Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Tacos Clarita Now Open

Tacos Clarita - 5024 Huntington Drive Los Angeles 90032
Ph. 323-223-3844
At long last, I have decided to write about the only Mexican food and restaurant I ever ate at where I have memories of both what I ate and how good it tasted.

If this is your first view of Danger! Men Cooking! I don't write restaurant reviews. This is mostly a recipe site.

I had been eating at a lot of upscale, expensive restaurants in Los Angeles and Hollywood, California. But I didn't have a caché Mexican restaurant like I did when I was living elsewhere. So, I devised a plan to elicit where I could find a good Mexican restaurant by asking one of Los Angeles' premier chefs. I had been eating regularly at Alto Palato on La Cienega Blvd. and had a speaking acquaintance with Danilo Terribili. So, one day I proposed to bring some key limes to the restaurant and we would match them in flavor against the limes that I used at their bar. Danilo and I sat on bar stools and the bartender mixed a few sample drinks and I got him talking about where he liked to eat when he didn't cook for himself. I asked him about steak houses, and French, and Japanese and lastly, about Mexican restaurants. He responded about this "place in East L.A., but you had to go there in an armored car ... with body guards with machine guns and machetes ... La Seranata ... something ... [his memory lapsed]. This proved to be unnecessary. The street isn't that scary, although the parking, in back of the place, is a little more than rustic.

So, next Friday, I traveled to back to east Los Angeles and stopped on Sunset Blvd (near S. Boyle Avenue), and ate at La Seranta di Garibaldi. The Seranata had pastel painted walls and nice artwork on them. They had some fish dish on the menu and I had that. But I cannot recall for the life of me what it was. The salsa was good but nothing was memorable. 

As I left and walked west towards where I had parked my car, I saw an A-frame street sign.

The sign had a number of items on it. Pambazos, Quesidilla de flor de calabaza, Huitlacoche, maybe one or two others. This got me excited. This is what I had been looking for when I asked Danilo about Mexican. And, in over 5 decades of eating Mexican food, I had never seen a Pambazo. So, next Friday, I drove back to east Los Angeles and ate there.

The place was dark, had few tables, and to a gringo's eyes seemed dirty. The kitchen, which had no door, however did not look dirty and I sat as the only customer in the place for lunch. The staff was a little "off put" by my presence, as they assumed I spoke no Spanish and they spoke no English. But, I do speak enough Spanish to order food, and I did order in Spanish, which set everything right with them. As it turned out I was the first gringo customer.

I had the pambazo. The panbazo is a sandwich made with a roll which is similar to a talera bun. As an aside, Mexican wheat for these baked goods is somewhat softer (less protein) than American wheat (flour) but that's enough technical stuff. The pambazo is stuffed with spicy Mexican Chorizo, lumpy mashed potatoes and shredded lettuce and little diced tomato jewels and some sour cream. As a finishing touch the outside bun has a mildly spicy chile powder sprinkled on top and then the whole is toasted top and bottom until the chile has a smoky flavor. The combination of these ingredients is exceptional. That is why I still remember eating my first one  more than 15 years later. The flavor, aroma, texture and joy that first pambazo put in my mouth is memorable. I knew I had found my caché Mexican restaurant and if you are somebody who is anybody, you know you must know a caché Mexican restaurant to show off your culinary savoir faire to your friends.

The very next Friday, I brought two friends to Clarita's and they both were forced to admit that the food was excellent. We drank Bohemia. Clarita's husband even went around the corner to the market and brought us some the beer and key limes for the beer.

Over some time I would return to Clarita's and have another pambazo. Sometimes the Tinga Poblana. And on one visit, I was given a flyer informing me of the fact that Clarita's was moving to 4039 E. 4th St. East Los Angeles. A few weeks went by before I returned for my Mexican craving satisfaction. In the meanwhile I told the food editor of the Los Angeles Times Newspaper about Clarita's. That was Charles Perry. I had met Charles when I was a founding member of the social group: The Culinary Historians of Southern California. He happens to write restaurant reviews, so I told him about Clarita's Tacos, d.f. and gave him the address on the flyer I had.

Several more weeks went by before I returned to Clarita's. It is not that short a drive from the Hollywood area where I live to that part of east Los Angeles. I drove to the address on the flyer: 4039 E. 4th. Street. No such number. The closest place to that number is a freeway overpass for the interstate. I drove back and forth for ten minutes, ever becoming more alarmed that I could not find my caché Mexican joint. At last, nearly panicked, I called and the voice on the phone, after we fumbled with English and Spanish, gave me the correct street number of 3049, not 4039. So the flyer was useless and the address I gave Charles Perry was not going to help them get a review, let alone a passing review. So, after getting him the correct address, a few more weeks went by. Then the review appeared in the Food Section of the Times. (it was a better than 'good' review) Then a few more months went by and Clarita's was named one of the top 50 restaurants in Los Angeles.

