Mexican food quest

Half the fun of traveling is finding great new Mexican restaurants, taquerias, tortillerias... The fun part is there are a lot of places left to discover, just waiting out there somewhere.

These are the places outside the Sacramento, CA area that are worth a visit.

El Tepeyac Cafe - Manuel's Original
812 N Evergreen Ave, Los Angeles

What's for breakfast? A Hollenbeck! Why eat something the size of a small Chihuahua early in the morning? Because you will be so much more efficient, since lunch won't be necessary and dinner won't need to happen until at least 8:00 pm. Just think of what you can accomplish being able to work non-stop like that!

No waiting for the restaurant at this hour, normally. And you won't be the only crazy person chowing down on a sumptuous burrito. There are other people as crazy as you!

Yes, they do have breakfast stuff, too. Eggs and toast. Chilaquiles. Huevos rancheros... but you can get that stuff anywhere. But a Hollenbeck? This is THE place!

And don't forget to say "hello" to Manuel, the burrito genius who started all this. He's the guy who invented a unique style of Los Angeles born and bred Mexican food and in the process created an iconic burrito joint. Yeah, they do have other stuff besides burritos, but they're still the star here.

Mariscos El Jato
2936 E 4th St, Los Angeles

This building is super cool. If you could shrink it and fold it flat, you could hang it on the wall in an art museum.

There's a lot of "ambience" here. It's noisy from all the people talking and the two TVs blaring away. There are Chivas posters, a fridge full of Mexican coke. There's a sign saying, "No alcohol permitted". And lots of color.

You enter on the fish market side, and immediately turn right and step down into the restaurant.
We walked down to the register area, and were greeted by the owner like we'd been there lots of times before. Nice. The waitress asked if we needed menus, so I guess she thought so, too.
You can be precise when ordering your coctel and choose among shrimp, octopus, oysters... or a combination thereof.

We grabbed a table near the TV so we could watch the game, ordered and were in mariscos heaven. Shrimp and octopus cocktail, and a mixed seafood plate with octopus, shrimp and ceviche. Everything was loaded with super fresh, perfectly ripe avocado slices. The cocktail sauce was nice and tangy but not too heavy.

For your added pleasure, there's a liter bottle of Tapatio on the table, a huge basket of Saltines and a pack of tostadas. Along with limes, totopos and home made salsa.

The coctel was a deal at eight dollars, and excellent. Cheap!

The only thing bad about this place is that it's easy to order more than is probably healthy, but it's so good you'll eat it anyway.

This is a "speak Spanish or point to what you want" kind of place. No worries, they'll set you up either way.

One more thing: if you're a Chivas fan, this would be a great place to catch a game. If not, Shhhh!

Cemitas Poblanas Elvirita
3010 E 1st St, Los Angeles, CA

Best. Chipotle. Ever.

Somehow they make their chipotle sauce with all the flavor but without all the heat. You can spoon the stuff into your sandwich without going through all that enchilado writhing, panting and gasping. We got it on the side, as a favor to a non-chilihead person who we somehow managed to get to come with us.

We had carnitas cemitas, accented with fresh papalo leaves. They're like a cross between fresh oregano and cilantro, sort of. The bread was perfectly toasted, the meat savory and the papalo leaves intriguing,  adding an interesting bonus to the chipotle sauce. Definitely worth ordering again.

Our less adventuresome friend had a chicken cemita. She didn't care for the papalo, but then she doesn't like cilantro either. I know, missing out on one of life's great tastes, but what can you do? Her chicken was pounded flat and breaded, milanesa style, and layered into her sandwich.

Don't expect fancy. There's a big menu on the wall and a guy with a order pad waiting for you to pronounce the verdict. Grab your drinks from the refrigerator and sit down. He'll take the order to the kitchen, then bring your food and check in periodically to make sure that everything is ok.

If you're coming down first street from downtown, park as soon as you cross Evergreen and you're there.

Cook's Tortas  
1944 S Atlantic Blvd, Monterey Park, CA

These guys are incapable of making a bad sandwich. If anyone ever tells you that this is the best sandwich place in the world, listen to them!

When it comes to creating a reasonably noise free environment for eating, not so much. Ditto for a short wait time for walk-ins (I waited about half an hour). So, call in your order to go, and enjoy your torta in a relaxing and calm environment.

The only thing that's better than a Cook's sandwich is eating it while sitting outside on a nice day with a nice glass or wine. For some reason, a bacalao sandwich and Portugese red wine is a match made in heaven (it was a Dao, in case you were wondering).

When you get red fries to go, they put them in a styrofoam cup with a lid so they stay warm.

King Taco Restaurant Inc  
4504 E 3rd St, Los Angeles, CA

Don't stand in the first order line you see. Check the other order windows, and you may save yourself a lot of waiting.

