Pasadena Magazine’s Restaurant Callout: Little Beast

*This article was originally published in Pasadena Magazine.

Eagle Rock partisans have long yearned for a place like Little Beast. Its ambiance, established by a reconverted 1911 bungalow with a homey patio on Colorado Boulevard, is unfussy and sets an ideal scene for catching up with a friend over a glass of a slightly obscure, yet affordable, white wine complemented by bites of wild salmon tartare. Or a romantic candlelight dinner ending with a mason jar full of chilled salty chocolate pudding. On a recent Tuesday night, every table at the small independent eatery was full, and the sound of convivial murmurs and clinking glasses was at full volume. Owner, chef and South Pasadena resident Sean Lowenthal, and his wife and partner, Deborah Schwartz-Lowenthal, knew the community was ready for their progressive American comfort food when the pop-up dinners they hosted down the street at Le Petit Beaujolais sold out, despite not doing any publicity. Lowenthal’s cooking chops, and his penchant for American modern cuisine, were honed during his two-year tenure working as Chateau Marmont’s sous chef. He’s split the menu into two sections: “Small Plates,” with fiercely seasonal things such as juicy, perfectly ripe peach slices served with a generous dollop of creamy burrata cheese, and “Mains,” entrees including plump seared scallops atop a bed of buttery roasted cauliflower puree. For beerheads and soda aficionados, there is an adequate assortment of craft beers on draft as well a couple of bottles of cool artisan pop. But it’s very much expected that most diners will take advantage of Little Beast’s uncommon wine list, a selection that may range from a $6 glass of tart, low-alcohol Vinho Verde to an intensely fruity glass of 2009 Sangiovese.

The Taco Task Force of Los Angeles: Assignment #1 (Baja Ensenada Style Fish Tacos)

Let’s face it, the Los Angeles Taco scene has been in desperate need of some strict regulation. There ARE Tacos of sufficient quality in this Mexican’s home away from home known as L.A. But in a time where Crispy Tacos and haphazardly spiced Al Pastor continue to receive inexpert praise…the urgency has never been higher.

The Taco Task Force of Los Angeles was assembled by Bill of Street Gourmet LA and me after several delightful trips to the Taco Motherland in its closest proximity to us; Tijuana and Ensenada. Taco’s are the foundation there, serving not only as a cheap, filling convenient street food but a fundamental staple to Mexican Gastronomy as a whole. The basic Carne Asada is a complex structure comprised of three to four different cuts of beef in almost any Taqueria you walk into in Mexico, where as in the U.S…you will be lucky if you get a good quality cut of just properly tenderized Flap meat.

But when a two and a half hour trip is simply unattainable, the Taco Task Force of Los Angeles will strive to optimize your local Taco experiences of Los Angeles and beyond…

Other members of the Force include:

Joshua Lurie of Food GPS
Cathy & Vern of Gastronomy Blog
Matthew Kang of Mattatouille

Following a recent trend of interest in Baja California, our first objective was the Baja Ensenada style Fish Taco.

A signature item originated in the warm Ensenada fishing docks, the Baja Fish Taco is believed to have its roots in the influx of Japanese immigrants that once habituated the Baja coast. The abundant, fresh seafood lived harmoniously with their advanced frying Tempura techniques. It was only a matter of time until it interbred with the tortilla culture of Mexico…

With only a few tweaks that worked for the bettering of it–such as the common sense switching of oil to lard and the required addition of Mexican grown spices & local (softer) wheat flour–the Fish Taco was born.

Typically, Fish Tacos are to be adorned to your personal preference, from the essential fresh garnishments of finely minced cabbage, a simple Red, Green or Pico de Gallo Salsa and either Mayonnaise, Mexican Crema or a thin, creamy blend of the two. Handmade tortillas are beside the point as it will clash with the delicate flake of fish, thin, no frill’s, small taco Tortillas is its usual vehicle.

Five components of the Fish Taco were to be graded from a a range of 1 (unsatisfactory) to 5 (exceptional).

Those components were:
Key Ingredient (Fish; Freshness?)
Authenticity (True to Ensenada style?)
Cooking (expertly fried; greasy?)
Overall Flavor (blanket flavor)

With that said, the following will be posted in accordance with the Force’s consensus of least favorite to best:

5th Place:

El Taconazo (South El Monte)

taconazo storefront with cute-ish girl
Best Fish Taco in The World Since 1978? Really now?

