Category Archives: California

Guerilla Tacos Elevates Food Truck Fare to Spectacular

Los Angeles's Guerilla Tacos elevates the Mexican pocket food to spectacular

Los Angeles’s Guerilla Tacos elevates the Mexican pocket food to spectacular

Guerilla tactics include keeping on the move so folks don’t always know where you are. As a food truck, Guerilla Tacos certainly accomplishes that, setting up outside various Los Angeles-area coffee shop locations (such as Blue Bottle and Blacktop) each week.

But it throws me a curve when the truck is at a special event some six miles from where I’m expecting it to be. Still, I can be persistent in pursuit of search of good road food and soon track this roaming restaurant down.

Another guerrilla strategy is throwing people for a loop. And owner/”professional cocinero” Wes Avila definitely achieves this with taco takes on his daily menu you won’t find anywhere else—a blend of influences from his travels to places like France, Spain, Costa Rica and Mexico.

Guerilla Tacos sets up outside various Los Angeles coffee shops

Guerilla Tacos sets up outside various Los Angeles coffee shops

Take my steaming hot delicacy of thinly sliced summer squash with runny guajillo chile, cashews, queso (Mexican cheese) and herbs. It’s a strange combination that works spectacularly well. Other wide-eyed customers are tackling a cauliflower taco with Medjool dates ($5) or, get this, blue crab and potato with sun gold tomato. For larger appetites, there’s a cheese and tomatillo torta ($11) and a sirloin burrito ($10).

What guerrilla manoeuvre will mad chef Wes spring on his unsuspecting followers next?

Guerilla Tacos
Check the website for daily locations in and around Los Angeles
Daily 10 am-2 pm

Sampling a Flight of Tantalizing Tacos at Guisados in Los Angeles

A feast for the eyes, and tastebuds: A sampler plate of tacos at Guisados in Los Angeles

A feast for the eyes, and tastebuds: A sampler plate of tacos at Guisados in Los Angeles

I’m looking down a long list of tacos at Guisados, a gleaming corner joint on a colourful, noisy Latino street in Boyle Heights, east of downtown Los Angeles. There are 15 choices in all, many featuring Guisados’ signature braised meats.

I ask the server a bunch of questions, essentially dithering, till she suggests the sampler, featuring six mini tacos. Perfect. In one fell swoop, I can try nearly half the menu, without breaking the bank or bursting my stomach lining.

Time to dig in

Time to dig in

The braising in various sauces results in rich, flavourful mouthfuls of chicken, pork and beef goodness. They’re all served on handmade corn tortillas, made from fresh-ground masa.

My highlights are a chicken mole poblano and a Cochinta Pibil—shredded pork in a red achiote sauce with black beans and habanero chile. Noting the written warning, on the latter, to “proceed with caution”, I wisely dial down the heat rating to five out of 10. A house-made horchata is the perfect cool down for this little furnace blast.

Guisados
2100 East Cesar E. Chavez Avenue (three other Los Angeles locations)
Monday to Saturday 10:30 am-8 pm, Sunday 9 am-5 pm
323-264-7201

La Azteca Tortilleria: The Best Burrito in America?

Siblings Chris and Cynthia Villa help run the family show at Los Angeles's renowned La Azteca Tortilleria

Siblings Chris and Cynthia Villa help run the family show at Los Angeles’s renowned La Azteca Tortilleria

East L.A. It’s a phrase that awakens a voice in my head: “Don’t let your car break down here.” But such stereotypes often just keep one from experiencing colourful, unpretentious neighbourhoods. That’s certainly the case when I venture to *La Azteca Tortilleria, on a Latino commercial street that certainly seems safe enough, at least at mid-day.

As you may have read in one of my recent San Francisco posts, a Mission District Mexican joint was voted as having America’s best burrito, beating out, among others, perennial top pick La Azteca. I had to find out for myself and, sorry, it’s no contest.

It's hole-in-the-wall cheap for food this outstanding

It’s hole-in-the-wall cheap for food this outstanding

La Azteca’s chile relleno burrito with asada meat (about $7) may well be the best burrito I’ve ever eaten. Longtime owners the Villa family start each day by grinding the corn for their fresh tortillas. You can certainly taste the quality in this lightly toasted wrap.

But that’s just the warm-up for what’s inside—a smoking hot mix of good steak, beans and the kicker, a whole chile relleno dipped in egg and then fried. I can’t fathom why this isn’t a more widespread practice, though Villa daughter Cynthia admits she couldn’t bring herself to eat a relleno burrito till late adolescence.

