Scouting Report: Tijuana-Style Carne Asada Tacos at Carnitas “El Veneno” in East L.A.

Mesquite Grilled Carne Asada Just Waiting To Be Taco'd up and Devoured in East LA
Mesquite Grilled Carne Asada Just Waiting To Be Taco’d up and Devoured in East LA

*Originally published on LA Times Food’s Daily Digest Foodblog on September, 25 2013

Name of restaurant: Carnitas El Veneno. A weekend-only, nighttime food truck.

Concept: An old school taco truck from the neighborhood’s carnitas restaurant. It is only open on weekend nights in East Los Angeles, and specializes in Tijuana-style juicy carne asada tacos grilled with mesquite wood.

What dish represents the restaurant, and why? The Tijuana-style tacos de carne asada. A few things make these unique in the hazy world of East L.A. street tacos. First, their signature Tijuana trademarked cone design, wrapped tightly in wax paper not unlike an overstuffed Greek gyro or spicy tuna hand roll. This specific method of wrapping each taco is the only way these crisped-up pair of chewy tortillas can hold the excess of chopped, subtly smoky, juicy beef and Tijuana’s signature scoop of mashed up avocado — not the usual runny taqueria guacamole sauce. This is a delicate taco.

Runners-up:  Tacos de lengua doused in the restaurant’s Veneno spicy salsa. Their beef tongue is boiled for hours and then a heaping portion is briefly seared on the plancha right before taco-ing it up. It’s drizzled with a toasty salsa that accentuates lengua’s slightly offal, yet meaty texture and flavor.

Who’s at the next table? A very dedicated and loving wife who drove out on a Saturday night just to order 10 takeout tacos de asada con todo for her lucky husband, who stayed at home to watch the fight.

Appropriate for: The well-read taco enthusiast who abides by L.A.’s taco lifestyle and knows all about Baja California’s bountiful fresh food culture, but for one reason or another hasn’t made the trek down south yet.

Uh-oh: Both the salsas can be fiery. If you are sensitive, opt for poquita salsa nada mas (just a little bit) or just opt out. Also, the creamy guacamole paste is purposely unseasoned and benefits from a strong squeeze of lime.

Service: It’s a small operation that’s only been open for about six months. If there are a few people in front of you, be patient.

What are you drinking? Many aguas frescas are available inside the restaurant.

Info: 514 S. Indiana St., Los Angeles. (323) 264-4762. Open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 6 p.m. to midnight

Corazón y Miel: Yet Another Powerhouse in Bell

Revolution XPA and Botanas in Bell
Revolution XPA and Botanas in Bell

As if the city of Bell needed another Mexican powerhouse, they got one. Though, this one isn’t your traditional Mexican cenaduria and has craft beer on draft too. I first caught wind of Corazón y Miel when I covered it for Grub Street last month. Besides that it was a spinoff from a former Salvadoran American chef at Animal named Eduardo Ruiz, I didn’t really know what to expect, because well, let’s just say that, that part of L.A. isn’t exactly known for their thriving food scene. But after my meal there, it is my civic duty as a born and bred Eastside resident to report.

It is made clear that the meal will be something different when you are served a bowl of chile-lime fried peanuts, peas and chickpeas instead of the usual totopos and salsa. Whenever I visit Mexico, snacks or botanas such as these are the things I look forward to the most, they are usually complimentary and can range from things like sliced jicama fruit to shrimp broth, as long as you keep drinking. And that’s exactly what these salty, addictive treats do: pique your appetite and make you want to order a lot more food and drinks. The menu filled with almost too-good-to-be-true underpriced innovative takes on Latin classics will confirm that yup, this will pretty much be one of the most memorable Latin restaurant meals that you will have in Los Angeles.

Ambiance at Corazón y Miel
Ambiance at Corazón y Miel

We visited on one of their opening days, so most of the eating customers that night were close friends and family. Including a worried mom of one of the crew members who saw us snapping photos. “I’m sure everything will be successful,” my girlfriend Paola assured her.

