York Boulevard, as it shoots through the heart of Highland Park, has always been rich in Mexican restaurants: the Cal-Mex restaurant near the police museum whose potent margaritas were praised by Joseph Wambaugh, the gentle cantina popular with Occidental students, and a scattering of rough-edged Mexican beer bars whose kitchens have been known to turn out the occasional taco or two. One of the city’s first Yucatecan restaurants, Balo’s Place, held down a storefront. Taco trucks moored themselves among the bodegas and the body shops. But just in the last year or two, York seems to have gelled as a center of regional Mexican cuisine — there are restaurants and taquerías from five distinct Mexican states within just a few blocks on the strip, a lineup unprecedented in its diversity.
In an essay about the numbing similarity of Mexican menus in Los Angeles, I once proposed that restaurant owners, as a matter of law, be required to serve at least a couple of distinctive dishes from the region of their birth, whether it be Durango, Zacatecas or Pico Rivera. While not quite on the level of the districts across the border where one taco vendor specializes in grilled beef, the next in spit-roasted pork and a third in simmered brains, there is more than enough variety in this stretch of Highland Park to occupy a month’s worth of weekend afternoons.
At the eastern end of the strip is Tacos el Michoacano, a modest takeout place with a photo menu by the register and worn vinyl booths along the walls. Michoacán-style restaurants are pretty common in Los Angeles, and naming that region on a restaurant sign here usually indicates a fairly generic menu but a seriousness of purpose when it comes to carnitas. The state is famous throughout Mexico for its take on fried pork, and El Michoacano’s is first-rate, not a world-beating version like the carnitas at Roast To Go in Grand Central Market downtown or Antojitos Denise’s in East Los Angeles, but plenty good: crunchy, oozing and slightly gamy. But among an ordinary roster of carne asada, shrimp ranchera and chiles rellenos, you will find guilota — I can’t find a translation in any of my Mexican cookbooks, but it appears to be a brace of crisply fried quail sauced with chile — delicious! The kitchen makes its own corn tortillas on weekends. And on each table is a molcajete half-filled with the majestic house salsa, dried chiles toasted black, ground into a fine paste and finished simply with oil and salt. Some days, I think I could live on that chile paste and El Michoacano’s great strawberry licuados alone.
Sinaloan restaurants in Los Angeles tend to fall into two distinct groups: restaurants representing the mountainous half of the region, with spicy stews and the best machaca in Mexico, and restaurants serving simple, beachy seafood. Mariscos Sinaloa, down the street from El Michoacano, is one of the latter, a converted Taco Bell serving competent ceviches, basic tostadas topped with sliced avocado and things like octopus or shrimp, and straightforward seafood botanas, which are the Mexican equivalent of tapas more or less. It’s a pleasant place to spend an afternoon, out on the patio, watching the world pass by, maybe supplementing the ceviche with the tasty if unorthodox fried-fish tacos, but the food cries out for a cold Pacífico or two, and you’ll find nothing stronger than a pineapple drink here.
A few doors down, bathed in the deafening roar of a jukebox and the Atlántico game playing simultaneously at top volume, Antojitos Guerrero is a small family restaurant specializing in the dishes of Guerrero state — or rather in the dish of central Mexico’s Guerrero state, which is to say barbacoa, beef steamed with chiles in maguey leaves until it is tender as an Usher ballad, heaps of it with thick, homemade tortillas and extra chile if you happen to be into excess. The barbacoa is available only on weekends, but the pork ribs in dense chile sauce, the pork stewed with cactus and the green mole have not been the source of many complaints.
Across the street, the latest of a string of Yucatecan restaurants to occupy that spot, Villas Durango is a dark, slightly more upscale spot that serves cold beer and accepts credit cards. The menu is extremely basic, and you’ll find better Yucatecan food at Chichen-Itza down near USC among other places, but the homey soups aren’t too bad, and the bean-stuffed tortillas called panuchos and the codzitos — fat Yucatecan taquitos — are almost as tasty as the neighborhood gossip that always seems to buzz around the room here.
A bit down the road, you’ll find two marquee taquerías on the same block, a branch of the venerable La Estrella chain, operating out of a truck parked in front of the restaurant, and El Pique, a truck that seems to be permanently parked in front of a car wash at the corner of York and Avenue 53. Las Estrellas, whose Pasadena stand often engenders waits of almost an hour, is usually the more crowded of the two, and its wet, saucy carne asada tacos are the kind that it is easy to dream about when you are stuck abroad for a month or two. But El Pique, which sells what it calls D.F.-style tacos, as served in Mexico City, may be one of the best taco trucks in Los Angeles: freshly grilled tortillas rich with the flavor of toasted corn, peppery steak or chile-crusted bits of pork al pastor, a smoky, complexly hot red salsa that melts into the crisp meat — magnificent. I will never figure out why this D.F.-style truck sports so much swag from the Chivas, the Guadalajara soccer team that has about the same profile in Mexico City that the Red Sox do in the Bronx, but if the owner continues to serve tacos like these, he can root for Manchester United if he wants.
You might think that the crunchy, sandal-shaped huaraches — fried masa smeared with beans, Mexican cream, sharp cheese — at the Mexico City–style stand El Huarache Azteca would be anticlimactic after a taco or two at El Pique. But you would be terribly, terribly wrong.
Antojitos Guerrero, 5623 York Blvd., (323) 254-6118.
El Huarache Azteca, 5225 York Blvd., (323) 478-9572.
El Pique, parked at the corner of York Blvd. and Ave. 53.
La Estrella, parked at the corner of York Blvd. and Ave. 54.
Mariscos Sinaloa, 5633 York Blvd., (323) 258-6823.
Tacos el Michoacano, 5933 York Blvd., (323) 258-0794.
Villas Durango, 5672 York Blvd., (323) 255-1491.