{mosimage} Half of Highland Park bellies up to the counter at El Huarache Azteca #1 on weekend afternoons, guzzling housemade horchata, tepache and watermelon drink out of foam cups the size of oil cans; hovering over the few oilcloth-covered tables inside; gathering tacos and huaraches by the dozen to bring home to their families; coaxing burning-hot huitlacoche quesadillas — fried turnovers stuffed with musky, jet-black corn fungus — out of the stone-faced woman who mans the fragrant fry cart stationed just outside the restaurant’s entrance. The last time I was by, I ordered a quesadilla stuffed with flor de calabaza, the sauté of squash blossoms and vegetables that is one of El Huarache’s specialties. Five minutes later, I was handed a grilled quesadilla filled with cabeza, beef head, on a flour tortilla. It was undeniably delicious, but I contemplated for a moment suing my 11th-grade Spanish teacher for malpractice.

The famous dish at El Huarache is, of course, the huarache, a flat, concave trough of fried masa the approximate length and shape of a size-12 sandal, mounded with beans and tough, thin shards of grilled steak or chile-red nubs of marinated pork, a layer of shredded lettuce, and strata of grated cheese and Mexican-style cultured cream. If your tastes run that way, you can have your huarache topped with slippery squares of fried pigskin that have been simmered into submission, or with shredded bits of chicken. If you are up to the challenge, you can get it piled high with the cabeza, the rich, gelatinous meat from a cow’s head cooked down into an ultra-concentrated essence of beef with the consistency of refried beans.

El Huarache Azteca #1 — there is a vaguely related El Huarache #2 near Dodger Stadium — sells the usual sorts of tacos, burritos and chicken enchiladas; also middling carne asada plates; fried slabs of the thin, breaded beef called milanesa; and sopes, saucers of fried masa that are like huaraches, only less so. The pork ribs simmered in spicy red sauce are fatty and irresistible. The taqueria guacamole in the second of the three squeeze bottles on every table is so tasty that you might contemplate squirting it directly into your mouth. The third, a tart tomatillo salsa, is pretty good too.

{mosimage}A certain contingent of the customers comes in for the daily specials: albon­digas on Mondays, beef soup on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Fridays — except during Lent, when you are more likely to find the bitter vegetable huazontle fried in an egg batter — there is a very nice “pozole de pig.” I am partial to the Wednesday mole verde, a pea-green slurry concocted from ground herbs and chiles and toasted pumpkin seeds among several other things, a savory, pre-Columbian concoction that blankets a half chicken, but which is even better when you scoop it up with the thick handmade tortillas that you can get for a buck extra on weekdays.

But for all the kitchen’s finesse with antojitos and homey stews, El Huarache’s great specialty is probably its barbacoa, chile-rubbed lamb in the style of Texcoco, the small city east of the capital known for its savory version of the dish. The meat, roasted almost to the point of collapse, is beyond rich, irregular chunks of rib and leg and shoulder that fall apart with the slightest jab of a spoon, served with a cup of clear lamb consommé spiked with chickpeas and rice and flavored with whole chipotle chiles that give the broth a subtle, smoky heat.

A huarache is a little too sturdy to attack with the flimsy plastic knife and fork that are provided — this is not a fancy place — and you will probably only be able to saw off a chunk or two before you lose patience, wet the length of the huarache with pungent red sauce from a squeeze bottle, and pick up the hot, dripping beast with your fingers to gobble before it cools into corn-flavored cement. Emily Post provides no guidelines for eating a huarache.

El Huarache Azteca #1, 5225 York Blvd., Highland Park, (323) 478-9572. Open daily, 9 a.m.–8:30 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Street parking. Takeout. Catering. Lunch for two, food only, $6–$16. Recommended dishes: huaraches, mole verde (Wednesdays), barbacoa (weekends).

Want more on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Jonathan Gold?  Jonathan made the rounds of several radio shows over the weekend, which are archived below:

  • All Things Considered – Michele Norris speaks with Jonathan Gold
  • Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me – Click on “Not My Job”
  • On the Media – Brooke Gladstone speaks with Gold about the prcoess of writing about food.
  • Off-Ramp – KPCC's John Rabe speaks with Gold about his passion for good food.
  • Good Food – Gold revisits his early days as a music critic, his first job at the LA Weekly, and the restaurant he visited seventeen times.
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