My friend Julie is one of those kitchen samurai you sometimes hear about, a woman who spends her year flitting from hotel room to hotel room, imposing her will on corporate-owned restaurants in every corner of the world. The nature of the job can be brutal — she is required to instruct experienced Chinese chefs on the finer points of dumpling construction, French chefs on pâté, and sushi masters on the proper way to make a spicy tuna roll. She can go weeks without leaving the megahotel at which she is currently employed, existing on staff meals and postmidnight bar snacks. When she daydreams, as she did over a platter of spicy bo ssam at Kobawoo the other day, it is often about the local Mexican food she grew up eating on the rough west side of San Antonio, Texas — in particular, the soft, oily specialty of the legendary margarita dive Henry’s Puffy Taco.
(Click to enlarge)
(Click to enlarge)
The choice at Arturo's is clear: Go for the puffy taco (above, filled with carne asada).
“Those tacos are so good,” she says, folding a slice of belly pork into a lettuce leaf. “It’s a special kind of masa dough that puffs up when you cook it in oil, and then you punch it down and put anything you want in there: picadillo, carnitas, spicy guisada. They’re so popular that Henry the Puffy Taco is the mascot of the local minor-league baseball team. He’s kind of obscene-looking, a big, floppy-lipped taco with a bright-red tomato stuck at the top, right where — you know — but everybody loves him. Between innings, kids chase the puffy taco around the bases. The taco never wins.”
Los Angeles, oddly enough, shares in the history of the signature San Antonio delicacy. Its own puffy-taco emporium, Arturo’s Puffy Taco out in Whittier, was founded by the brother of the famous Henry not long after the San Antonio restaurant first opened its doors. (The proprietor of Ray’s Drive Inn, where the puffy taco may well have been born, was father to both Arturo and Henry.) The customers seem to be mostly expatriate Texans, packed into the tiny adjunct dining room under the signed photographs of Tejano musicians and basketball referees, putting away mounds of food that tower over the red-sauce-encrusted tables. Arturo’s, a faded takeout joint tucked into the corner of a U-Haul parking lot, even looks like a Texas restaurant, akin to the prefab places out past the Wal-Mart, which always seem to have better enchiladas or barbecued brisket than the historic, atmospheric dives near the center of town.
They are not elegant meals, dinners at Arturo’s. The food — multipound starch bombs piled on damp paper plates that can barely contain them; great masses of shredded lettuce and stiff refried beans; mild tomato salsa; and viscous, flowing rivulets of molten orange cheese — points not toward Mexico but straight to the west side of San Antonio, the same kind of Mexican-American abundance celebrated in giant fajita platters and overstuffed El Tepeyac burritos. You could probably finish a “Mexican Plate” — a puffy taco, a serving of the thick, spicy beef stew called guisada, a mountain of rice and beans fixed to the plate with straps of cheese — but afterward, you would be as unable to move as an anaconda that has swallowed a boar. Substitute two gooey cheese enchiladas or a fluffy chile relleno for the guisada, and the effect is the same. Start with an order of the crispy hot dogs, wrapped in corn tortillas, deep-fried taquito-style and served with runny avocado sauce, and you’re dead even before you begin.
The regular soft- and hard-shelled tacos are just awful. But Arturo’s basically functions as a delivery system for the puffy tacos. They’re the spiritual descendant of sopapillas, Navajo fry bread and South Indian poori, perhaps, but they also offer something unique: pillowy-soft rounds of fried dough, crisp and golden at the edges, filled with burnt nubs of grilled steak or chunks of carnitas, shreds of chicken, or the default preparation, picadillo, which is finely ground, seasoned beef compressed into lozenges that have the weight and meaty presence of a terrine. (You can also get the guisado in a taco, but the stew, much better on its own with rice and beans on the side, is too heavy for its intended purpose.) If you sluice the taco with green chile sauce and manage to eat it in the 45 seconds before it collapses into a sodden mess, the puffy taco is a transcendent creation, spicy and oily, cool and burning hot, filling yet somehow ethereal. I’m not sure how I managed to live in Los Angeles this long without even knowing that these puffy tacos existed.
“Oh, puffy tacos,” my wife says. “We used to get them at Arturo’s in high school. I don’t know why I never told you about them.”
Twenty-five wasted years.
Arturo’s Puffy Taco, 15693 Leffingwell Road, Whittier, (562) 947-2250. Open Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-10 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $10-$14. Recommended dish: puffy tacos.