If you didn't initially order the taco al pastor at Taqueria Cuernavaca, surely you will after the trip to the salsa bar. Because while loading the small plastic cups with salsa and a few dark, dark red chiles de árbol, you'll probably glance into the kitchen. And in said kitchen, you'll spot meat layered on a spit, carved into the shape of a fat exclamation mark and punctuated by a chunk of pineapple skewered at the very top. This is al pastor, and this you can identify within spitting distance because of all those impossibly late nights standing in line next to such a spit at a certain taco truck at Venice and La Brea, counting the number of crumpled dollars in your pocket that will dictate the number of $1 tacos you'll be able to buy. And so, when the server drops off a very fine horchata at your table, she'll add at least one taco al pastor to the tab, and you will be all the better for it.
Cuernavaca is the capital city of the state of Morelos, just south of Mexico City, which you might know either because you paid attention during fifth-grade geography, or because you're cribbing from the map printed on the back of the taqueria's menu. According to the menu's biography of the city, the name roughly translates to "close to the trees," and it is this lush vegetation and moderate climate that made Cuernavaca a popular second home for many a conqueror (Cortes) and emperor (Maximilian). Today, a welcoming committee persists in the form of the "Newcomers Club of Cuernavaca," which invites "English speakers of all nationalities who live in and around Cuernavaca" to join the club. Given all that, perhaps Cuernavaca can be considered the Old Tuscany counterpart to Baja's recent billing as the New; it helps that Cuernavaca's nickname ("City of Eternal Spring") sounds like the perfect subtitle for the sequel to Eat Pray Love, if you can imagine a toothy Julia Robert swapping pastas al forno for tacos al pastor. Hope springs eternal.
There isn't much romantic foliage on the dusty road where Taqueria Cuernavaca sits, between the revitalized Main Street drag of Downtown Ventura and a lot of schoolhouse-yellow tractors. Rather, Mexico City-style street food is what draws the connection between the taqueria and its inner city. Your best bet is to crib from another menu -- specifically, the one at Antojitos Carmen, which offers a sampler plate of antojitos -- and create your own tasting menu of sorts. Start with a few antojitos like the gordita, a thick puck of masa slathered with beans and topped with your choice of meat or cheese; the tinga, with its shreds of marinated chicken, is particularly good. Add a quesadilla -- if the server doesn't ask, request that it be fried.
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And, yes, the tacos. The tacos al pastor are every bit as fantastic as you hoped they'd be when you spotted the spit. Two stacked tortillas hold a heap of juicy, thin slices of pork, with a few prized nuggets of crispy, caramelized edges buried within. It's all slightly sweetened by the pineapple, and it'll all be gone in two bites. The suadero tacos, filled with flavorful beef, might rival the al pastor. Accoutrements like salsas or limes are unnecessary; a dab at most, if you must.
While you're constructing your platter, you might as well also order the ultimate D.I.Y. taco kit, the alambres, where they provide the fillings and the tortillas and you do the rest. The salsas help here, particularly the wicked avocado and habanero one that slowly but surely builds layers of heat until the sum of the parts smacks you with its spice.
This slow-but-steady-wins-the-race mentality extends to the entire taqueria: The sign behind the register gently warns, "This is not fast food! Thank you for understanding!" And most everyone does understand, from the parents and children wrestling over whose turn it is to Draw Something to surfers aggressively re-enacting the morning's turf wars to random passersby on their way to or from L.A. proper. And if you fall into that last category, or are premium outlet shopping in nearby Camarillo, or meeting your local farmer at McGrath Family Farms, or on any other trip that drives you on this stretch of the freeway, Taqueria Cuernavaca is more than worth a stop. To borrow a bit from America's "Ventura Highway," at some point, you're gonna go. We know.
Check out Anne Fishbein's spectacular photo gallery of Taqueria Cuernavaca.