Have you ever seen a plate of carne asada fries? If done properly, the dish is an awesome assemblage, a totem of unspeakable desires — a football-size construction of guacamole, gobs of melted cheese and a mound of French fries that seems to reach halfway to the ceiling, paved with double handfuls of well-charred pellets of grilled beef, crunchy and oozy and spicy and impossibly rich.
The phenomenon of carne asada fries, a dish with even shallower Mexican roots than the pastrami burrito or the bacon-wrapped hot dog, is centered in the San Diego area, but its local admirers are legion: Queries about local purveyors of the stuff are as relentless as requests for great Westside Chinese restaurants around here, and are just as likely to be greeted with a smile, a shrug and the address of a restaurant that is 30 miles farther than you wanted to go.
The premier exponent of carne asada fries in Los Angeles may well be My Taco, a gleaming mini-mall joint in a grungy corner of Highland Park, a place with a name so unpromising in this neighborhood of regional Mexican cooking that you could drive past it 500 times without suspecting that the place served anything more inspiring than bean-and-cheese burritos. Even among mini-malls, this one is unpromising: My Taco is next to a restaurant called Super Panda China Buffet. But My Taco is kind of nice inside, rough block walls painted in bright Frida Kahlo colors, cheerful wooden chairs around the tables, a spiffy glass case for the jugs of homemade aguas frescas, of which I highly recommend the watermelon on the rare occasions it makes it into the lineup. A flat-screen television above the salsa bar shows everything from telanovelas to The Man From U.N.C.L.E., although I wouldn’t count on catching the afternoon soccer games, and at lunch there are usually as many Highland Park businessmen in suits as there are guys in work overalls. The salsa bar itself is well stocked with fresh chipotle sauce, the house pico de gallo and a thinnish, spicy guacamole that may be among the best taqueria-style guacamoles I have ever tasted, even when made off-season with less-ripe avocados.
The specialty of My Taco is barbacoa, a soft, spicy, well-blackened mash of long-stewed lamb sizzled to a crisp on a hot griddle, flanked with chopped onions and cilantro, and served with a Styrofoam cup of sharply clove-scented goat consommé, which actually seems more apt to its task than the lamb consommé served with barbacoa at most of the Guerrero-style restaurants where it is a specialty. You grab a bit of the lamb with a tortilla, fold it into a taco with onions and salsa, and chase it with a shot of the soup. Or you moisten the lamb. Or you scoop up lamb with your spoon and wet it in the soup. It reminds me a little of the Iranian dish dizie, at least as served at the Westwood Iranian sandwich shop Attari, but dizie is never speckled with those delicious crunchy bits, dizie does not leak chile-stained orange grease, and dizie is rarely served with rice and beans. Barbacoa is reason enough to visit My Taco.
Which is good, because after the barbacoa, My Taco is pretty hit-or-miss, a diner with deeply flavored chicken soup but bland goat stew, decent huevos rancheros at breakfast but limp chilaquiles, reliably good pork carnitas but sopes that taste more like compressed grits than they do anything fashioned out of masa. The pozole is the right stuff, a red, lightly gamy broth inflected with the funks of hominy and long-cooked pig’s foot. Tortas, Mexican sandwiches, are clearly not a house specialty, but the taste is clean and the smear of avocado is rich, although the tortas tend to be soft as Big Macs. There is a big following for the tacos de papas: corn tortillas folded around gobs of chile-infused mashed potatoes and deep-fried to an oily crunch — not as irresistible as the thin potato tacos down the street at El Atacor #11, perhaps, but undeniably more sophisticated, the potato tacos you would make for company if your grandmother happened to have a secret recipe.
And then there are the carne asada fries. If you have ever encountered such a plate of carne asada fries, if you are an aficionado, you undoubtedly will recognize the sensations, like a rock climber facing El Capitan for the first time: fear, desire and awe, followed shortly by the sensations that usually follow the ingestion of two weeks’ worth of calories in less than five minutes. Leave nachos to the amateurs — My Taco’s plate of carne asada fries is the Mount Everest of fine gabacho cuisine.
My Taco, 6300 York Blvd., Highland Park, (323) 256-2698. Mon.–Wed. 8 a.m.–9 p.m., Thurs.–Sun. 8 a.m.–10 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. MC, V. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $8–$20. Recommended dishes: barbacoa, carne asada fries, potato tacos.