I pour on some house-made pico de gallo to heat things up a little more. Then I launch into this big, bad boy, living dangerously by eating it in the front seat of my car. It’s so good, I’m nearly halfway through before I remember to grab my camera.

My hands are trembling too much to get a sharp photo of this bad boy, but you get the idea

My hands are trembling too much to get a sharp photo of this bad boy, but you get the idea

La Azteca Tortilleria (they don’t bother with things like a website or Facebook page)
4538 East Cesar East Chavez Avenue, Los Angeles
Tuesday to Sunday 6 am-3:30 pm. Closed Monday

Eggslut Kickstarts My Los Angeles Morning

At Los Angeles's Eggslut, the "Slut" is a coddled egg served in a glass jar

At Los Angeles’s Eggslut, the “Slut” is a coddled egg served in a glass jar

The big bell clangs at 8 am, just as it has for the past century, and a small gang of regulars trots to the far end of Grand Central Market, in downtown Los Angeles. They’re racing to be first in line for their Sunday-morning fix at Eggslut, a name that might not go over well in San Francisco but that has done nothing to deter a devoted following in its short time in L.A.

The morning line at Eggslut moves quickly, thanks to an efficient staff

The morning line at Eggslut moves quickly, thanks to an efficient staff

Eggslut specializes in deluxe breakfast sandwiches such as my Fairfax ($7), a lovely blend of scrambled eggs, caramelized onion, melted cheese and sriracha mayo, inside a warm brioche bun. The leader of the trotting troupe insists I should add some crispy bacon for a couple of bucks more. A simple brekkie sandwich but nicely pulled off by an efficient crew that keeps the growing line moving.

The Fairfax is a lovely medley inside a brioche bun

The Fairfax is a lovely medley inside a brioche bun

A couple of seatmates order a Slut, racily described as “a coddled egg on top of a smooth potato purée, poached in a glass jar, topped with gray salt and chives and served with slices of baguette.” Take that, SF.

Eggslut
317 South Broadway (Grand Central Market), Los Angeles
Daily 8 am-4 pm

Taking an Affordable U.S. Road Trip With the Battered Canadian Loonie

Am I loony to be considering a U.S. road trip?

Am I loony to be considering a U.S. road trip?

It’s a great time to be an American, especially if you’re travelling to Canada. The soaring greenback is a big reason why Whistler, B.C. is enjoying a stellar ski season and Canmore’s vacation condo market is hopping in an otherwise bleak Alberta economy.

By contrast, it’s a terrible time to be a Canadian considering a U.S. vacation. The realization that it’s going to cost you $1.45 Canadian to buy one measly American dollar is enough to make most northerners curl up in the fetal position till the snow starts melting in, say, May.

But it’s still possible to have a reasonably affordable trip stateside, particularly if you make it a road trip rather than a flight to a destination resort. Mind you, the approach I suggest leans much more to the dirtbag than the five star. You have been warned.

Fill er up

The biggest advantage for a U.S. road-tripping adventure is the cost of gasoline. It’s traditionally been a bargain, given the much lower gas taxes south of the border. But even with the badly wounded loonie, you might still save some money.

It depends on where you live and where you’re traveling. In Alberta, for example, you can fill up right now for under 80 cents (Cndn) a litre, compared with more than $1 in B.C. Western U.S. prices range from about $1.76 (US) a gallon in Denver to $2.60 in Los Angeles. Obviously, there’s a price to pay for living on or visiting the west coast of either country. I call it a smug tax.

Figuring out your fill-up cost involves converting litres to American gallons and then converting Canadian dollars to those $1.45 American ones. For a fill-up of 50 litres (13.2 U.S. gallons), it will cost an Albertan $40 and a British Columbian more than $50, at home in Cndn. dollars. That same amount of gas will cost you $33.68 in Denver and $49.76 in L.A., in converted Cndn dollars.

You can't fill your own tank in Oregon but filling up likely won't cost any more than in Canada

You can’t fill your own tank in Oregon but filling up likely won’t cost any more than in Canada

The bottom line is the cost of gasoline isn’t going to be a deal breaker for deciding whether to hit the U.S. road or plan a staycation. And if you’re in Oregon, where you’re not allowed by law to fill your own gas tank, the attendant will usually clean your windows.

Skip the hotels and motels

I once did a month-long road trip where my total cost of accommodation was $50. How did I pull off this magic trick? Other than two nights of camping and a couple parked on urban side streets, I mostly stayed in 24-hour Walmart parking lots for free.

