This is the time of year when "best of" lists start popping up, such as for movies, TV shows and music. Javier Cabral, editor of the website LA Taco, has his own list. Just like a taco overflowing with succulent goodies, his list is loaded with all kinds of great recommendations.
One of his top picks is the grilled beef rib taco at El Ruso. He tells KCRW's Cheryl Glaser: “Just when you thought that carne asada couldn't get any more delicious, how about just try grilling that carne asada while it’s still bone in, with the extremely tender cut of beef that’s close to the bone? It's inspired by aguja, which is a northern Mexican cut. Imagine bacon but made of beef and not smoked. It’s fatty and grisly in a delicious way. On El Ruso’s handmade flour tortillas, it's truly a taco that will make your eyes just roll backwards.”
KCRW: A theme that runs through your best-of list this year is carnitas, the pork that is slow roasted until it comes apart in your mouth. Several carnitas tacos made the grade. Which is your favorite?
Javier Cabral: “That's a tough question. I don't know if it's a favorite, but it's one that I really enjoy eating. I think flaco tacos is really an interesting concept. It's this prolific bartender named Steve Livigne. [He] just tried his hand at making carnitas the old fashioned painstaking way, meaning you get a copper pot that's hand hammered from Michoacan.
You salt pork, because after all, carnitas is about the same technique as a French confit. And then you braise it in its own fat and lard for, I don't know, say four hours, just whenever the pork breaks apart and becomes really tender and caramelized. So flaco is doing carnitas that way.
And then the kicker here is the addition of confit garlic. Imagine a fall apart, super melty, tender pork topped with some crispy, sweet confit garlic. With a nice salsa verde. It’s a great bite.”
You also singled out salted cod fish tacos at Tacos Negros. Not exactly what a lot of us think of as Mexican cooking?
“In LA, we have the liberty here because we have so many tacos to choose from. … Our taco culture is so present and strong. It's always evolving here. It turns out that during the pandemic, if you put something on a tortilla, people will buy it. That was the case with this pop-up concept that was supposed to be temporary called Tacos Negros. It was actually a pop-up inside of another restaurant, I believe in the Leimert Park neighborhood.
And she's a Black chef, and she usually makes these dishes like a braised oxtail or salted cod on a plate. But she's like, ‘What happens if I put it on a tortilla?’ And sure enough, it was a delicious and unforgettable bite. So that's why we put this taco on the list because it just shows the creativity and how the taco is always evolving.
Salted codfish is also eaten in Mexico City, actually, in the Guisado there. But that one is more with tomatoes and chilies. And then this one is more of a Caribbean pick.”
For those who want something sweet at the end of a meal, you recommend a strawberry cheesecake tostada at a taco stand called Evil Cooks.
“Evil Cooks … if you love metal, if you love rock music, this is the taqueros for you. … You’re in northeast LA. I call it Barrio Modernist because you see all these chefs like René Redzepi in Copenhagen playing with textures. … But here's this guy and his partner, and they're just like, ‘You know what, I'm going to fry a piece of flour tortilla, and slather a piece of cream cheese over, and top it with strawberries. And it's going to look like a tostada. But instead of tomato, a strawberry. And instead of guisado, it's like cream cheese with strawberry mixture in it, and it's delicious.
And then the best part of all is that he tops it with a piece of Mexican chocolate whipped cream. I guess you can call it gimmicky, but it's not gimmicky, it’s really delicious. And if you have a sweet tooth, this is the taco for you. And again, it's the evolution of tacos, and every year it's so exciting.”