The bar
The bar
Entrees Menu
Entrees Menu
Antojitos Menu
Antojitos Menu
Cocktail Menu
Cocktail Menu

We started off with some of their cocktails, okay, a lot of their cocktails.

new experimental cocktail not yet on menu, with habanero, carrot juice, campari. bomb.
An Experimental Smooth Cocktail with Habanero and Carrot
Mientras Me Caso
Mientras Me Caso (While I get married): Their Take on The Classic
Don't Fear the Piña
Fear the Pineapple: Mezcal
Homemade Sangrita
Homemade Sangrita

I’m proud to announce that each and every one of them was extremely nice, rivaling the complexity and easy drinkability of other popular Mexican themed bars, maybe even better.

Along side these drinks, we were served a bunch of their appetizers.

Carnitas
Carnitas
Patatas Fritas with "Scallion Ash" Dip
Patatas Fritas with “Scallion Ash” Dip
Jalapeño y Tocino: Their Ode to the Mexican American Street Food
Jalapeño y Tocino: Their Ode to the Mexican American Street Food
Ensalada de Cueritos, served with a taster of Coronado Brewing's Wit
Ensalada de Cueritos, served with a taster of Coronado Brewing’s Wit
Fried Avocado
Fried Avocado

Who would have thought that the city of Bell would be responsible for a deconstructed Carnitas plate? A good one at that, crispy with a thick layer of browned bread crumbs and a tender inside. It’s what a traditional french forcemeat would look like if it took a vacation in Mexico and ended up falling in love with a Milanesa Poblana. Then there are the little things, like the “scallion ash” dip that accompanies their potato chip like Patatas Bravas. It’s nothing too crazy, but the smokey, powdery, intensely oniony charcoal-colored dip is cool enough to keep you slightly excited about their food in general.

Lamb Burger on homemade Cemita Buns: Yup
Atlantic Burger on homemade Cemita Buns: Lamb Burger, Yup
Vegetarian Mole with Fried Hominy
Vegetarian Mole with Fried Hominy
Pan con Chompipe: Chef Eduardo's Tribute to his Grandma
Pan con Chompipe: Chef Eduardo’s Tribute to his Grandma

Main courses are on another level as well. For $10, you will get a whopping fistful of a burger with Mexican, Salvadoran and American roots. The patty is thick, medium rare and it’s lamb. The bright Serrano curtido topping will remind you of the stuff that you pile on top of your favorite greasy pupusa, and the sturdy, slightly sweet sesame seeded cemita bun will not fall apart. The main star of the menu–that also happens to be the most expensive at $16–is the Salvadoran classic known as Pan con Champipe. A turkey leg that is braised until it falls apart, topped with a gravy boat full of tart, tomato salsa, pickled stuff and then disproportionally placed atop a fluffy bolillo roll smothered with mayo. It can feed two, easily.

By this point, we were stuffed beyond belief but realized that we still hadn’t sampled the Ceviche, and when you have a significant other that was raised in Puerto Vallarta, this is unacceptable.

Ceviche de Corazon with Soy, Ginger and Fried Peanuts
Ceviche de Corazon with Soy, Ginger and Fried Peanuts

Their Ceviche is $9 and comes packed with fork-tender octopus and satisfying large shrimps, despite that they add the flavors of soy, ginger and fried peanuts, it still stays relatively true to ceviche and doesn’t lose the battle with sashimi. I’ve always loved the toasted Peruvian corn element on ceviches too.

When it comes time for dessert, you will probably be stuffed beyond belief. But alas, do not skip and just go for a run later in the week.

Niños y Buñuelos
Niños y Buñuelos
Pastel de Leche
Pastel de Leche

Specifically, the Niños y Buñuelos dessert, fried puff pastry stuffed with perfectly ripe bananas and served with caramel and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It sounds like a lazy afterthought and tacky as hell but actually awesome, flaky, almost like phyllo and barely sweet. The Pastel de Leche is cool too, but not as unforgettable as the former.

I’m really happy for these dudes and wish them all the best on their first brick and mortar endeavor. I know it’s quite a leap from their past catering career, especially in the area. A lot of people probably told them it was a bad idea but I’m glad they didn’t give a fuck and decided to open up.