Remember when you order an al pastor (or any) burrito with everything, it comes with salsa inside unless you tell them otherwise. So, when you add salsa to the top, it's all running down to the bottom. When you arrive at the grand finale, you might find your face starting to melt from the heat. Just breathe, wait a bit, and your mouth will adapt, eventually. Also, remember there's a puro carne option if you don't want to dilute the meat.

There's nothing like hanging out here on a nice night munching some late night tacos or sopes with some good agua fresca.

King  Taco Restaurant Inc.
5729 Atlantic Blvd, Maywood, CA

This is the upscale version of King Taco. For one thing, they've got beer. And booths. And Mexican plates in addition to the same favorite antojitos as the Third Street location. I guess that makes this a better place for a cheap date, since the seating is nicer and better yet, indoors.

El Huarachito CLOSED. ADIOS.
710 N Eastern Ave, Los Angeles, CA

At this point all you can do is imagine... they're gone, and I'm hoping something really interesting will move into the space, like regional food from Oaxaca, Pueblo, Chiapas, Merida...

This is what this place was like:
 Imagine that you lived in the center of Mexico and had a favorite little restaurant where everything was cooked to order from scratch, where they would be happy to make something special for you if they had the ingredients. This was that place - the only difference is that it was right here in Los Angeles.

Sopes, huaraches, filet of fish (tilapia) cooked at least four different ways, shrimp diablo, al mojo de ajo...Tortas, thin-sliced beef, daily specials during the week, barbacoa with consome on weekends (you needed to get there for an early lunch, since they could run out of ingredients). Shrimp cocktails, too.

You would have needed some level of Spanish, preferably more than pointing to things on the menu. For one thing, the menu was all in Spanish, and other than the basics like enchiladas and tacos, the food may not have been all that familiar unless you travelled to central Mexico. I think one of the waitresses spoke English, but I would not have counted on her being there.

The service was excellent, and in any case, if your Spanish was limited, they tried to help you pick something you'll like.

If you like small, neighborhood places that cook up great, authentic food then you'll be very happy here.

Ciro's Restaurant
705 N Evergreen Ave, Los Angeles, CA

Don't let the iron grillwork over the windows and door discourage you. They are indeed open (if the sign says so) and you can go in or make a sign for them to let you in when a table opens up.

The ropa vieja is the best thing on the menu. Yes, that's my opinion, but if you try it you might agree. This isn't something you find just anywhere. This is Cuban ropa vieja's badass Mexican cousin, and this puppy can bite! The main difference between the two styles is the addition of chopped fresh chilis, seeds in. It arrives on a large plate in a steaming heap fragrant with tomato, spices and lots of shredded beef. With the avocado salsa, some chips and a plate of this stuff in your belly you'll waddle out of here happy. Or you can be smart and box some up for another day, in case your belt is already let out as far as it will go.

They have other plates, equally copious. Flautas, carnitas... all your favorites are here. Nothing wrong with any of them. Except they're not ropa vieja.

Whatever you order, make sure you get the avocado sauce with it.

Come hungry. This is not a place for a light snack.

La Serenata de Garibaldi 
1842 E 1st St, Los Angeles CA

In the mood for some upscale mariscos not far from downtown L.A.? This is it! I tend to order the specials, like salmon with red chili, or fish with a green cilantro or epazote based sauce, or... The plates are artfully arranged, like something you might find in Mexico City.

There are meat dishes, if seafood isn't your thing. I can't tell you how they are, since I've never tried any of them - they looked tasty enough as they passed by.

The menu changes fairly often, at least several times per year, as dishes are rotated on and off. It seemed like they would prepare something off the menu for you if they had the ingredients, although I wasn't bold enough to push it - and with an interesting special there was no reason to.

Heat runs from none to sweat inducing. Don't worry. The wait staff is also very helpful in describing ingredients sauces and chili risk.

Beer and wine are fine, but no Tequila. Nonetheless, they make great margaritas. They have some kind of Tequila free formula that works great, so don't hold back. They've had some great homemade aguas frescas, perfect for a no-alcohol lunch meeting.

The decor is well done. It's romantic and doesn't resemble the front of the building much at all (a good thing). There's valet parking in the back (take the alley) - street parking is limited to the lucky.

If you do park in back, be prepared to climb some Spanish tiled steps to get to the back entrance, although there might be an elevator. If you're worried about universal access, it might be a good idea to call first and ask for the best method of getting inside.

This could be a good place to take someone who doesn't like "Mexican Food" to introduce them to the variety, complexity and subtlety that this cuisine is capable of.

La Guelaguetza  
3100 E. Imperial Hwy, Lynwood, CA

Bienvenidos a Oaxaca y buen provecho!

If you're used to the usual Cal-Mex stuff, their menu might be a bit of a challenge, since you may not recognize a lot of the dishes they prepare. You're in Oaxaca now, baby! (well, sort of).
This place is actually in Plaza Mexico, a place worth exploring for Mexican record stores, books in Spanish, helados... checking out the action, and planning future culinary adventures.