A family run small franchise with locations all around Southern California…kudos for that. BUT, the most driest, blandest and unbalanced fish taco ($1.69) of the the round up.

DSC07035
Is Anybody In There?

The fish of choice was a scroungy Pollack. A popular fish amongst the food business for its friendly, light flavor and usually moist flake. Here, that was not the case with a strange off flavor and and lumpy, papery batter. The over compensation in mediocre relishes only made it even more underwhelming.

The Final Score (as transcribed by Josh of Food GPS; his score is first, followed by B standing for Bill, J for me and C for Cathy and her fiance Vernon)

Grade of Key Ingredient: 1.5, C 2.5, J 2.5, B 2.5 AVERAGE 2.25/5

Condiment: 1.5, C 2.5, J 2.5, B 2 AVERAGE 2.125/5
Authenticity: 2.5, C 2, J 2, B 2.5 AVERAGE 2.25/5
Overall Flavor: 1.5, C 3.5, J 2.5, B 1.5 AVERAGE = 2.25/5
Cooking: 1.5, C 2.5, J 2, B 2 AVERAGE 2/5

OVERALL FISH TACO SCORE: 2.175/5

El Taconazo on Urbanspoon
El Taconazo in Los Angeles

Address:
9516 Garvey Ave
South El Monte
CA 91733

4th Place

Señor Fish (Original Location in L.A: Eagle Rock)

señor fish signage
Colorful Façade but What About Your Tacos?

Other veteranos of Fish Tacos being around since 1988, there’s actually a few of these sprinkled around the L.A basin. I remember always walking by the one in Alhambra on my way to school back then but always being repelled by that gimmicky fish character, plus, this went under the Pricy Taco category ($2.50).

señor fish guey
Clumpy Batter but Good Fish N’ Toppings

With the myriad of other fresh, grilled options on the menu, they seemed to have lost their focus of a traditional ‘ol fried fish taco. The Cod itself was outstanding. flaky and moist! But the batter was soggy and just peppery as far as spices go. Kudos though for touching up on the the Ensenada tradition of personal customization of toppings, already dressed with slivered cabbage, Crema and a Pico de Gallo but one of the few with a exceptional Salsa bar.

salsas at senor fish
El De Guajillo Era Chingon

Grade of Key Ingredient: 3.5 C 4, J 3.5, B 3 AVERAGE 3.5/5
Condiment: 4, C 4, J 4.5, B 4 AVERAGE 4.125/5
Authenticity: 2.5, C 2, J 2, B 2 AVERAGE 2.125/5
Overall Flavor: 3.5, C 3, B 2, J 3 AVERAGE 2.875/5
Cooking: 3, C 2.5, B 2.5, J 3 AVERAGE 2.75/5

OVERALL FISH TACO SCORE: 3.075/5

Señor Fish on Urbanspoon

Señor Fish in Los Angeles

Address:
Eagle Rock
4803 Eagle Rock Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90041
(323) 257-7167

3rd Place

The Best Fish Taco in Ensenada (Los Feliz)

"Best Fish Taco"...HA!
Those Quotes Are There For A Reason…Best in Ensenada?!

Newcomers to the Fish Taco slanging scene (Since 2007), this place was quite cracking with locals. Behind the counter, an assembly line of Fish Tacos was hard at work. This, along with being the only entirely D.I.Y topping customization spot of the day, made it look very promising.

Fish Taco Assembly Line
The Model Fish Taco Assembly Line

DSC07043
D.I.Y!

ALTHOUGH entirely customizable, the Angeleno-ized accouterments were seen as “goofy” by the Street Gourmet shifu, with stuff like Pineapple Kiss (“tropical refreshing bite”), a watery Hot Guac, Mad Mango Salsa, a Mango Less (“all of the passion – none of the mango”), Mild (“delicious, but wimpy”). Plus points for perfectly uniform, finely shredded cabbage and free flowing Crema Magica (“the final ingredient”).

naked tacos
Pretty Good Naked Tacos

The fish itself was the most flavorful of the day thus far, albeit chewy instead of soggy, the batter touted a mysterious irresistible deliciousness with not much actual spice flavor, perhaps a little MSG in the mix? No idea, but the fatty Basa (Vietnamese Farm Raised Catfish) was an endearing choice. Tortillas were nothing special.

