There's not a lot happening on Olympic Blvd. south of the 5 Freeway after dark: it's a section of town mostly reserved for transmission repair places, clothing warehouses, and industrial buildings that are covered with those small squares of semi-translucent glass.
But there's a family that works furiously, every Thursday through Sunday evening, in a steam-filled silver trailer on the corner of Olympic and Esperanza in Boyle Heights. Driving toward the address at night, one gets a strong feeling of, "hmm, this can't be right" due to the dearth of any open businesses or people. And that makes the eventual sighting of Los Originales Tacos Árabes De Puebla all the sweeter: a healthy crowd, a back-up generator, a clean, bright sign that is mercifully non-LED, and the promise of tacos that are truly out of the ordinary.
The specialty at Tacos Árabes is, well, the taco árabe: a large piece of pan árabe (or a handmade flour tortilla; the pan árabe is not always available), which is like a thin pita bread, is smothered in a generous amount of pork de trompo, or from a rotating spit, like tacos al pastor. Unlike al pastor, however, where the flavors are chile and pineapple-based, the tacos árabes have a flavor profile that leans slightly more toward the Middle East. The meat is peppery, and tastes slightly of cumin and marjoram. Think of them as shawarmas al pastor.
It's a nuclear family affair at Tacos Árabes. Dad, mom, and the kids all contribute to the running of the business (but let's face it: mom is in charge). Mercedes, the cook and the matriarch, will not tell me how she prepares the meat. She just smiles when I ask. Outside of the trailer, I try to weasel the information out of one of the daughters, Arely, and she also balks: "I really can't tell you," she says. "My mother would kill me." From inside the trailer, Mercedes is peeking at us from behind a curtain of steam and smoke by the grilling meat. Arely looks over her shoulder and then back at me, grinning. "I mean, she would actually kill me."
The meat in these soft tacos is garlicky and smacks of earthy seasonings — spice with relatively little heat. A smoky, garnet-red, chipotle sauce accompanies the taco, which can be covered with avocado and a generous portion of stringy, Oaxacan cheese. At $3.50 (or $4.50 if you want the avocado, cheese, etc.), they're on the expensive side for street tacos. They're quite big, however, with enough filling for two or three regular-sized tacos, and the quality makes them well worth the cost.
The meat is garlicky and smacks of earthy seasonings
The origin story behind tacos árabes (literally: Arab tacos) is a fascinating one, and Mercedes was generous enough to speak with me about it for a few minutes while cooking. "A long time ago," she said, "a man came to Puebla [Mexico] from Lebanon, or maybe Iraq." Beginning at the turn of the century (the 19th century), many Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians, and Iraqis began to immigrate en masse to Mexico, presumably to escape Ottoman rule.
Conventional wisdom says that during this influx, the cultures mixed, resulting in, among other things, Mexican cuisine appropriating the iconic rotating vertical meat-on-a-spit (commonly seen in tacos places with good al pastor). That meat, which in Arab cultures is traditionally lamb, was eventually substituted in Mexico by the much more popular pork. Not only is Arab influence visible in the tacos árabes, but in the proliferation of dishes like kibbeh and tabbouleh, which can be found in Puebla, Mexico City, Baja California, and other areas of Mexico heavily populated with Arab émigrés.
Also on the menu, and worth your while, are cemitas and tacos de cecina. The cemitas are essentially a sandwich version of the taco árabe — a pile of smoking, tender meat on a soft, slightly sweet sesame roll. The cecina, tender and thinly pounded beef, is given a perfect vehicle in two corn tortillas that are stuck together with melted cheese. Ask for some rajitas, tangy strips of pickled pepper, which make a perfect accessory to the tacos.
Los Originales Tacos Árabes De Puebla is located at approximately 3600 E Olympic Blvd. in Boyle Heights (at Esperanza St.) They are open Thursday through Sunday from approximately 6:30 until midnight. Cash only.