I’d much rather sleep in the great outdoors, preferably in a magnificent state or national park campground along the crashing ocean or beneath a lofty canopy. While it’s going to cost you about $30 US a night to camp in the redwood forests of northern California, you can find more spartan digs for maybe $10 elsewhere. Do a bit of sleuthing and you can discover national forest or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) spots for free. Running water and toilets, however, may be optional.

Still, it’s a much more pastoral experience than parking in the distant corner of an asphalt Walmart parking lot, with blinding street lights and roaring vehicles and motorized street sweepers at all hours of the night. A camper of some sort, with curtains, is the best way to keep the glare and din at bay. In a pinch, though, good ear plugs and an eye shade will suffice if you’re curled up in the back of your car.

Welcome to the Walmart Motel. Cost $0

Welcome to the Walmart Motel. Cost $0

While you’re tossing and turning, just think of the $50 to $100 a night you’re saving by not booking a motel bed, TV and rattling air-conditioning unit. And who needs a shower? If you’re desperate, you can always make do with the sink in a Walmart washroom, open around the clock.

Affordable dining

Until fairly recently, I figured eating out at American restaurants was 10 to 20 per cent cheaper than in Canada, even with the exchange rate (portions are generally bigger, too). But when you’re paying upwards of 40 per cent to exchange loonies into greenbacks, that advantage has more than disappeared.

Of course, the cheapest feeding solution is to buy groceries and cook them wherever you’re staying. But since this is a road-trip dining blog, let’s look at a few ways you can still eat out somewhat affordably.

A succulent burger and fries at Mountain Sun in Boulder, Colorado will set you back about $13 (US)

A succulent burger and fries at Mountain Sun in Boulder, Colorado will set you back about $13 (US)

  1. Beer and burger – At Moab Brewery, on the doorstep of Arches National Park in Utah, a burger and fries is $9 (US) and a 16-ounce pint of their ale $4.25. By comparison, a burger and fries in the Alberta resort towns of Canmore and Banff will set you back about $16 (Cndn), washed down with a $7.50, 19-ounce pint. So even with the steep conversion rate, the equivalent total cost in Canadian dollars is $19.20 Moab and $23.50 Banff. Obviously, prices will vary in different places, but clearly not a deal breaker.
  2. Better breakfasts – Breakfast is generally the best value, both in cost (often under $10 in the U.S.) and volume; you might not need to eat lunch. Omelettes don’t seem much cheaper stateside, but you can often find a stack of pancakes for $5 or $6.
  3. Stock up on sandwiches – You can find some monstrous, made-to-order, delicious sandwiches in many U.S. delis and cafes. At the Sandwich Spot in Palm Springs, the humongous Grand Slam—featuring turkey, ham and roast beef—was $8. I gave half to a street person, but it would have fed me for two days. A half sandwich at Grove Market deli, in Salt Lake City, was $7 and still weighed nearly two pounds. It was $8 for a similar behemoth at Compagno’s Delicatessen, in Monterey, California.
This delicious half sandwich was only $8 at Campagno's Delicatessen in Monterey, California

This delicious half sandwich was only $8 at Campagno’s Delicatessen in Monterey, California

I could go on, but I have to wipe the drool off my face… and grab a road map.

Tacos Punta Cabras a Tiny Spot Pumping out Big Flavour in Santa Monica

Grilling hand-made tacos at Tacos Punta Cabras in Santa Monica

Grilling hand-made tacos at Tacos Punta Cabras in Santa Monica

Talk about hole in the wall. *Tacos Punta Cabras is so small that when I ask if they have a bathroom, the order taker sends me through the kitchen, with a shout of “Coming through!”

It’s a good way to see how the food’s being prepared. At Punta Cabras, it’s authentic and oh-so fresh, with a cook pressing little balls of fresh corn nixtamal into disks and then grilling them in rice bran oil on a small stove.

The dining area is the definition of hole in the wall

The dining area is the definition of hole in the wall

My lightly breaded shrimp taco is similarly fresh and chewy, the crowning touch the two house-made salsas: an arbol with some bite and a pineapple. At $3.75 per taco ($6 for a heaping tostada), it may cost more than at many taquerias. But it’s a small price to pay for such quality.

Tacos Punta Cabras
2311 Santa Monica Boulevard, Santa Monica
Monday to Saturday 11 am-8 pm, except 9 pm Saturday. Closed Sunday
Tacos Punta Cabras on Urbanspoon