Corazón y Miel
6626 Atlantic Ave
Bell, CA
90201

(323) 560-1776

In Defense of the Liquor Store, my latest piece for Zocalo Public Square

I’m trying to get better about posting more regularly, but until that day comes. Here is a re-post of a story I did for Zocalo Public Square. It’s about a liquor store that is a block away from my house, I grew up buying mineral water there and saw the everyday life of the establishment. Thus, the piece is a profile of the place.

On the second-to-last shelf from the floor, in front of the cashier at Pueblo Liquor in East Los Angeles, lay a dozen greenish bananas. They were sandwiched between a shelf of Hostess Dunkin’ Stix and a shelf with four varieties of ready-to-eat Pop Tarts. All were within equal grabbing distance of a child hungry for an after-school snack. At 50 cents each, the bananas were cheaper than the items around them, and Lily, who was at the cash register, told me she sells three or four a day.

Pueblo Liquor is located at 4600 Whittier Boulevard, right at the base of the Whittier Arch, or “El Arco,” a five-story landmark that stretches across the street. It is open 16 hours a day, 112 hours a week, and its only employees are its two owners: Lily, 46, and her husband Peter, 47. (Lily told me all this but never told me her last name, no matter how many times I asked or how many 99-cent glass bottles of Tehucán mineral water I bought.) They emigrated from the People’s Republic of China in 1992, and they commute to East Los Angeles from their home in Rosemead daily, sometimes twice daily, if their children have a shorter school day.

Lily and Peter bought Pueblo in 1992, when its former owner died of a stroke. They kept its name. For the past 20 years, they have been selling not only liquor but also a small selection of groceries: bananas, milk, dried chiles, and ground spices, among other things. To be exact, Lily sells 60 to 72 gallons of milk a week. At $3.50, a gallon of milk from Pueblo Liquor is about a quarter cheaper than a gallon at the surrounding supermarkets. What allows Lily to keep paying $2,200 a month in rent is sales of malt liquor, soft drinks, energy drinks, lottery tickets, Nyquil, single servings of over-the-counter Tylenol, and rolling papers.

Three years ago, a study by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health found that 25 percent of residents of Boyle Heights and unincorporated East Los Angeles have high cholesterol, and 30 percent have hypertension. There are about 50 percent more liquor stores per square mile in Boyle Heights than in other similar-sized neighborhoods or cities in the county. That’s why several organizations and activists have designated the area a “food desert” where healthy, affordable food is difficult to obtain. The UCLA-USC Center for Population Health and Health Disparities has even begun a program in which corner stores get $25,000 makeovers to make them healthier. In Boyle Heights, a market called Yash La Casa now sells fresh fruits from the local farmers market and has a juice bar with free Wi-Fi.

I like these makeovers. It’s always good when more stores sell healthy food. But is Boyle Heights or East L.A. really a “food desert”—and are stores like Pueblo Liquor really the problem? I grew up in the area. I still live there. Everyone I know in East L.A. goes shopping once every week or two at a real supermarket. Healthy foodis available to us.

I think a lot of the attention focused on liquor stores arises from confusing the symptom with the ailment and from failing to understand the cultural context.

During one of my visits to Pueblo Liquor, I stayed by the counter from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. on a Monday afternoon and recorded each transaction that took place. Every customer except for one (an African American) was Latino—and probably Mexican. This is what I saw:

1. A man in his 40s came in to cash $10 he’d won from a lottery scratcher.
2. A lady in her 50s walked in and said “just one.” Lily knew what she meant and handed her a single Marlboro Light cigarette for 50 cents.
3. A lady in her 40s quietly asked for a pack of Zig-Zag rolling papers.
4. My neighbor, a woman in early 30s, came with her two children and bought her son a Yoo-Hoo and her daughter a Sunny Delight.
5. A balding man bought a six-pack of chilled Bud Light.
6. A black man bought a Carmex lip balm.
7. A woman bought a hefty notebook and a packet of dividers.
8. Two young girls with backpacks bought two prepackaged ice cream cones. The price had recently gone up to $2.20, but the girls only had $2 and exchanged awkward glances. Lily smiled and said, in Spanish, “Next time bring the rest of the change.”

