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Variations in the Key of Taco

Photo by Anne Fishbein

Los Angeles is littered with taco stands of every imaginable genus: taco stands with stone-authentic replicas of Sinaloan cooking and soul-food taco stands, Yucatecan taco stands and Colima-style taco stands, taco stands with eight different kinds of chicharrones and taco stands that serve real cow’s-head barbacoa on weekends, taco stands whose cooks are two weeks out of Jalisco and taco stands whose fourth-generation Mexican-American cooks couldn’t find Zacatecas on a map. If you looked hard enough, you could probably find taco stands here representing every Mexican state (I haven’t found Quintana Roo yet, but I’m looking). Los Angeles has a larger Mexican-born population than Guadalajara does at the moment, and while full-blown regional restaurants may be comparatively hard to find, the tacos are everywhere.

Still, quite a few people I know, many of whom have never even been to East L.A. or Huntington Park, are fixated not on any Los Angeles taquería but on La Super Rica, a takeout place two hours away in Santa Barbara whose clientele famously includes Julia Child. And I understand.

La Super Rica serves what might be considered a spare, clean-lined version of Mexican street food, antojitos — freshly made tortillas glazed with lots of cheese, lots of fresh vegetables and chiles and freshly grilled meat, preparations that are a lot closer to something a talented home cook might be able to whip up in a few minutes with something he or she picked up at a decent supermarket than with the scrappy, highly spiced protein you find at a typical taco joint.

The closest thing in the L.A. area to the La Super Rica experience may be the newish taquería Las Ruinas, a genteel, whitewashed shack a few blocks north of the Caltech campus that is barely large enough to contain the movements of two minimally stressed cooks. Las Ruinas does not serve carnitas, sesos, cabeza, tripas or the other notorious squishies of the proper Mexican taquería, and it is not the place to look for menudo, cocido or chicharrones, much less the classics of regional Mexican cuisine (though I hear tamales are being added to the menu). The marinated bits of pork al pastor are seared on a griddle rather than shaved from a cone of well-done meat rotating before a fire. The dining area, such as it is, consists of a couple of fiberglass tables and what look suspiciously like sawed-off palm stumps. Friends who go to Las Ruinas several times a week wonder how the restaurant, never crowded even at dinner time, is going to stay in business.

Here’s what you’re missing: A Las Ruinas taco is a taco of cheerful abundance, of good quality tortillas heaped with sizzling slices of pork loin, of steak, of mushrooms sautéed with herbs. The variations include mulas, which are basically those tacos transformed into griddled sandwiches with the addition of a few grams of cheese, and gringas, which are mulas made with flour tortillas instead of corn.

What Las Ruinas calls chiles rellenos are deconstructed in the manner of La Super Rica, mild poblanos chopped and sautéed with onions rather than roasted and stuffed, but the vegetable-intensive puddle of cheese is rather delicious scooped up with a tortilla nonetheless. An alambre is more or less the same as the chile relleno here, but with the addition of meat and the optional deletion of cheese.

The essence of a taco may be as a sort of poverty food, shavings of cow or goat or whatever folded with condiments into a pair of relatively bulky tortillas: a small amount of meat stretched out into a cheap meal. A Las Ruinas taco, whatever it might be, is not that — it’s a taco of the bourgeoisie, a delicious taco that its well-heeled customers might have made for themselves if they had the patience, the talent and the skill.

Sure, I like regional cooking as much as the next guy. I would have been thrilled if Las Ruinas turned out to have the last word in cemitas, chilorio or Veracruzian crab chilapachole. But there is something to be said for well-executed home-style cuisine, and in its way, Las Ruinas plays in a league of its own.

Las Ruinas, corner of Chester and Green streets, Pasadena, no phone. Hours vary, usually open Mon.–Fri., noon–3 p.m. and 6–9 p.m.; Sat., noon–3 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Lot parking. Takeout. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $8–$14. Recommended dishes: tacos, mulas, gringas, alambres.


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