Welcome back to Dining On A Dime a bi-weekly feature in which Lizbeth Scordo surveys LA's cheap eats—often obscure, ethnic, unsung restaurants—proving that dining on a dime is alive, well, and quite tasty in this here city. Where do you think she should go next? Drop us a line.
If you’re looking to bring a sack of freshly made corn tortillas home from Maria’s Tortillas in Westchester, come early. By the time I arrive, a bit after noon on a weekday, they’re all sold out. Maria tells me she’s got a few packs of flour tortillas left, but most people come here for the corn. Luckily, she still has enough corn tortillas to whip up tacos and enchiladas for the lunch customers, so I get to try one after all. In addition to the soft tortillas, Maria’s, which has been in business for about a decade, also sells hard taco shells, chips, and masa all prepped and ready to be made into tamales by customers at home. The shop counts restaurants including Paco’s Tacos, La Cabana and Kay 'n Dave’s along with several area stores and delis among its customers. I’m drawn to the list of handmade tamales written out in pink and blue chalk on a blackboard flanked by hanging fake chile peppers. "They’re popular," says Maria, and – after much pressing – she recommends the chicken, vegetarian, or the picosso variety stuffed with cheese and jalapeno. After a vivid description of the fresh veggies in the vegetarian tamale, she sells me on that one. I also order a chicken taco (yes, in a corn tortilla) and Maria agrees to give me both the super hot red salsa along with a milder green sauce. The menu’s rather simple here but still has plenty of choices – tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, burritos, chile rellenos, and a few egg dishes.
There isn’t all that much activity in the small storefront, which is mostly decorated with Frida art and dried chile peppers. A couple of customers come in to place quick takeout orders and another sits down at one of three high-top tables. Even the gigantic kitchen seems quiet, though I do spy a woman hand-molding tamales toward the back. The action, apparently, will begin at 3AM when the tortilla-making commences.
Before my lunch arrives, Maria presents me with a basket of her chips -- lightly salted, not at all greasy, and unusually thick. So thick, in fact, that I don’t devour as many as I usually would (only because they’re more filling than your average chip). Hot is an understatement for the red salsa, made with devilish arbol chiles, and a little goes a tremendously long way. The looser green salsa, chock full of white onion and cilantro, won’t have you breaking into a sweat like its counterpart, but still has some kick.
When my food arrives, I dive into the taco first. The pale yellow tortilla is infused with a rich corn flavor and is literally a little rough around the edges. It’s hearty enough that Maria doesn’t have to double up on the tortillas for her tacos, but manages to still absorb the essence of the ingredients sitting on top of it after a few minutes. It’s certainly an enjoyable tortilla, but I guess with all the sell-out talk, I was expecting to be absolutely blown away. The taco is light and fresh, despite the fact the tortilla is dangerously overstuffed (it reminds me of a Bounty vs. the leading brand in a paper towel commercial). There’s lots of chopped, crisp iceberg lettuce, diced tomatoes, finely shredded jack cheese and a hefty dollop of sour cream, plus a far-from-skimpy serving of white-meat chicken chunks. Like the chips, the chicken doesn’t have a drop of grease, yet isn’t dry at all. Still, it seems oddly underseasoned.
Despite the name of the place, it's the tamales I'll probably come back for. The vegetarian tamale arrives slightly cracked open and steaming, revealing long strips of colorful bell peppers, carrots and zucchini. And the sliver of buttery, golden potato buried inside has somehow managed to keep a perfectly cooked consistency. There's a touch of salsa baked in too, but it's such a negligible amount I wish there were either more or none at all. The masa's flavor, crumbly texture and patches of golden crust make it reminiscent of a freshly baked savory cornbread (a really, really good one). In a city full of tamale shops, Maria seems to have a signature version all her own. So go for the tortillas. Stay for the tamales.
A la carte items and combination plates: $1.75 to $7.00
— Lizbeth Scordo