No one seemed to be looking for radicchio or wheat germ. People go to liquor stores because they need something small and simple, and they need it fast. In Mexico, the equivalent institution is the tiendita, the little corner store that sells things like milk, soda, and snack foods. It’s a way of life. Sure, people buy liquor at a liquor store in East L.A. but it’s just as often where you go when you forgot that can of jalapeños, or you need sliced white bread for a sandwich, or you need that gallon of milk. If you’re an undocumented construction worker or custodian or scrap metal collector, it’s where you go to get a quick snack—like a bag of Doritos and a soda—to tide you over until your real meal that evening.

Liquor stores can be targets of robberies or centers of problems in neighborhoods, but a store like Pueblo Liquor is just there to sell people in the area the things they want to buy. Lily and Peter aren’t trying to force anyone to eat Cheetos instead of kasha or Budweiser instead of papaya juice. They get along well with their customers. They speak better Spanish than English, and when prices go up Lily knocks off a dime or a quarter if her customers are short. When customers return the next time, they pay it back. Lily doesn’t know her customers by name, nor do they know her by name, but they pretty much know each other anyway.

A lot of reporters writing about East L.A. seem to consider the residents there to be both more ignorant than they really are and more knowledgeable than they really are. On the one hand, you hear people talk as if the residents of East L.A. fail to grasp that a homemade stewed beef taco is healthier and cheaper than a burger and fries. Well, East Angelenos get it—they don’t have a choice but to get it. They have to make food at home simply in order to save money. On the other hand, you hear people talk as if the only thing stopping residents of East L.A. from eating tofu and steamed kale for dinner is an overabundance of Yoo-Hoo chocolate drinks. That’s of course not the case either. While most people in the area know home-cooked food is healthier than McDonald’s, they don’t spend a lot of time considering the finer points of nutrition.

I know from experience. When I was growing up in East Los Angeles, I ate a lot of junk. Like a lot of my friends, I was raised on stuff like Capri Sun and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Only later, as I got older and more curious, did I start reading about food and nutrition on my own and change my habits. And I educated my parents, too—slowly. After six years of food writing and constantly defending why I spend $2.39 per pound on a skinny free-range chicken instead of 99 cents on a pound of plump drumsticks, I’ve finally gotten them to change their habits. Today, my parents eat meat sparingly, stick to whole grains, and use agave syrup instead of table sugar.

That’s the sort of change that comes slowly, as a product of education and improved economic circumstances. It costs more to eat healthier, and it takes more knowledge, too. So either healthy food needs to be cheaper, or people need to be better educated—or, ideally, both. Instead of just bringing healthier, more expensive food to the corner store, policymakers would be better off ensuring that nutrition gets more attention in schools and that health food is subsidized so that it’s not an economic burden for people to make the change.

And if I want a six-pack of beer or a dozen eggs in a hurry, I’m still going to pay a visit to Lily.

Get full and faded at East L.A. Meets Napa 2012! (Union Station, July 20, 2012 6:00 PM)

It’s about that time of year! Yup, East L.A. Meets Napa is this Friday and the tickets are going fast, well, I’m guessing they are, the event always runs out of food early every year.

It’s definitely among the most unique food events in Los Angeles, it sounds exactly as the title implies: East L.A. (the Chicano elite and the restaurants in the Eastern Los Angeles where they like to eat at) meets Napa (Latino-owned vineyards in North California).

It takes place in the pretty cool, low-pro courtyard outside of Union Station and there is usually a “Latin” band to accompany, complete with a waxed dance floor. If anything, just go to witness the spectacle of buzzed veteranos in guayaberas at a food event.

I’ve been covering the event for the last few years, here are some past links on Teenage Glutster so you can know what to expect.

East L.A. Meets Napa 2011

East L.A. Meets Napa 2010

East L.A. Meets Napa 2009

Ahí nos vemos!