After the Times taking notice of her restaurant, and those accolades, every time I would walk into the restaurant, Clarita would come out from the kitchen and grasp me in an enormous hug. The Mexicans call it an abrazo.

Mi Carita Clarita
Then came the day that I arrived at Clarita's and found it was re-named. But Clarita was gone and they didn't know where. I tried to search the 'net for a Clara Trujillo, but in truth, the last name is pretty widespread, even in Los Angeles and I could never find her. Then, today (March 6th, 2013) while reading up on some Latin food, I remembered her and decided to see if the 'net made mention of Tacos, d.f., There were two such places on Yelp. The first one, in Southgate, 25 miles from here, was not my querida Clarita. Ahh!! but the second phone call connected me with her nephew and we spoke a few minutes and then I was able to become certain that this is (and was) one and the same cook. (and friend).

On weekends only Clarita's offers Barbacoa la de Texcoco. By the pound. The  consommé costs extra. Clarita prepares this dish in an extraordinary manner. The meat is moist, delicate and mildly spiced and the  consommé add a little bit of fat. I liken this to the finest of French cooking, where the use of fat is an art. Of all the culinary skills I most wish to acquire, it's that delicate hand with the fat. Oh! Face It People: I'm saying: grease. You heard me. One doesn't get up from Clarita's Barbacoa feeling like one has eaten a fatty meal. One feels a spring in one's step. That's as much as words can describe her cooking.

Texcoco is in the State of Mexico. Situated about 15 miles northeast of Mexico City, along the shores of Lake Texcoco. It is celebrated for it's barbacoa. Those reading this unfamiliar with this dish, it's not barbecued meat. Although, with the proper cooking technique, the flavors can approximate one another. Barbacoa is a rustic dish. Little in the way of American cooking can approximate this. There is Texas style pit bbq. Those meats are traditionally smoked brisket of beef or sausages. You may eat Texas "Q" outside, beer in hand, etc., but it's not the same. Maine clambakes also come to mind and somewhere I do have a recipe for Clambake for 600 people. Lobster, at today's prices disqualifies the clambake as rustic, too.

Traditional barbacoa estilo Texcoco is made with lamb, cooked in a pit. The pre-Hispanic people would have used venison or turkey, iguana or rabbit. As the Aztecs had no aluminum foil, they used the leaves of the maguey cactus.

Also useful for Tequila
Whether the Los Angeles County Environmental Health Dept. would allow any restaurant to use the maguey for cooking is not something I know. It's very common to find banana leaves in ethnic markets here, buy I have not seen the maguey on store shelves. I wish that the barbacoa was cooked in the maguey at midnight, when the restaurant is closed and the health inspectors are asleep in their beds. The next secret ingredient is pulque. The maguey is the source of both the leaf and the pulque. And I believe that the traditional sauce that accompanies barbacoa is salsa borracha. (the Drunkard's Sauce)

We have now uncovered the dish so to speak. Suffice it to say that it is a slowly simmered dish and has a great consommé to serve with the corn tortillas. The manner of eating this is to use a fork or two, shred the meat, put it between the taco'd fingers and pour some consommé over the meat. Salsa optional. At Clarita's the meat and consommé are so flavorful that adding sauce is like gilding the lily. Yet, some folks like spicy and I'll say I ken the pulque in the sauce, too. The beans would also be the recipe frijoles borrachos. Use the pulque in addition to water to cook the beans. All other standard ingredients apply, such as: garlic, lard, salt, pepper.

Traditionally, the dish is heated to a simmer over oak coals (encino) and cooked for half a day or longer in a pit, in the ground. The meat, whether lamb or pork should fall apart when touched with a fork.

Garnishes are: pickled chiles, radishes, scallions, papalo (somewhat sharp flavored, like arugula) and emerald bits of nopal. If you are reading this in Los Angeles the Gonzalez Northgate Markets has it. Your choice of wheat or corn tortillas. 

If Clarita will part with her recipe, I will post it here. I hesitate to ask. It's a family recipe. Those recipes are handed down from mother to daughter, often take decades to develop and are not lightly parted with for the edification of the foodie audience, but I will ask to watch her make her fabled  Barbacoa la de Texcoco, from start to finish.


Tacos Clarita
5024 Huntington Dr North
Los Angeles, CA 90032
Sra. Clara Trujillo, prop.

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