"Home" is one of the most loaded words in the human lexicon. It's especially swollen with meaning when it comes to food — for the millions of immigrants and transplants making their way through our ever more global world, there's no more intense and nostalgic way to conjure where we came from than to revisit the food we ate when we lived at home.
It's no mistake then, that Briana Valdez named her new East Hollywood Tex-Mex breakfast/lunch joint HomeState. Texans claim many dishes as their own, some (like Texas barbecue) widely available outside the state, if not always 100 percent bona fide. But Texas gastronomy also claims specialties rarely found elsewhere.
One of these is the Texas breakfast taco. Even in L.A., with its vast variety of Mexican food, the breakfast taco is rare. We're a breakfast burrito city.
Served on a flour tortilla, often holding just one or two ingredients, rolled up in tinfoil and sold for a buck or two with a side of simple red salsa, the breakfast taco is to Texas what the biscuit sandwich is to the Carolinas and the egg-and-cheese on a roll is to New York City. It's portable, cheap and rarely considered important enough to export.
A transplant from Austin, Valdez seeks to change that. Her small storefront on Hollywood Boulevard, formerly home to Chris Phelps' and Zak Walter's late, lamented deli, Storefront, is an order-at-the-counter operation, small and busy but rarely packed, with tables on the sidewalk for overspill. It's also a temple to the unsung comfort foods of Texas, particularly the breakfast variety.
The counter features desert plants in sawed-in-half beer cans; on the corrugated metal above, a large sign reads, "Welcome home."
It's not presumptuous — the Texans I know are thrilled. "Have I explained to you the Tao of breakfast tacos?" my friend exclaimed excitedly as we sat over a platter of HomeState's morning offerings. "They should be simple: two ingredients is ideal, three at most. They should have a benign quality, almost like blandness but not quite. Warm and soft. The salsa should really be what gives them their flavor."
While it's possible to make breakfast tacos at home, she continued, they're never quite as good as those made at a restaurant or taco shack. "I think it has something to do with spending time wrapped in tin foil," she said. "It's like it all gets steamed together in there somehow."
Cheap, uncomplicated and, yes, wrapped in foil, HomeState's breakfast tacos didn't disappoint. Valdez and Co. make their own flour tortillas; the soft discs with slightly dusty edges are as supple and familiar as fluffy white bread.
On some days I visited, something was off, and the tortillas yielded a little too stiffly. But on the good days — most days — those flour tortillas provide a mellow cradle for eggs and beans.
There's a handful of choices, from the spartan (beans, cheese) to the relatively complex (eggs, bacon, potatoes and cheese). I tended to side with my Texan friend: The simpler ones were more satisfying to my soul, plus they allowed HomeState's very good, zippy red salsa to shine when sloshed across the tacos.
But honestly, they aren't all so different that I'd remember the nuances of each if I hadn't been taking notes. It's the overall feeling that matters — if this were the food of your childhood (or stoner youth), it's easy to see how nothing else could ever suffice.
Speaking of stoners, HomeState's greatest triumph outside the breakfast tacos is one of those dishes that speaks to the brilliance of inebriated American gastronomic ingenuity: the Frito pie in a bag. In this concoction, a bag of Fritos comes riddled with pockets of brawny chili con carne, cheddar, lettuce, sour cream and pickled jalapeños, a combination that takes you by the pleasure receptors and hangs on for dear life until the bag's empty.
It's the pickled jalapeños that do it, all puckery and pert amidst the crunch of corn and meaty glop of the chili. There's something about that spike of vinegar and spice that keeps you happily helpless.
I urge HomeState to consider a secondary business plan, one that revolves around pushing these things outside bars at 2 a.m. It would be a great favor to humanity.
Superior ingredients are one way HomeState ups its game from roadside Tex-Mex. So the eggs are "farm-fresh" and the bacon is applewood-smoked.
Rather than making queso dip from Velveeta, the cheesy sludge is made from scratch, using a blend of cheeses, and served with HomeState's delightfully thin tortilla chips. I think I prefer the plastic version of queso — this one tasted and felt a wee bit floury on the tongue, and so mild that it seemed more a DIY mac-and-cheese sauce than something to ruin your New Year's resolution over. Whatever. I still poured the stuff into my Frito pie bag once the chili became sparse.
Other laudable attempts at Texas staples stumble a bit on execution. Chicken tacos are boring compared with the Mexican variations available any-old-where in L.A., and the brisket sandwich, served on Texas toast, tasted a smidge too much like potted meat on the day I partook.
There's a kale and cabbage salad with a light lime vinaigrette that might appeal to your virtuous side, but it's a little beside the point, and honestly a bit too chaste. Why ruin all this gloppy fun with nature's two stiffest greens?
But Valdez's attention to detail and her passion for bringing a nook of Austin to L.A. is commendable. The churro beans, which come on the tacos but also as a side, taste exactly right, neither too bold nor too boring. The shotgun room with its long counter and few tables feels insistently friendly, with a type of cheer not often seen in L.A. this early in the day.
There are kolaches — Czech pastries that are commonplace in the Lone Star state. Valdez is even importing Austin-based Cuvee coffee to make the experience as immersive as possible.
"Does this do it for you?" I asked my friend. "Does this fulfill the emotional needs of a homesick Texan?"
"It does," she sighed. "It really does."
HOMESTATE | Two stars | 4624 Hollywood Blvd., E. Hlywd. | (323) 906-1122 | myhomestate.com | 8 a.m.-3 p.m. daily | Tacos $3-$3.50, sandwiches $9 | No alcohol | Street parking