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

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 , , , , ,

A Glutster double header Thursday: Health food in East L.A. for Zocalo Public Square and The Bouncing Souls for LA Weekly Music

(top image from wearyourimage.com)

I woke up yesterday to find a couple of my stories published for two different publications.

East L.A.health food city

One was a painstaking thousand worder on the up and coming East LA health food consciousness for Zocalo Public Square. It took a couple of weeks to research and finish, who knows how many homework-eating hours…

bouncing souls header

The other was a five hundred word quickie punk rock show review on The Bouncing Souls show for LA Weekly. Show reviews usually require me to stay up ’til 4:30 AM to finish, the latest has been 6:30 AM (deadline for show reviews are 8 AM the same day for most daily entertainment blogs). I had class at 11:30 AM the next morning.

This was the first time two of my stories were published on the same day — it was kind of a trip. To see the type of stuff I am writing now and the sheer amount of time I dedicate to them (regardless of the often insubstantial pay) and how it is so different than the simple stuff I started out with almost six years ago when I was sixteen.

It has made me realize that if I really do want to make it in this career and finish school anytime soon, I’m going to have to let go of my love for sleep and many coming of aging memory milestones usually associated with mindless youth (aka. getting too stoned/drunk, acting gay with the homiez, etc.) I already don’t sleep enough and don’t catch as many gay bluff’s with as I once did so it’s not that bad.

Like Henry Rollins, a dear role model and now fellow LA Weekly Music writer colleague said in his column, “sleep is the cousin of death.”

The five most underrated East L.A. backyard punk bands of all time (my follow up story for LA Weekly’s “Anarchy in East L.A.”)

Here is another bonus story for my “Anarchy in East L.A” piece that I wrote for West Coast Sound, the LA Weekly music blog.

Last week I wrote about movers and shakers on the current East L.A. backyard scene, but there’s a long line of great and influential bands that paved the way for the sub-culture. Don’t get me wrong, bands like The Brat and Los Illegals were pretty awesome, but their greatness is better documented, and, besides, I hear that backyards weren’t really their primary outlet.

Here, then, are five badass bands who haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve. This list includes significant groups from the ’80s up until the present. Most of them don’t really play shows anymore, but they’ll occasionally get together for old time’s sake. (Note: Thanks to East L.A. punk historian Jimmy Alvarado for his generous help putting this list together.)

Check out my actual hand picked list on their blog, complete with youtube videos!