Photo by Anne Fishbein
For a long time now, the busiest Eastside taquerías have planted lunch wagons in their parking lots out back on weekends, doubling the rate of taco production on busy Saturdays and getting use out of the trucks that linger the rest of the week around construction sites or outside metal shops, with the corollary benefit of delighting those of us who just can’t get enough of taco trucks. Everybody knows that better food comes from the trucks rather than from the taquerías proper — it has to do with the bracing parking-lot air or something — and outside the original King Taco on East Fourth, El Taurino down on Hoover and Tlaquepaque out on East Olympic, the crowds outside the trucks are far denser than those inside the restaurants. Some of these taquerías celebrate their trucks with special custom-built shelters or elaborate dining structures; sometimes the restaurant itself seems all but vestigial.
But La China Poblana, in the auto-repair district of East Los Angeles, may be the first local restaurant that is all truck, a weather-beaten vehicle parked in its own lot, ringed with rusting machine tools, fenced in with barbed wire and corrugated iron, decorated with a hand-painted oilcloth sign and a few strings of flapping used-car-lot banners. The amenities include a couple of Porta-Potties stuck in a far corner of the lot and a sort of vinyl patio awning adjacent to the truck. If you aren’t planning to eat in your car, there are stacks of plastic lawn chairs, although there are no tables. To call La China Poblana minimalist would be an understatement — one of the things that keeps drawing me back to the truck is the fear that it will disappear one night as abruptly as it appeared, leaving no trace of its existence but a grease spot on the asphalt, a few shards of soda-bottle glass, and sad-eyed locals staring forlornly through chinks in the iron fence.
In this part of town, there is no shortage of places to get decent burritos and tacos, even the odd roasted beef head or fried catfish, but La China Poblana may be the best place in East L.A. to find the cemita, the classic street food of Puebla, a sandwich as linked to that central Mexican town as fish tacos are to Ensenada or baked snapper with Veracruz. A cemita is a multilayered composition on a dense, toasted sesame-seeded bun, a crunchy thing that softens under the oily heat of its filling. Cemitas are fairly common in the Mexican neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens, where most of the recent immigrants are from Puebla — it may be the one Mexican foodstuff easier to find in New York than it is in Los Angeles.
The cemitas roll is sliced, crisped on the stove and crammed full of good things: thin slivers of avocado, slices of ghost-white panela cheese, and perhaps a tangle of pickled onions, carrots and jalapeño peppers. If you ask for it, you can always get saucy whole chipotles, which add a level of sweet smokiness to the heat. In Puebla itself (but not at La China Poblana), there will probably be a few leaves of papalo, a peppery herb with a certain resemblance to watercress. And then, there is the meat, possibly the slippery, pickled pigskin called cueritos, or flour-dusted bits of fried chicken, or long-simmered Puebla-style carnitas. La China Poblana has delicious barbacoa, which in this case is lamb shank stewed down until it is barely a delicious rumor. But the most popular filling by far is the ubiquitous milanesa, a Mexican take on the famous Milanese way of cooking veal — beef pounded to the thickness of a playing card, dredged in flour, and fried in clean oil to a sort of bronzed, leathery crispness that is closer in every way to a really large Maui potato chip than to anything you might call steak. The barbacoa cemita is delicious, but the elements of a cemita really come together with a cemita de milanesa, an essay in contrasts between the heat of the fried beef and the rubbery coolness of cheese; the searing heat of the chiles against the bland smoothness of the avocado; the solidity of the roll against the fragility of its filling. A China Poblana cemita is a sandwich worth a fleet of its own.
La China Poblana, 3527 E. Whittier Blvd., Los Angeles. No phone. Open daily for lunch and dinner. No alcohol. Cash only. Takeout. Sandwiches $3 to $4.