On Whittier Boulevard, east of the 710, is where one finds taco heaven. It is an embarrassment of taco riches. On almost every block you’ll see rickety stands under bare white light bulbs, off-white trucks with hand-painted lettering, a weirdly-outfitted Chevy van, and almost every other form motorized mode of transportation you can imagine, all in the service of preparing and serving the taco, the official food item of Los Angeles (Ok, I just checked and there's no actual official food of Los Angeles. Change.org petition, someone?).
Whittier Boulevard in East L.A. is long and broad; seemingly endless. After dark, when most of the retail shops have closed, the taqueros begin to assume their place. The lights from the stores dim and the neon signs from the trucks turn on, promising asada and pastor and illuminating the nightfall. Trees lining the boulevard are wrapped in LED light strings, and give off a soft, blue glow.
Juan Martinez sets up his truck, Tacos Cuernavaca, about a mile east of the freeway, across from a McDonalds on one side and a Wells Fargo across the street. He’s been there for eight years – he says things are generally going well these days. Business is good, and the neighborhood has improved – the gangbangers that used to extort protection money from him when he first started don’t come around anymore. He shows us bullet holes in the roof of his truck as evidence. "One night a guy came up with a .380 –" he says, and mimes holding a gun sideways – "Blam! Blam!"
He shows us bullet holes in the roof of his truck as evidence.
These days, his primary concern is competition from other trucks. He bemoans the lack of quality in trucks that peddle their tacos for a dollar (or even less) and explains: "They’re screwing me over! Because what I make is quality." There’s genuine pain in his face as he says quality. He reaches under the counter and asks, "you know what this?" His wife and business partner, Maria, who had been mostly quiet up until this point, picks up the tip jar and shows us a sticker that’s been stuck to the side. It says "USDA PRIME BEEF." Juan holds up a beautiful-looking dry-aged steak, covered in seasoning and peppercorns. "This is quality. Hold on," he says. "I’m gonna make this for you."
Tacos Cuernavaca does have excellent tacos – asada, pastor, tripas. But where they really excel is in their regional specialties. Tacos acorazados, or "battleship" tacos, are two tortillas topped with a too-generous portion of rice, meat, and chiles. Be warned, though – when we asked for a "battleship taco" all we got was a nonplussed stare from Maria. When she eventually gleaned that we were looking for the acorazado, she smiled and said "Ah, ok ok. Do you know Bill Esparza?"
An alambre can be described as essentially a really intense fajita plate, or maybe a skillet.
Sadly, the acorazado was unavailable. What we got, instead, was merely the king of all late-night taco truck fare. A dish that would sate anyone, anytime, at any level of inebriation or stoned-ness. A plate of pure protein and fat so decadent that a grizzly bear in the wild might balk at it, saying, "whoa, too rich for my blood." It is the alambre ilegal. An alambre can be described as essentially a really intense fajita plate, or maybe a skillet. It’s chopped up meat, veggies, and cheese served with a stack of tortillas in order to facilitate DIY tacos.
So what makes the ilegal so illegal? It has everything under the sun: a mountain of asada, chorizo, and pastor chopped up and tossed together with a steaming pile grilled onions, peppers, and mushrooms. A ladle of chopped pineapple goes in, and cheese is slathered onto the entire thing. And then, as this unholy-but-delicious monstrosity sits on the grill, Juan (who sees us watching him prepare this) unveils, with a good bit of showmanship, the final touches: shrimp that are stuffed with cheese and krab-with-a-k, wrapped in bacon, and deep fried. Maybe four of those.
Also: two lobster tails. Freaking lobster tails. When was the last time you’ve seen those in an East LA taco truck? Juan hands the masterpiece to Maria, who hands it to us, our jaws dropped. Juan says something to her in Spanish, and she says to us, "he asks if you know why it’s called an ilegal?" No, we respond -- why? Juan fixes his gaze on us semi-seriously and whispers, slightly channeling Tony Montana, "because it should be illegal."
Also: two lobster tails. Freaking lobster tails.
He’s right. It should be. It’s like some crazy version of Noah’s ark, if Noah had a taco truck instead. It’s hard to even know what you’re eating most of the time, but it doesn’t really matter. The meats are well spiced, the veggies are fresh, the sweetness of the pineapple provides welcome solace from the assault of sodium-rich meats, a generous squeeze of lime cuts the fattiness, and the cheese casts a perfect web over the entire thing.
That’s not all that Tacos Cuernavaca does well, however. Their other specialty is the cecina – finely pounded meat, either beef or pork, that almost takes on a jerky-like quality in its density of flavor. It’s savory and well-charred, but still tender and pulls apart easily enough -- it’s flat like jerky, but it isn’t tough. Picaditas are another exceptional item; cecina meat set atop a large, slightly cupped tortilla. The effect is such that it’s like a giant sope, or shoe-like huarache -- it’s essentially a meat tartlet, filled with cheese, crema, and the special peanut-infused red salsa that’s particular to the Cuernavaca region of Mexico.
Tacos de cecina
The steak Juan prepares for us, by the way, is outstanding -- tender and almost unnaturally flavorful, like the cow it came from was raised on a diet of butter pecan ice cream. Juan, who has been cooking professionally in restaurants since he was 14 years old, tips his baseball cap to us as we dazedly take our leave: a master technician at the peak of his powers.
Tacos Cuernavaca is located at approximately 5523 Whittier Blvd. (at Eastmont) in East L.A. They are open daily from 6 p.m. until late. Cash only.
Photography by: Matthew Kang