Tonight! Josh’s much awaited East Los Angeles Reunion Gig! And yes, my old band “Bad Influence” is playing too

64393_261774903902418_100002097319273_607063_1314584207_n
Sorry for weird ass dimensions of this pic, click for better view!

Ahh! The music writer has become the written about, haha. Well, isn’t this a hell of a way to bust out of this month long writing hiatus (more on that to be covered on next post but in a nutshell…SCHOOL!)

Believe it or not, the East L.A. alternative post-punk rock community is a pretty close knit bunch. Poffy and David Loks of Fotogrofia Desmadrosa will be there documenting this whole urban shindig so make sure to smile and flash those guys. Poffy will also be selling his handmade jewelery “Shit by Poffy.” Word on the facebook street is that there will also be vegan avocado tostadas for sale!

Yup, the good ol’ golden era of punk rock in East Los Angeles is to be relived tonight at Josh’s pad, one of the few legendary “raid-proof” backyard venues ever. In the true spirit of punk rock, I have no idea what time my band will go on, also, I haven’t bought a new guitar yet so any temporary donors are welcome (hoping on my little cousin’s Squire). I’ll buy you a beer! I’ve shunned my band mates these last two weeks so don’t expect too much synchronization between us, haha.

That is all for now, cheers, more beers and fuck you stay punk.

Ask The Glutster: Where do I find anti-healthfoods in East L.A.? Chicharron and Chales!

Hey Glutster,

I just read your story about Mexican health food on the Zocalo Web site. I’m actually looking for my favorite unhealthy food — chales and chicharones — like I used to get at El Campeon in San Juan Capistrano. I’ve moved to Pasadena. Do you know of any good hard core taquerias around here?

Thanks.

Bruce

Hey Bruce,

Man can’t survive off of almond milk and cheap cuts of grass fed lamb alone man, don’t trip! Hmm…well, crispy chicharron, the wonderfully webbed, golden, dry and warm variety has become a staple in almost any market you shopt at in this part of town. From that very own major Top Valu market I featured in the Zocalo piece to this little corner marketita by my house called “Los Compadres” on Whittier Blvd. and Ford. Now, the quality of these porky products will vary depending on your time of visit. Sometimes they are a bit dense and stale after days of constant warming light exposure.

But actually, the first place that pops into my head (in East L.A.) when I think of all things pork is Zamora Brothers Carniceria on Cesar Chavez and Mednik, just a taco’s-throw away west from East Los Angeles College. The prideful market is on my daily commute to school and I almost float out of my speeding Vespa to follow that tantalizing Irapuato, Guanajuato-style caramelized pork odor that its surrounding blocks is blessed with. They are the family owned underdogs of the East L.A. pork game, and because of that, the pound-for-pound price of the epic porkage will not nearly be as expensive as the more popular, Los Cinco Puntos just a about a mile west.

It is here where you will probably find your pork cuts that you dream of. They have just about every product of pork available, snout, feet, ears, tail, intestine, bellies, penis, nawh! Haha. Jk jk about that last one. My fellow young money food writing partner in crime, Posted on Categories Ask The Glutster, East L.A.Tags , , , , ,

Six Upcoming Day of The Dead Events Happening in Los Angeles & A Post in Remembrance of The 6th Annual Dia de los Muertos Festival in Uptown Whittier

I didn’t realize it until I heard Lalo Alcaraz say it himself. I sat down in the dreary KPFK waiting room and listened quietly while I waited for my turn to come up on The Pocho Hour of Power, “Day of the Dead is the new Christmas, it comes earlier every year.”

He was damn right.

walking death

Three weeks before the actual Dia De Los Muertos holiday (November 2), the lovely Eastside rockabilly metropolis of Uptown Whittier held their festivities. From 11 AM to 5 PM, they blocked off Greanleaf Ave, one of Uptowns most busiest streets. It was an effort of Yolanda Garcia of Casita Del Pueblo, “a community store that hopes to provide a welcoming environment and an interesting collection of items that reflect a positive image of Latino culture” according to their website. The event was free to the public. I liked that the site also reinforced the merry connotation of the traditional Mexican holiday as being “a day of joyous remembrance, not sadness.”

