For Nathan Thornburgh, there’s only one antidote to LA’s smog, traffic and strip-mall disappointments: a technicolor taco from a Southern California institution.
[R&K’s Plates of the Union series features great dishes and storytelling from around America and beyond. Other dispatches in the series: crazy dumplings in Nanjing, In-and-Out’s Double-Double Animal Style, or chicken liver in Louisville.]
12:53pm. The plane begins its descent. The flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles International is mercifully short. The French couple behind me is getting excited. A row of Spaniards in front of me is the same way: leaning toward the window, talking rapidly as we fly over a patch of brown that I am pretty sure is Oxnard. This is clearly their first trip to Los Angeles.
1:02pm. The more I think about their excitement, the more I already pity their disappointment. In twenty minutes, give or take, they will be funneled through a dingy terminal. They will tumble out onto the curb, not in LOS ANGELES, CITY OF DREAMS, but in WESTCHESTER, CITY OF CUL-DE-SACS. They will not have been told that Los Angeles is basically just a collection of two dozen or so Westchesters.
1:22pm I am on the curb at LAX, in Westchester. The Europeans are nowhere in sight.
1:23pm I am waiting for my ride and remembering my own first disappointments with Los Angeles. The problem with LA when I started coming here twenty years ago was that it didn’t match the myth at all. If Hollywood was there, I couldn’t see it for all the Hackensack: smog, shitty housing developments, strip malls and dingy retail plazas. But that was before I started dating a girl from Los Angeles. She had one solution for this post-arrival depression. And really, for any kind of Los Angeles related doldrum: Tito’s Tacos.
1:28pm We are riding north on Sepulveda. Blah. We pass: Quizno’s, Panera, IHOP, something called Country Buffet.
1:50pm Sepulveda oozed like that past the window for eight or nine miles and then, we make a left turn into an alleyway just south of Washington. Tito’s cramped parking lot lies just beyond.
1:52pm If I had told the Europeans, or really anyone, that I was taking them to a legendary Mexican spot in Los Angeles, and then I brought them to Tito’s, they might feel like, well, jet passengers who deplane in Westchester. Underwhelmed. Tito’s looks like a school cafeteria without the school. It’s a low, boxy building with a walk-up window. Behind the glass is an army of matronly women in hairnets and plastic gloves. Big bubbling vats of beans, of soup, of sauce. Ladling. Lots of styrofoam containers.
But then I would make these skeptical Europeans notice the big line of people waiting outside Tito’s. That these people are not all Europeans or Four-Square-hipsters. They are just hungry-ass Angelenos. THERE HAS NEVER NOT BEEN A LINE OF HUNGRY-ASS ANGELENOS AT TITO’S.
2:02pm I have ordered, and five minutes later the food is ready. I am handed a closed brown paperboard box. When I open the box, I am confronted with: COLOR.
That’s the first and main thing about Tito’s Tacos. It is Primary Color Cuisine. The cheese is YELLOW. The salsa is uniformly FIRE ENGINE RED. The lettuce is QUITE GREEN. The refried beans are REALLY VERY BROWN.
I think of it as Electric Mexican, because there’s a charge to these colors. The mound of cheese is so bright yellow that it looks lit up from within. The salsa hums. After all the drab disappointment that Los Angeles serves you for starters, Tito’s is a shock to the system.
Is the taco good? In its own way, yes. The hard crunchy shell reminds me a little of taco night in Peoria. The beef is stewed and then pressed—or wrung out?—into something only slightly moister than machaca. The lettuce goes on top of the beef, and then comes the cheese, which looks like some kind of radioactively yellow cheddar but has an improbably mild flavor. The salsa is the only salsa I’ve ever seen than could be served as a Big Gulp slurpee. It is cold, and fresh, and red, and incredibly mild.
But here is the true genius of Tito’s. It is the same every time.
Every single time.
Absolutely the same.
For the twenty years that I’ve known it, and much, much longer than that.
You laugh, perhaps. Maybe this is not a redeeming quality to you. But it should be.
In 2008 Burkhard Bilger touched briefly on the virtue of consistency in his New Yorker piece on extreme beers:
The same discipline, if not creativity, has helped make Budweiser the most popular beer in the world. Its sheer consistency, across tens of billions of bottles and cans, is a technical marvel, and even the crankiest craft brewers harbor a secret admiration for it… I asked the brewmaster [at Orval monastery in Belgium], Jean-Marie Rock, which American beer he likes best. He thought for a moment, squinting down his bladelike nose, and narrowed his lips to a point. Then he raised a finger in the air. “Budweiser!” he said. “Tell them that the brewer at Orval likes Budweiser!” He smiled. “I know they detest it, but it is quite good.”
In the same vein: where do I go straight from the airport? Not to the deliciously drowned enchiladas at El Tepeyac in Boyle Heights. Not even to the al pastor wizardry of El Chato taco truck. Those are beautiful foods, but mercurial. Instead I go for the perfectly uniform technicolor tacos at Tito’s. Who cares if skeptics and visitors look down on this taco and on this city. “I know they detest it, but it is quite good.”