Sunday, May 3, 2009

Eating good, Mexican style, in our neighborhood.

Panorama City has an embarrassment of riches with regard to Mexican food. Don't just go to El Torito or Acapulco or another chain to celebrate El Cinco de Mayo, try some local grub.

1.)Rincon Taurino, Nordhoff Av. and Van Nuys Blvd, and also Van Nuys Blvd. right next to the Ice Rink.
These are the same people. And like Stater Bros. used to say, it's their meat that made them famous. I don't eat beef anymore but I remember that their Carne Asada is especially succulent, marinated for 24 hours in a secret marinade that includes Mexican beer. Their Pork Al Pastor has just the right amount of snappy spicing and is lean and lovely. However, their Pork Carnitas is my favorite...rendered beautifully lean by having all the fat fried out of it. The interior of the meat is juicy, the outside appealingly chewy and caramelized. They'll make any meat as tacos, burritos, tortas, (Mexican submarine sandwiches) huaraches, (Slipper-shaped fried thick tostadas) tostadas or even quesadillas. If you want to maintain the fiction you're eating healthy, you can get fresh juices, "aguas frescas" (fruit ade) and "bionicos" (fruit cocktails) with your meal. Awesome.

2.)El Gordo taco truck, usually parks on the corner of Van Nuys and Parthenia. (North jog) This takes guts. The El Gordo truck usually parks a block away from Rincon Taurino, and they give them a run for their money. They are most loved for their Al Pastor but I like their grilled chicken. When you buy tacos from them they will throw in a little round totopo (fried mini tortilla) topped with freshly made frijoles de olla. (beans fresh from the pot) They also are very generous with fixins too: they allow you to take home fresh guacamole, pickled onions and carrots, cilantro, onion and two kinds of salsas.

3.) Vallarta, (the taco restaurant) Woodman and Chase, right next to the car wash. This is so you do not confuse Vallarta with the Vallarta Supermarket at Woodman and Osborne. The same people who own the supermarket chain own the restaurant. Like El Gordo, they have plenty of fixins for your tacos, burritos fact, they have a bar with not only salsas but guacamole, pickled carrots; sauteed onions, scallions and chiles kept in a heater; pickled Jalapenos, and even a sort of Mexican cole slaw that has lots of heat.

They specialize in seafood there. Shrimp or fish in your tacos or burrito or whatever doesn't cost any more than less luxurious toppings like chicken or beef or pork carnitas. They also do Mexican seafood cocktails, seafood soups and seafood plates. The prices are extremely reasonable.

4.) Dos Arbolitos, Nordhoff and Woodley. The "Mexican" combination plate is actually a California invention...tacos, enchiladas and whatnot on a huge plate with rice and beans and other goodies and served with endless bowls of tortilla chips and salsa. This is what most people think of when they think of "eating Mexican." It's restaurants in Los Angeles like El Cholo, which opened in 1927, The Original Spanish Kitchen, which opened in the 1940s and closed under mysterious circumstances in 1961, and the original Encino El Torito, which opened in 1954, that made the rules for popular Mexican restaurants to follow.

Dos Arbolitos is an institution in the North San Fernando Valley, and for good reason. They have elevated the Cali-Mex combo plate into high culinary art. If they were on the Westside they would be pulling in $20 or $25 per entree like places like Ciudad does. But they're in humble North Hills, the next town to the west of Panorama City, and so they are quite reasonable.

In 1999 they closed down because the shopping center their original location was in got torn down. Despair set in as locals jonesed for their favorite neighborhood Mexican restaurant. However, a year later they opened up in their current location, and there was much rejoicing. (Yay!)

They make the standards, but try some of their more creative entrees like Pollo con Mole enchiladas and Pollo Alcaparrado which is Spanish-inflected (yes, Spanish, not Mexican!) chicken sauteed with capers and onions and served in a tangy, complex sauce.

The original chef there died a few years ago, but his protege has inherited his mantle and his secret book of recipes. His cuisine reigns supreme.

There's other good places nearby like Pescado Mojado, but these are my favorites.