There are many good taco spots along the stretch of Long Beach Boulevard where the 6-month-old Balam Mexican Kitchen is located, but you probably won't find many that resemble what Guadalajara chef Manuel "Kornie" Bañuelos is serving inside a former fast-food stand in Lynwood.
On the menu at Balam you'll find 10 or so varieties of tacos — some traditional, some more creative — each served on handmade tortillas. There's one stuffed with stewed huitlacoche and a drizzle of cilantro crema, one made with slow-braised barbacoa and pickled red onions, and another made with "chicken tinga masala," a Mexican-Indian riff garnished with cilantro and a handful of roasted almonds.
You'll find not only a version of the now-ubiquitous Korean taco made with grilled bulgogi and chipotle slaw but also a fried coconut shrimp taco that cleverly subs in a slice of pink, hibiscus-marinated jicama for a tortilla — lending a welcome vegetal crunch — as well as a homey mole alemandrado taco filled with yellow basmati rice and a scoop of ruddy orange mole sauce. You can have any of the fillings with quesadillas or burritos, too, but ordering a few $3 tacos is probably the way to go. There's a lot of taco innovation happening at Balam worth sampling.
Bañuelos, who goes by the nickname "Kornie," is a heavily bearded Guadalajaran chef who arrived in Los Angeles just a few weeks before opening Balam. He previously opened a Mexican restaurant outside London and the now-closed Chicago restaurant Mezcalina. He also cooked at various restaurants in his home state.
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So how does a globe-trotting Mexican chef end up in Lynwood, exactly? The answer is Balam's co-owner, Rosendo Jacquez, who had heard about Bañuelos through his sister and was looking for a chef for a new project he planned to open inside a former taqueria space his mother owned. Six months later, Balam has amassed a following that even Jacquez didn't anticipate, attracting curious locals and hip Long Beach kids alike.
With so many gourmet taco operations across the city — Guerrilla Tacos, Guisados, Colonia Tacos Guisados and B.S. Taqueria — you might be skeptical about making such a trek for trendy tacos. Perhaps you'll be convinced by Balam's take on the classic torta ahogada, a pork-filled sandwich submerged in a fiery tomato sauce that's made with a special birote salado roll Bañuelos imports from Guadalajara. It's a wise move to tame the sandwich's heat with the various house-made aguas frescas, including a refreshing, spearmint-spiked lemonade.
For the coming summer months, Bañuelos and Jacquez plan to add a selection of ceviches to the menu, and even more exciting, their newly approved beer and wine license means they'll soon be pouring craft beer. According to Jacquez, a night of pairing ceviches with nearby brewery Phantom Carriage's sour beers is already in the works.
Balam Mexican Kitchen, 11700 Long Beach Blvd., Lynwood; (424) 338-6762, instagram.com/balamtaco.