At least once a year — and some years more than that — my wife has friends, family and co-workers over for a feast. And rather than spending all our time in the kitchen, she opts to have it catered.
Over the years, we’ve settled on, what to me, is a caterer who’s unique to the LA Experience. She’s a Vietnamese refugee who cooks the very best…Mexican food imaginable. I love that — one cuisine, absorbing another, and in the process making it better. It’s so…American.
Something akin to that is at play at the wonderful new El Barrio Neighborhood Tacos — a seemingly nondescript Mexican fast-food restaurant. Mexican cooking is the heritage of owners Ulises Pineda-Alfaro and Jesse Duron. But they’ve also put in their time at the esteemed sushi restaurant called Umi by Hamasaku — a major destination for raw fish in The Point in El Segundo, co-owned by sushi master Yoya Takahashi and his business partner, CAA founder Michael Ovitz.
There are, actually, some notable overlaps between the restaurants — even if they’re more aesthetic than actual. They both deal with small portions, so in both cases you’ve got to order more than you might have expected to. They both offer cult dishes, the sort of cuisine we dream about and crave in the small hours of the morning. And they’re both wildly popular, with loyal followings.
Chef Takahashi, at the original Hamasaku in West LA, has long had a following of folks both famous and local, thanks to offering some of the best fish, in a seafood-intensive part of town.
Those who know what’s good when it comes to Mexican ingredients and preparations flock to El Barrio, hungry for tortillas made using masa from heirloom, non-GMO corn from small family farms in Oaxaca.
There are upscale Mexican restaurants in town that don’t go to this much trouble. But for Pineda-Alfaro and Duron, it’s non-negotiable. They’ve set out to make the best tacos in our taco-obsessed city. They may very well have succeeded.
El Barrio means “The Neighborhood.” But it also means a lot more than that. El Barrio is where your people live — your friends, your relatives, the neighbors you know well.
A taco shop halfway between Paddy O’Brien’s Irish Pub and Jersey’s Bar & Grill isn’t exactly in its neighborhood. It’s not especially in a neighborhood at all. And yet, the crowds who flock to El Barrio have turned this into a neighborhood hang.
It feels good to stand at the counter waiting your turn to order with a knowledgeable crowd of taco-maniacs. Then, to wait patiently, watching one hot steaming order after another emerge from the kitchen. Until you finally have yours in hand.
At which point, the challenge is to keep from inhaling the whole thing in one swallow. The choice of dishes is neither long nor short — it’s just the right size for El Barrio…and for el barrio.
And it does get quirky — or at least modernistic — here and there. Under Appetizers, for instance, there’s a finely turned quesadilla, a dish most of us know well. But there are also “Loaded Barrio Fries” — shoestring spuds topped with melted Mexican cheese, gravy, pico de gallo salsa and avocado “crema.” A lot of stuff on a bunch of skinny fries. Eat ’em up fast!
There’s an iceberg lettuce wedge salad, which is turned Mexican with the addition of cilantro “crema” and cotija cheese. But otherwise, it’s a salad like you’ll find all over the place.
What you won’t find all over the place is a roasted cauliflower appetizer, with the name “Cauli-Esquite,” topped with cilantro mayo, cotija cheese and chili powder made in-house. Who does stuff like that? El Barrio, obviously.
Cauliflower reappears in one of the eight tacos, flavored with a mole sauce. A choice, among many good choices.The tacos are packed with jumbo shrimp, American Wagyu hangar steak and beef brisket, pork shoulder and pork belly, chicken tinga — and for the veggies, along with cauliflower, there’s mesquite grilled nopal cactus leaves. The same ingredients appear, more or less, in the torta sandwiches and the mulitas quesadillas. (Think of a taco turned into a sandwich.)
There’s no beer. But there is dessert — a fruit flan…and a churro and doughnut combination called a Chu-Nut. Like a Cronut, kind of, but Mexican, and a lot tastier, without a crazy long line of those hungry for a taste. Which is not to say there isn’t a wait.
Everything at El Barrio is made to order. This isn’t Taco Bell. Indeed, this isn’t quite like anything else in town. It’s a trend, beginning on Aviation Boulevard. Watch for one coming to your barrio soon. It seems just right.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Send him email at email@example.com.
El Barrio Neighborhood Tacos
Address: 1505 Aviation Blvd., Redondo Beach
Information: (310) 921-8620, elbarriogroup.com
When: Lunch and dinner, every day
Details: Soft drinks; no reservations
Atmosphere: Casual, understated, order at the counter taco shop, raised to excellence with food prepared by some fine chefs, with backgrounds that include sushi. Only in LA — and also worth every penny.
Prices: About $12 per person
Suggested dishes: Loaded Barrio Fries ($8; loaded for $4 extra), “Cali”-Esquite Cauliflower ($4), El Coctel ($8), El Caesar ($8; $4 for protein), 8 Tacos ($3.50-$4), 5 Tortas ($10), 8 Mulitas ($2.50-$5)
Cards: MC, V
What the stars mean: Ratings range from 4 stars to zero. 4 stars is world-class (worth a trip from anywhere). 3 stars is most excellent, even exceptional (worth a trip from anywhere in Southern California). 2 stars is a good place to go for a meal (visit if you’re in the neighborhood). 1 star is a place to go if you’re hungry and it’s nearby. Zero stars is not worth writing about.