bends low over some romance novel. The man chows down, utilitarian, on his shrimp in a rich red broth, and a Modelo.

My food arrives. I close my eyes and inhale the particulate matter that lined the seed cotyledons from fields far far south, transmigrated by the cook’s holy alchemy into something more sustaining, more envivifying, that simple food. This is god food. This is oneness with the universe. This is heaven and hell on a plate. And god made dirt, so dirt don’t hurt. Who give a flying fuck is she gets a C for it? By stewing a single baby roach’s left leg into the beans (no, I never saw one, but if she had) she is subsuming the wholeness of the world into her cooking. It is a metaphor for oneness with the divine. It is a yin and yang thing. And is it soooooo fucking greasy. At least the chiles are. The rice, on the other hand, is pillowy, light as ambrosia, and ranchero sauce oodles its way through the plate like a lake exploring its summer environs. Beans are dusted with a snowdrift of farmers’ cheese. In the camarones rancheros, radishes plunge and dive among the hot spiced sauce and I tuck into each little shrimp with bombastic joy. If they had to die, it would be for this. This is true glory. This is true transmigration.

For a shrimp.

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I am subsumed. I cannot finish all this food. [Note: photo above pictures only one of two plates of equal size.] There is too much for my wee stomach capacity. I get the woman to box it up, and the old man by the Rock-o-la smiles at me as I take photos, then turns away for his own–he knows the mechanics of these things, you’re supposed to look candid–as I open the door the Harmonica Dude looks at me in horror, and I breeze my blissful, chilly route to car door knowing full well I’ve been washed of my sins.

Although right after I got into my car–immediately steaming up the windscreen with food steam–some other greasy-lookin’ guy came out of the resturant with a head full of soapy hair, like he’d just washed it in the sink (Where were their bathrooms? I suddenly became aware of their dubious absence)…

so I’m guessing you can wash more than your soul at Tacos La Fonda.

Also, this is probably the longest post I’ll ever make. You can thank me by buying me lunch at Tacos La Fonda.

6 Replies to “Dangerous Dining in LA: Tacos La Fonda”

  1. I wouldn’t call it no-mans land, many people call Cypress Park home. This place is also notable for it’s fine example of an ALZA mural/sign, his stuff is all over Northeast LA cuz he really tries to get everyone to give him work. Too bad his style sucks.

  2. I used to live up Cazador St. from TLF, near Ave 33. While the Avenues are not exactly No Man’s Land, if I was on foot up there, I went real careful through that part of the woods and didn’t make eye contact with anybody.
    Once, on the corner by TLF, I witnessed a bust with the undercover cop looking EXACTLY, to the watch cap, like the bum-looking nark on Hill Street Blues; it was so-o-o-o weird!

    I was too nervous from the “ambience” of TLF to enjoy the food much, but a few doors up on Division was a fantastic (back in the late ’80s) fish joint called El Pescador. Get it? El Pescador right near Cazador St.? For me, the taco truck that parked across Cypress at night had food almost worth dying for… almost to die for…

  3. Enjoyed your story.

    Brings back fond memories of Los Angeles in the early 70’s, when there were plenty of greasy spoons around City Hall and vicinity. Bob’s Shrimp Boat, on Main Street and 3rd was a fine example, but after consuming many bottles of beer at Anthony’s Bar, our standards of fine dining dropped to levels I never plan to revisit.

  4. If you want to write about “C” restaurants, head to the San Gabriel Valley. More than 1/2 of the restaurants in Rowland Heights, Monterey Park and San Gabriel wear the “C” as a badge of honor and it has no effect whatsoever on the lines of people clamoring for a table.

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