I know pop-up restaurants are all the rage – witness LudoBites and Test Kitchen LA – but let’s stop for a moment and pay homage to their humble origins: the taco trucks and food carts that pop up in the streets and intersections of the city, only at certain hours, and sometimes (but not always) at the same location (depends on the parked cars and the police activity).
I’ll be honest with you: as much as I would like to claim some street cred and tell you that I grew up around these OG pop-ups, I’m really just a Viet kid who didn’t realize that tacos from Taco Bell were bastardized, homogenized versions of the real thing. When I moved back to LA a few years ago, I had to go through a sort of re-education, swish a little water and wipe the palate clean. I listened carefully to wiser Angelenos and ate up at a little shack on Lincoln called La Playita; listened to The Great Taco Hunt-er and discovered Tacos La Fonda located in the first of many taco trucks parked unironically at a car wash. More recently, I discovered – along with Burns! – Ricky’s Fish Tacos, a man whose fish and shrimp tacos are so flavorful and unabashedly Baja that you sort of just want to Kodak moment your last bite of the gently battered fish still smoking in the softly folded tortilla. So, when Ricky told me about a taco stand set up in a lot at 1st and Beaudry, I knew I had to go. You can’t trust everyone’s palate, but (as my friend Dana rightfully pointed out) a taco’s man taco stand? Is like a thinking man’s bookstore. Yes. I want to go to there.
Mexicali. Take your pencil, start at Tijuana, and draw an almost straight line going east. About three-quarters of the way to an imaginary southern extension of the California-Arizona border, you’ll find yourself in Mexicali. Mexicali-the-place is the capital of the state of Baja California; appropriately, then, Mexicali-the-taco-stand channels its geographic namesake and serves up Baja-style meat tacos, with flair. Two guys run Mexicali-the-taco-stand, and they offer 5 things (on the menu) (off the menu items to be discovered like badges on Foursquare). All five (or more?) things are served on homemade – yes, beautifully homemade – tortillas. If there are enough of you, you might as well order one of each and MacGyver a tasting menu for yourselves, but I concede that can be overkill for the first time. Let’s make things easier and say you must order the cachetadas (tostada + melted cheese + meat + aioli chipotle sauce, $2.50). If you can’t visualize this tasty concoction, well, here’s one, almost ready to be plastic plated:
I had mine with chorizo, and added the appropriate condiments.
Usually when you order something (anything) with chorizo in it, you end up with a soggy, oily mess. Not so here – the chorizo was tender, smoky, flavorful, and held its own without leaving its mark. There was no yellow-orange mess. Combined with the melted cheese and chipotle sauce, it was meaty, a touch spicy. Delicious.
I also had the Vampiros with carne asada. The meat here too was delicious – juicy, not too fatty, and plentiful. The garlic infusion kicked the quesadilla up a notch. In your world of vampires, you can keep your Jacobs, your Edwards. I’m on Team Mexicali and its smoking hot clan of Vampiros.
Eating his words, Ricky happened to be there as well, hungry after a full day’s work behind his fryer. While we ate, he mused that you’d be hard-pressed to find a fish taco in Baja after dark. Because most places use fresh seafood (a novel idea, I know), they close as soon as the last catch of the day is brought in. After about 6pm, sometimes even sooner, it’s all meat. Going from Ricky’s Fish Tacos in the afternoon to Mexicali at night, then, is the Baja way to go.
After my two plates, I was surprisingly full – they are super generous with the portion size and the filling meat. Hoping to get over my full stomach to try something else, I poked around and discovered that they cut the meat on a tree trunk. Nothing screams authentic more than the well seasoned wood of nature.
Total fail on my part: I stayed full, which means I’m going to have to go back for the Zuperman. And another cachetada. I’m going to have to make it soon, though: their location on 1st and Beaudry is semi-permanent. They know they have the lot today and tomorrow (8pm-midnight), and they probably will have it next week, but it’s not set in stone. Follow them on Twitter for more exact details, and find them at the tip of Downtown before they’re up and gone. Like every great pop-up in the city.