Saturday, April 23, 2005

The Best Unreviewed Taco Stand in L.A.



DWG stands on the sidewalk in front of CACTUS MEXICAN FOOD, an unassuming corner taco hut. Several other PATRONS stand with him, all waiting patiently for their orders. A metal cart filled with various accompaniments--salsas, radishes, carrots and jalapenos--sits quietly. From behind the hut's window, GABRIEL appears.

Four Mixed Tacos, three chorizo tacos, para llevar!
Thank you, sir. And may God smile on you always.
Some version of this scene occurs in Hollywood, at least once a week, and sometimes as often as three times a week for weeks on end. Everyone in Los Angeles has "his" or "her" taco stand. The one that you wake up in the middle of the night and wonder if you can get to before they close. The one your car could make the trip to without you. For me, it's the Cactus. And since I have never read a review of it, I still consider it "mine." Mineminemine. Ok, so it appears in the opening scene of "Heat," but that's not because of the great carnitas.
Carnitas, in fact, seem like a fine place to start. One somewhat older and admittedly inspirational yet now-too-cantankerous-and-a-bit-complacent food writer seems to hold a platonic ideal of carnitas as "pudding-like." My ideal carnitas, on the other hand, are ropy with burned bits, yet still somehow not dry. These are the carnitas of the Cactus. They're like a blend of thick, Irish back rashers, roast pork, and sauce-less barbecue. They may be the perfect taco meat. Where others automatically think of carne asada, I think of carnitas at the Cactus.
For a dollar, one can get any one of the Cactus's several types of meat--carnitas, carne asada, pastor, chicken, chicharron, chorizo (sausage), lengua (tongue), a few others (no longer buche (pork stomach) or tripa (tripe), since mad-cow became a concern) on a soft taco. But why stop there, when for 50 cents more, you can add a second meat, for tacos mixtos? It's been explained to me, by Gabriel himself, that one receives less of the second meat than one would, were one to order a whole second taco, but that's not the point. The point is that total of some meat pairings is greater by far than the sum of their parts in two separate tacos. For me, the ideal pairing is carnitas and chicharron. Chicharron isn't for everyone. It's pork skin, plus a small layer of fat beneath, sometimes with some bits of meat attached. It's truly one of my favorite expressions of pig, and it provides the perfect set of complements to carnitas--carnitas is lean, not; carnitas is somewhat spartan, chicharron is gooey and complicated and decacent. Don't make me wear out the adjectives--just try it. And try it at the Cactus, since chicharron would not seem so well-matched by the puddling-like carnitas of others' dreams. On top of the mix: either salsa verde (which can vary wildly in heat from one night to the next) or the excellent thick, brown chipotle salsa.
The other three tacos in my order: chorizo, by itself. Bright red, oily, crispy at the edges and at places in between. Garlicky and tart. Able to be eaten in a single bite, if you're so inclined, although people you love might look at you funny.
The asada is all right. I get it sometimes. I hear the chicken is fine. The pastor is way too chewy--actually gristly. I like this quality in a chicken-knee yakitori, but not in a pork-based taco. Skip tacos al pastor at the Cactus. I've never had the baja fish tacos. I'd say maybe next time, but I'd be kidding myself--one of the things that is "yours" about "your" taco stand is "your" order, which usually changes only in the amount of each favorite ordered on a given night.
Lastly, the cart. After 7 p.m. or so, the cart comes out, allowing you to wooden-spoon yourself as much of any of the Cactus's four salsas as you like. There is the green and the brown, and also a red (less spicy than you might expect...most nights) and a habanero orange. I recommend taking little plastic cups of each home your first few times, to figure out your own personal heat index, and also to try different salsas with different meats. Everybody's different, after all. The cart also has a bin of radishes, which are the perfect way to offset the smoky, oily heat of the meat and salsa--there are also sliced cucumbers, which do fine after I've snarfed all the radishes. Also, a pile of onions and cilantro, some limes and lemons, and the carrot-jalapeno encurtido, which is an awesome way to burn your mouth, lips and face, if you go in for that sort of thing (I do). The carrots are yummy and, like the salsas, can be mild one night and searing the next; the jalapenos are pretty consistent and indelicate.
Horchata? Good. I'll do it if I'm not feeling like beer. Service? Always friendly, usually pretty quick, although sometimes crushingly slow (maybe if you ordered an asada burrito instead of mixed tacos, it wouldn't be, homes). Hours? I think they close at 2 in the morning, and I have no idea what time they open--probably before you're thinking tacos, but I can't read your mind. Parking? Lot and street.
I was tipped to this place by a friend. When did it become "mine" then? The first time I went there. You know when you've found one of your places as quickly as you know when you're in love. When I asked how much their t-shirts cost, they gave me one free. Mine.
Cactus Mexican Food. 950 N. Vine St., north of Melrose, east side of the street.


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