Culinary Journeys, Episode 1: De-Constructing the Humble Taco
When it comes to food, Los Angeles has no shortage of places to eat. It’s truly a melting pot of cultures and cuisines packed with edible delicacies gifted to us from a city comprising generations of immigrants. On my most recent trip to LA, we were inspired to seek out the humble taco. If the late LA Times food critic Jonathan Gold taught us anything it’s this: your most important restaurants don’t have to be your fanciest.
Interestingly, the taco comes from humble roots and LA residents have been indulging in Mexican street food for over 130 years. In fact, by 1901 more than one hundred tamale wagons roamed Los Angeles, each paying a dollar a month for a city business license. The earliest known photo of a taco appeared in a 1914 cookbook written by the LA-based Ms. Bertha Haffner-Ginger. Furthermore, the first stateside tacos to gain widespread fame were the taquitos (“tiny tacos”) at the historic Olvera Street.
Our Los Angeles tour guide/taco aficionado was Chef Katsuji Tanabe, who you may know from Top Chef. He offered us a culinary passport to his favorite taco trucks and celebrated hole in the wall joints, which have recently gained culinary status.
Our first stop was a visit with Chef Romulo Acosta at Carnitas El Momo (60th and Avalon Blvd, Los Angeles 90003) who makes the most incredible carnitas.
I was really excited to meet Chef Romulo as I’ve researched on how he incorporates all parts of the pig–from head to tail including snout, liver, kidneys, and ears!
“It’s the foot, throat and skin,” Chef Ricardo, Chef Romulo’s grandson, explained as I sunk my teeth into a signature taco, teetering on the rules of taste and civility. My howling curiosity of animal flesh was both exotic and primeval. This prized delicacy elicited a special vigor that was far from the ho-hum ordinary taco. Never squeamish to trying any parts of the animal, I felt a sweet benediction for the swine who had given its life for us. And with the utmost respect, it was only fair we enjoyed his sacrifice and ate the entire body from nose to tail.
An unassuming taco is a simple combination of corn parcel, animal parts, and harmonious spice. Without a doubt, this was the best carnitas I had ever had the fortune to try. The recipe was chef’s great grandfather’s, and Chef Romulois the fourth-generation family member who was passed down the recipe.
Next stop was Guerilla Tacos (2000 E 7th St, Los Angeles, CA 90021) run by Chef Wes Avila, who has worked with some of the best chefs in the world. He opened up 3-star rated restaurant Palate Food + Wine and studied under the legendary, Alain Ducasse. Guerilla Tacos has been voted best taco spot in LA by Eater and the late LA Times Food critic, Johnathon Gold. Wes’ tricked out taco truck serves up some of the most unique combinations known to the streets of Los Angeles. The sweet potato taco was my absolute favorite.
Our last stop was Tacos Leo (1515 South La Brea Ave Los Angeles 90019) where long lines and no frills lend itself to the best al pastor served. Juicy pork is expertly sliced off of large trompos directly onto warm, palm sized tortillas and topped with sweet pineapple. The al pastor is the true standout of this hip, friendly taco joint.
The inspiration we found in Los Angeles transferred seamlessly to a project I’m working on with Crystal Cruises, where I have the distinct privilege to work with the award-winning culinary team to create new dishes in many of the restaurants on the ship.
We were tasked to come up with a dish that had never been created before in Waterside, the chic and spacious main dining room on Crystal Serenity. Outside of its acclaimed elegance, Waterside offers Michelin-inspired cuisine with two menus: Classics and Modern. For this dish, we were using culinary artistry to deconstruct the taco including separate elements with incredible flavor to be served on the Modern menu.
Working with the Crystal culinary team, we deconstructed the taco with fresh Hamachi fish beautifully cured in ancho chilies, salt and sugar and then wrapped in Kombu. The tortilla flavor melded an infusion of corn nuts, milk, and cream steeped for 30 minutes and then chilled and aerated to lighten its consistency. For creaminess, we whipped up an avocado puree with lime juice and caramelized onion. We topped it off with pico de gallo, which added a burst of color to the dish and incorporated some pineapple at the end for sweetness.
As passengers worked out the various elements on the plate, the deconstructed taco became one as soon as the spoon dragged across each platter. A fine orchestra of individual flavors united with true modern sophistication for a masterful creation.
The techniques and presentation stretched our creativity beyond the more “authentic” preparations of the taco. And happily, we lived up to the culinary acclaim Crystal is known for thanks to our passenger’s happy smiles and words of encouragement. Cheers to the chefs both in port and on board for their culinary expertise.
Until our next culinary adventures, cheerio for now!