Grade of Key Ingredient: 4.5, J 4.5, C 3.5, B 3.5 AVERAGE 4/5
Condiment: 3.5 B 2.5, C 3.5, J 4 AVERAGE 3.375/5
Authenticity: 2.5 J 2.5, B 3.5, C 3.5 AVERAGE 3/5
Overall Flavor: 4, C 3, J 4, B 3.5 AVERAGE 3.875
Cooking 3.5, C 3, J 3, B 3 AVERAGE 3.125/5

OVERALL FISH TACO SCORE: 3.475/5

Address:

1650 Hillhurst Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90027
(323) 466-5552

The Best Fish Taco in Ensenada in Los Angeles

Best Fish Taco in Ensenada on Urbanspoon

2nd Place

Tacos Baja (East L.A)

fish taco facade
The East L.A Gem

This place has not been short on national coverage for its fragile-fried fish. Magazine and newspaper pieces are framed on every wall and they have continually been adding more tables since they opened up ten years ago. They have built a loyal following, coming from East L.A, its fun to observe the interaction between people in the lines that form sometimes.

hot blondies
Hot, Chile Powder Kissed Blondies

I used to eat here pretty often since my dad actually grew a liking to this place (very rare). I remember at times eating 15 of those delicious Chile Gueros at a time. They are kissed in oil and dusted with a savory, chili powder that reminds me of Lucas, a Mexican staple Chile Powder candy of Latino youth. These serve the same purpose to fish tacos that french fries do to burgers, not absolutely necessary but certainly nice if you come across some that are done expertly.

manta ray tacos from TBE
My Old Favorite and Still Perfectly Fine
(Rear Taco)

Seemingly small at $1.59 a pop but these tacos are packed with 1-2 moist, soft and flaky fat piece(s) of Catfish that are crispy on the little edges. Tortillas deserve an honorable mention for their superior quality, petite, chewy and thick. A smoky salsa and a cool crema only increase the experience with its zing and fresh-crisp qualities.

Grade of Key Ingredient: 4, B 4, J 3.5, C 3.5 AVERAGE 3.75/5
Condiment: 2.5, B, 2.5, J 3, C 4 AVERAGE 3/5
Authenticity: 3.5, B 3.5, J 2.5, C 2 AVERAGE 2.875/5
Overall Flavor: 3, B 3.5, J 3.5, C 4 AVERAGE 3.5/5
Cooking: 4.5, B, 4, J 4.5, C, 4.5 AVERAGE 4.375/5

OVERALL FISH TACO SCORE: 3.5/5

Address:
5385 Whittier Boulevard,
Los Angeles, CA
(323) 887-1980?

Tacos Baja on Urbanspoon
Tacos Baja in Los Angeles

1st Place

Ricky’s Fish Tacos (Silver Lake)

rickys stand
Dunking That Basa

A eager newcomer to the L.A Fish Taco scene, Ricky has been charming the local bloggers with his Ensenada raised swagger. He touts his brief weekend taco show times on twitter and is proud of his rare 5 Star rating he has received on Yelp.

rickys fish taco champion
Announcing The New Premiere F
ish Taco of Los Angeles at The Moment
($2.50)

With his skilled frying technique that involves piercing the fillet while frying and his secret frying medium that adds a unequaled deliciousness all too common to….lard, shortening, a mixture of the two perhaps? For him to know and we to find out, but all I know is that it produces a light, non-greasy, perfectly spiced crisp! His Basa batter involves imported Mexican wheat from his homeland and a significant amount of mustard to give it that signature zing. He thins out mayonnaise with skim milk to get the crema to the right texture and slivers his cabbage razor thin, just like they do it back home. The salsa is minimally chunky with a decent kick. All it needs to be absolutely perfect is a griddled tortilla instead of a the steamed, blandish Superior brand Tortilla he uses. But I do tend to be a tortilla elitist and most public will not even notice.

…Introducing the new, TOP, most authentic Ensenada-Style Fish Taco of Los Angeles County.

Grade of Key Ingredient: 4, J 5, C 4.5, B 3.5 AVERAGE 4.25/5
Condiment: 4.5 B 4, C 4.5, J 4.5 AVERAGE 4.375/5
Authenticity: 3.5 J 5, B 4, C 4 AVERAGE 4.125/5
Overall Flavor: 4, C 4.5, J 5, B 4 AVERAGE 4.625/5
Cooking 4.5, C 4.5, J 5, B 4.5 AVERAGE 4.625/5

OVERALL FISH TACO SCORE: 4.4/5

Ricky's Fish Tacos in Los Angeles

Follow Ricky on Twitter to find out when and where he will set up taco base.

Our next assignment will be….Birria.