Yes, the moles are excellent, with the dark ones being better. Since I'm allergic to one of the things restaurants always put in mole, I can only taste, but can't order a plate for myself.

I still love this place. They have one of the tastiest barbacoas in L.A. Lamb simmered in spices - with avocado leaves, chilis, and I don't even know what else. The lamb - barbacoa de borrego - is weekend only thing, but there's also a goat barbacoa on the menu that I haven't tried.

As for the more, ahem, authentic, stuff - like chapulines - I think they hang out at one of Guelaguetza's L.A. locations.

The restaurant is elegant once you get inside, and the service has always been good once you're at your table.

La Super-Rica Taqueria  
622 N Milpas St, Santa Barbara, CA

The regular menu items are OK, but nothing to make you stand up and shout, "¡Ole!". The handwritten specials, however, are another matter entirely. Interesting small plates, authentic regional cuisine, interesting stuff that you won't find easily outside of Mexico.

The chorizo is light and not greasy, but not especially spicy. It was more like a fine sausage than the stuff you'd expect - it's served as large chunks on a homemade tortilla.

Back to the specials!  Que rico! One tamal came wrapped in a banana leaf, filled with excellent masa, almonds, mole and chicken (I think). Another was a vegetable stuffed chile relleno.

Regular menu items are more generous than they appear. The tacos arrive with bare meat on a tortilla, and you have a choice of three kinds of salsa to dress them up. No onions and cilantro? None of the salsas was outstanding, nor even very spicy - salsa verde, salsa rojo and chopped tomato and onion with some green stuff. I'd hesitate to call it pico de gallo, because there wasn't any pico.

The order window is near the entry, so once four people are there the line is out the door. It then proceeds to wind its way down the sidewalk toward the parking lot.

Overall, it was inexpensive since we didn't order a lot of tacos for each person. These tacos have lots of meat, so you don't need to order four of them to get full. So, two tamales and three tacos were enough to keep four people full until dinner.

The back patio is a nice place to sit, if you can find a table. Hopefully the arrogant couple who took a table for four when tables for two were available (blithely making larger groups wait for them) won't be there the day you show up. Yes! I'm talking about you! You know who you are.

La Azteca Tortilleria
4538 E Cesar E Chavez Avenue, Los Angeles, CA

The fragrance of a hot flour tortilla as it comes off the comal... or the gas burner. Nothing like it. Enchiladas, huevos rancheros, tacos made with real corn tortillas... what a difference.

This is the place to get both kinds of tortillas, and there's no bias: they're all excellent. If you happen to live somewhere far away, remember that they freeze well. This is assuming that you won't devour a few packs on your way home and there will actually be something left over to freeze.

Be prepared to wait, especially if you just placed a large order, or arrived after someone else who did. Just relax. There are a few chairs so you can just hang out while they slap your tortillas together. If you're lucky, someone might come out with a little appetizer so you won't be as hungry while you're waiting.

The people who work here are really great, and keep up a fun atmosphere.

The old building has a lot of character, too. It's a big open space, divided in two by a counter, from which you can see the back area where they prepare the tortillas. There's sort of a waiting/ordering area in front, where you can order food, like carnitas in case you don't want to cook anything.

Rincon Norteño Cafe
83011 Indio Boulevard, Indio, CA (760) 347-4754
It was probably 105°F the day we went. For some reason we skipped indoor dining and opted to sit in the patio area. Despite the heat, fans and misters kept the atmosphere bearable.

This was not a day for heavy, warm food. I therefore don't know if they make great enchiladas or other things more suited to cooler weather.

All I can write about is their campechana, and it's reason enough to visit. A campechana is served chilled, just the thing for dining on a desert patio while heat waves make the landscape across the street shimmer. A campechana is like a shrimp cocktail on steriods, with a lighter flavor. There's seafood in a tomato-based sauce, just the right amount of spice, and some avocado slices for richness.

A beer, a campechana and some saltines made the perfect desert lunch.

Since it's in Indio, I only get there during my spring trip to the desert, but this place is at the top of my list for a good meal before venturing forth into the wilderness.

Questing in Mexico?
These places are definitely worth a visit!

Durango 200, Roma, Mexico D.F.
web site

Seafood, as good as you'll find anywhere. Yes, even Paris.

Meson de la Abundancia
Lanzagorta 11, Real de Catorce, San Luis Potosí, México 78550
web site

This might be a bit out of the way. You drive miles down a bumpy cobbled road, climbing into the mountains. Eventually you arrive at a parking lot. You're still not there, however. You need to take a long tunnel through the mountain to arrive at Real de Catorce, a mining town being restored bit by bit. Meson de la Abundancia is a hotel with a restaurant, where they serve great food with a local twist, like pizza with pickled barrel cactus fruit. They make a a mean brandy chicken, too. After your meal, stroll around the village - there are all kinds of nooks and crannies to investigate, including a theater.