I was made aware of this specific muertos event on Lalo’s show too. He was going to be there himself selling and signing some of his original prints. And on Sunday morning, I decided to get my lazy Sunday ass up and go check it out. By some miraculous muerto baby Jesus miracle, even my dear mother, father and little sister decided to come along. So, for the first time since last Christmas actually, the Cabral’s had a lovely day out on the town–as a family.

family day finall
Mom and Pops In their Sunday Best

Sure enough, the event was maaaaad cracking with the humble locals, a mix of rockabilly families and the evolved Chicano bourgeoisie. I sometimes take for granted how awesome it is to live on the east side of Los Angeles. The event held live rockabilly performances, peaceful low riders and there were lots of motorcycles parked on the road. The block must had been sprawling with over fifty artisan booths and four hundred face-painted heads, at least.

cara pintada!
little dead girl
father son lowrider

The were altars were beautiful. The traditional mediums that the faithful use to express their gratitude and love towards their loved ones who have passed on were filled with everything you can imagine. I saw one stacked high with Conchitas and toasted peanut-butter sandwiches that were cut in half perfectly, the creamy peanut butter Speleothem still shimmering between the spaced pieces of bread. I saw another one that was built on the bed of a classic custom jet-black truck and had a single unopened tall boy of PBR next to a framed portrait of La Patrona herself, the Virgin Mary.

altar #1
truck altar

Amidst the blissful ghoulishness of it all, my family and I got the monstrous munchies and decided to hit up one of the local food booths to see what was up.

red oak bbq
smokers happy
turkey leg

Red Oak BBQ was recommended to me by Lalo himself, he’s a local so whatever he says to eat, I will. The place has been open in Uptown Whittier and for a few years and specialize in Santa Maria style BBQ, a style known to BBQ trekkies for their notorious dry rubs and the gossamery use of a non-sweet BBQ sauce. They smoke all of their meats using only natural red oak wood which I found to be way lighter in smoke flavor than any smoke I’ve tasted before. For $9 you got an obscenely large smoked limb, a tiny amount of stewed Pintito beans and an even tinier scoop of dry potato salad. But the point here was the meat, smoked medium rare, mine was still juicy while my sister’s had charred a bit. I love struggling physically to eat my food so this was a winner for me, I think I got it from my mom.

mama loves turkey

The delicious L-tryptophan laced meat hit us hard and we left shortly after. Sucks too because the home grown East L.A. band favorite, Upground, started playing right after we took off.

I’ll be back next year, I think I actually liked it better than the one they hold every year in East L.A. actually.

Wanna jump on the Dia de Los Muertos celebratory death bandwagon? Here are a few other celebrations happening around town during the next couple of weeks!

If you have any more muerto events, feel free to add to the list on my comment board.

The 12th annual “Dia de Los Muertos” at Hollywood Forever Cemetary
6000 Santa Monica Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90038
October 22, 2011
12pm-12am
General Admission: $10 per person, children 6 years & under free
(please bring exact change)

Dia de los Muertos at Olvera Street
Olvera Street
Los Angeles St. at Alameda St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012
10/25/2009 – 11/2/2009
7:00PM

Festival de La Muerte at the Historic Santa Fe Hospital (Linda Vista)
610 S. St. Louis St.
Los Angeles
90023
Saturday Oct. 29, 2011 11 AM to 12 AM
Sunday Oct. 30, 2011 11 AM to 6 PM
Bands: Quinto Sol, Calle Placer, Guerilla Queenz + more


La Muerte Vive

Wednesday, Nov 2 3:00p
at Million Dollar Theatre, Los Angeles, CA
307 S. Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90013
Gregorio Luke Day of the Dead
Wednesday, Nov 2
8:30p to 9:30p
East Los Angeles Civic Center
4801 E. Third St.
Los Angeles, CA 90022
(323) 881-6444

DAY OF THE DEAD 2011 in Boyle Heights 38th Annual Día de Los Muertos Celebration: Revival 2011
Self Help Graphics
New Location at
1300 East 1st Street, Los Angeles, CA 90033
November 2, 2011
5 -11 PM