Notes on the Taco Gap

It is possible, at ruinous expense, to find sushi in Los Angeles whose construction rises well above the Tokyo norm. The pizza at Alto Palato compares very nicely with much of the pizza you find in Rome. Koreatown is home to any number of restaurants that would fit right in on the back streets of Seoul.

Yet I have been wondering lately, as I have been for the better part of the last 20 years, why every taco in Mexico is superior to practically every taco in Los Angeles, how the meanest scraps of kerosene-scorched gristle folded into government-subsidized tortillas manage to have more flavor, more presence, than luxurious tacos made with freshly grilled chunks of USDA Prime sirloin, organic green chiles and thick, hand-patted tortillas.

The taco gap can’t possibly rise from a lack of presence in the community -- there are at least 5,000 taquerias in town -- and although a missing sense of place may have something to do with it, there are certainly Los Angeles neighborhoods that are as Mexican in flavor as anything in Jalisco or Colima. The quality of ingredients is unlikely to be a factor: The flavor of United States meat is at least on the same level as most Mexican meat. And there is no apparent reason why the skill of a talented taco maker should decline just because he or she now resides on this side of the border.

Which brings us to Taqueria Sanchez, a clean, spare taco restaurant just a bit south of Culver City, a short walk from some of the most deeply inauthentic foodstuffs ever to be served under the name of tacos, yet deeply authentic itself. It‘s not what you’d find in Guadalajara or even Tijuana, but it‘s not bad. Sanchez is ensconced in the middle of the Westside but provides as close to an Eastside taqueria experience as anything on this side of town, even if it does feature a Baja Fresh--style salsa bar, even if it is possible to get plates of short ribs in spicy green chile sauce, marinated shrimp tostadas and decent tortas, toasted French-bread sandwiches laden with fried beef, mayonnaise, white cheese, sliced peppers and avocados, in addition to the essential tacos.

Here are the small, simple tacos of rich stewed tongue, and dryish pork loin, and gooey tripitas that you may have been yearning for, the slippery organ-meat crunch of hog stomach, the sauce-saturated sheets of fried pork skin. Here too are definitive tacos of carne asada, and baked cow’s head, and even spicy chicken.

For want of a better word, the tacos here just have the right gestalt: They‘re about the harmonious balance between, say, the charred sweetness of barbecued pork al pastor and the high toastiness of warmed tortillas instead of the bountiful fillings, about the concord between carne asada and the bitter, smoky bite of chipotle salsa rather than the excellence of the carne asada itself. Although the carne asada is indeed pretty good: Taqueria Sanchez is the love child of a nearby Mexican butcher shop, also called Sanchez, whose wonderful pre-marinated meats have been staples of Westside barbecues for years.

4541 Centinela Ave.; (310) 822-8880. Open daily for lunch and dinner. No alcohol. Takeout. Cash only.

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