Old Town Pasadena may be the most gentrified district in America, a sort of mega-mall sprinkled like fairy dust through hundred-year-old office blocks, polished to a shine. In Old Town – which for some reason has been renamed Old Pasadena – you are never more than a few yards from a cashmere sweater or a nonfat latte. And if you are hungry, Old Town is well-stocked with marketing consultants' conceptions of '40s Hoboken, '50s Los Angeles and '70s frat-house Ohio, of ancient ports evoked through their respective cruise-ship cuisines, and with the kind of chain restaurants that send their customers home with 14 pounds of dripping foil swans.
But just a couple of blocks north, a bit past the freeway, there is El Taquito Mexicano #2, an utterly authentic lunch counter in as concentrated a Mexican neighborhood as exists in California – kitty-corner from a hardware store parking lot that serves as Pasadena's informal clearing-house for day labor, anchoring a strip of bodegas, taquerias and pinata shops, booming polkas and games of street soccer that but for the live oaks might be in Boyle Heights. This neighborhood of Pasadena is only a five-minute walk from the shiny boutiques of Old Town, but it may as well be another world.
El Taquito Mexicano #2 (the first is in Highland Park) is a cheerful yellow storefront that looks no bigger than a breadbox when you speed by it on the way to Altadena, a tiny taco stand that somehow opens up to a dining room almost as spacious as a Dodge Durango, furnished with a few rough picnic tables and some wooden booths that look as if somebody fabricated them in a junior high school shop class. While the restaurant technically has an “inside,” it is the kind of “inside” where the coffee-inhaling regulars usually don't bother to take off their cowboy hats. The short Spanish-language menu, mostly of burritos and soups, is painted on the wall; a shorter list of specials – chilaquiles, chorizo and eggs, stewed pork skin – is posted near the cash register.
Like many of the neighborhood's best small Mexican restaurants, El Taquito may function less as an institution unto itself than as a docking station for its fleet of taco trucks, which fan out from the restaurant every day at dusk. (The taco truck from rival La Estrella, which parks each night just across the street, would seem from its hourlong lines on Saturday nights to be the local equivalent of Old Town's perpetually crowded Mi Piace.)
But El Taquito is a genuine center of Mexican home cooking, a loncheria with an ever-changing menu and Styrofoam cups of the rice-pudding drink horchata as big around as swimming pools. This is almost as far as you can get from taqueria fast food: fresh-simmered rice; oily, homemade-tasting refried beans; pozole that tastes like somebody's grandmother had a hand in it.
When you order a full lunch (as opposed to a burrito), a waitress brings over a huge bowl of freshly made chips, tooth-crackingly dense, served usually with a fresh salsa made from roasted green chiles or an intense chipotle dip. Some people are drawn here for the chips alone.
As in most loncherias, the food varies from day to day, even hour to hour. Sometimes the chiles rellenos are crisp and oily, magnificent beasts sturdy enough to stand up to a thick blanket of tomato sauce, though at other times they can seem as pale and limp as a Jay Leno monologue.
I have eaten some of the best carne asada of my life at El Taquito, wildly peppery, fragrant with citrus and garlic, charred black at the edges, but I have also had gray, steamy stuff that tasted mostly of overdone meat. Burritos can be tremendous – and are always huge – but once or twice have been the watery things I sometimes drive across town to avoid. The restaurant has a small specialty in pork ribs, costillas, and pork skin, chicharronnes, cooked down to a luxurious softness, sometimes in red chile, sometimes green.
I love the place: It has a sense of neighborhood about it that no $2 million decorating budget would be able to replicate, and I have taken visiting New Yorkers to El Taquito who subsequently felt compelled to eat there every single day for the rest of their visit. Lunch at El Taquito is like lunch at your mom's house: If it's great, it couldn't be better; if it's mediocre, at least you're at home.
467 N. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena; (626) 577-3918. Open daily for breakfast and lunch. Lunch for two, food only, $6-$12. No alcohol. Takeout. Street parking only. Cash only.