Tacos and beer: Like oysters and Champagne or fast food and soda, tacos and beer are one of food's great romances. It's not a romance that is thwarted, exactly, but it rarely reaches its loftiest potential. While tacos and cheap beer are perfectly pleasurable, there is little opportunity, even in L.A., to pair our best tacos with some of the world's better beers.
That's one reason why Ricardo Diaz's recent efforts should be considered the Lord's work, or at the very least the gift of a benevolent culinary Cupid. At Colonia Taco Lounge, Diaz is bringing together two factions that have long been destined to share an intimate relationship: very good tacos and very good beer.
Diaz's grandfather founded the local Mexican seafood chain Siete Mares, and he grew up working in the family business. He has since developed a track record of bequeathing significant culinary gifts. From the seafood restaurant Dorados to Cook's Tortas to the taco heaven that is Guisados, Diaz has had his hand in many of the Eastside's most beloved eateries. In early 2012, he opened Bizarra Capital, an ambitious Mexican gastropub (where he first partook in the holy work of tacos and great beer), in Whittier.
Diaz is no longer involved in Guisados, having split from business partner Armando De La Torre around the time earlier this year that a second location of the much-praised eatery opened in Echo Park. But having developed the recipes that made Guisados so grand, Diaz isn't putting his taco prowess to waste.
Colonia Taco Lounge has taken over one of the Siete Mares locations, on a slightly desolate strip of Valley Boulevard in El Puente. Its sign advertises "guisados and beer." Inside, a chalkboard on the wall announces about a dozen tacos, as well as a couple of appetizers. One side of the board is dedicated to guisados, or stewed meats; the other to caseros, which basically translates to "homemade" and offers everything from a taco of seared queso with bacon to a steak taco with green salsa and a sweet grilled scallion. On another chalkboard, behind the counter, is a list of beers — very, very good beers, some on tap and some in the bottle.
You order your food at the counter and take a number. Your food is delivered along with water and utensils, and an attentive waitress will whisk away the colored plastic plates as soon as you've emptied them. But if you want another drink, back to the counter you go. In many ways, it's like a cross between Guisados and Bizarra Capital — the less formal service and taco-centric menu of Guisados mixed with the more creative cooking, swankier dining room and booze of Bizarra Capital.
Colonia might teach you a lot of things: the possibilities of cauliflower, how to fall head over heels in love with a flour tortilla, how to eat far too much and somehow still want more.
Let's begin with the tortillas: Would it be blasphemy to say that the corn ones here may be better than at Guisados? Slightly more delicate, slightly more musky with corn? And the flour tortillas, imported from Mexicali, taste comfortingly familiar but so much softer and more soulful than any cardboardlike disk you may have discovered alongside your platter of sizzling fajitas over the years.
The cauliflower taco, served on one of those flour tortillas, channels everything you might love about a fried shrimp taco: The cauliflower, beneath its golden, crunchy batter, somehow has a pop and bite that satisfy that same place in your soul as a shrimp version. As for the shrimp taco at Colonia, it's something else entirely: Sautéed and served with aji, it comes over a bed of "creamy rice" flavored with coconut. The result is tropical and comforting and highly addictive. Of all the tacos I loved at Colonia, this one haunts me most.
The taco estofado — Oaxacan beef stew — was so rife with fragrant spices as to taste like fall itself. Pollo temole is bathed in a warming, masa-thickened sauce, the chicken a support for the sauce rather than the star of the taco. The barbacoa offers hunks of soft lamb, and comes with a small ramekin of chipotle-rich braising liquid for dipping (although unfortunately the dish tends to sell out pretty often).
The doraditos were enough to get me awfully excited for Diaz's next project, Duro, a forthcoming Silver Lake shop dedicated to crispy tacos. Deep-fried potato tacos generally suffer from heavy grease and slightly bland fillings, but these were a textural wonder, the outside shattering to reveal an almost ethereally fluffy potato filling.
There's a "nachostada" appetizer that's the closest thing you'll find to slutty bar food: basically a tostada piled high with chorizo and gooey cheese. It's a lot of fun, but I'd rather go for the shrimp cocktail, which is refreshing and generous in every way — fat shrimp, gobs of silken avocado, a lovely, cooling foil to all the meat and tortillas you're likely to consume.
I have come across only one dud during my visits, which was the lengua; it offered big, unwieldy hunks of underseasoned tongue. It was the one and only time I reached for a bottle of hot sauce — every other taco had exactly the right lashing of flavor and spice.
On top of all this bounty is the immeasurable fun of pairing these tacos with some seriously stellar beer. It's not a huge selection — a rotating list of about 10 beers on draft and a couple of bottles — but I would have happily drunk every one of them. Share a bottle of Le Merle Saison from North Coast Brewing, a sweet, slightly funky, Belgian-style farmhouse ale, which puts the spices of the stewed meats in a whole new light.
The restaurant also serves cocktails, including a classically fun (and dangerous) mai tai made with "rum, rum, lime and pineapple." If you prefer the traditional route, there are also micheladas and margaritas.
The large dining room, swathed in dark, swanky wallpaper and outfitted with modest chandeliers over the tables, deserves a party atmosphere that could only be provided by hordes of grateful diners and drinkers. During my visits, it has been empty, both in the midafternoon and during prime dinner hours.
El Puente is a trek for most Angelenos, but I'd remind you that Colonia is right off the freeway, that the food is delicious and quick, and that you'd be hard-pressed to find beer and booze this good anywhere nearby. For those tortillas, for that shrimp taco, I might drive a lot farther.
COLONIA TACO LOUNGE | Three stars | 13030 E. Valley Blvd., La Puente | (626) 363-4691 | Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. | Tacos, $3-$5 | Full bar | Lot parking