Thursday, September 09, 2010

The Merry-Go-Round of Meat - Leo's Tacos, Mid City Los Angeles

Leo's Tacos, Mid City Los Angeles

Venice Blvd. A street filled with too many cars, sign-spinners on the corners and Affordable Portable cell phone stores all around. When I was working in this area near Culver City/Mid City, I'll admit, I wasn't very into it. It is cluttered, busy and pretty much in need of a major manicure. Walking around here, it was common to be approached by drugged up runaways or all-day bus riders – harassing me for some change. But this is Los Angeles, love it or leave it. The good thing is though, things get much better here in the cloak of darkness. After the sign spinners have spun their asses off, cell phone shops have closed and the day zombies have retreated, one thing does stand out on Venice Blvd. – the taco trucks.

I usually don't pay attention to the taco trucks for some reason. I love my taco stands and tables because I can stand there and watch. It's as close of an experience as you'll get in Mexico – it's real street food. Just visit York Blvd. in Highland Park or Pico Blvd. near Pico/Union area. When Jeni and I were in Mexico City last, there was sheer excitement and assurance. For what? For the fact that no matter which taquero we approached, we were in good hands. Tacos as low as 10 for $1. Nice.

But as usual, for the last 4-5 years, Bandini of Great Taco Hunt has scoured only the best for Angelenos. Although he doesn't favor the offals and entrails as much as I do, one thing he does love is al pastor. Especially from this particular truck on Venice Blvd. My friend, who some of you may know as the twitterific, Tricerapops, texted me one night to meet him here after he had read Bandini's posting. Yes sir! A man with triplets needs to get out and breath some smoggy LA air once in a while, right?

Leo's Tacos, Mid City Los Angeles

We parked in the taco truck lot, which was also a gas station, and met up with Tricerapops. There were about 10-15 people standing around. Some ordering from a cashier who stood outside the truck, some people loading up on their condiments and some people just hanging out.
Leo's Tacos, Mid City Los Angeles

Aside from the food being prepared in the truck, there were also a few people huddled around a spit. One look at the yellow object atop the spit like a star on a Christmas tree, I knew why Bandini had been so excited about this place. Al pastor con pina tacos... a Mexican favorite. Instead of the usual white onion placed on top for aroma, a pineapple is set in. From wikipedia, tacos al pastor is a dish that originates in Puebla, Mexico, by way of Lebanese immigrants. If you've had delicious shawerma, you've basically had a less spicy version of al pastor!

Leo's Tacos, Mid City Los Angeles

What is different here than other taco stands that offer pineapple with their al pastor tacos is that the pineapple is kept atop the spit. I'll explain why this is critical. Al pastor con piña isn't a new thing. Plenty of stands and trucks do offer the pineapple topping, but it's not the way I like it. I've eaten some taco stands run by families from Guerrero and Jalisco. I get really stoked when I see the pineapple on the spit but the horror begins once the taquero cuts the al pastor and pineapple slices onto the griddle. Aye! From there, they chop up the meat and fruit into something similar to a bizarre stir-fry from a bad Chinese take-out place. All they need now is hot & sour soup and a fortune cookie. Ugh! The 'Mexican stir-fry' is now flavored by the grease from the previous cooked meat, which could be anywhere from buche (pig stomach lining) to lengua. Not that it's a bad thing but flavors are lost! By now, your pineapple taco has gone from Mexico to China in like 5 seconds. Just not my thing. This needs a major rewind.

Leo's Tacos, Mid City Los Angeles

I stood by the taquero operating the spit. Like a cellist with his bow, he swipes the mass of meat with his sharp knife. In the other hand, a warm tortilla catches the fallen meat. The meat is moist, flavored nicely and never touches the griddle once.

Leo's Tacos, Mid City Los Angeles

And with one flick of the wrist, he lobs a thin slice of pineapple into the air and catches it with the taco "mit". All of this happening in pure harmony. This is not as easy as it looks because the taquero must also watch that the meat "merry-go-round" never gets burnt. He has to know when to turn the heat on or off. Not cooked long enough, you're going to get trichinosis. It's overcooked and you're suddenly eating at Chipotle. It has to be just right.

Leo's Tacos, Mid City Los Angeles

And here is the final product. The moist meat, red salsa and sweet, smoky pineapple slice marry together to become this small, flavor-packed bomb. And only $1. I do have to say that I think the salsas can use some work but as a whole this is the experience close as you'll get to Mexico City. The taqueros of Leo's are from Oaxaca, but they offer Mexico City-style (D.F.) . In all fairness, I have been here at least three times already and twice, the al pastor meat was perfect when the place was crowded. When the lines were dead, I noticed the meat was only mediocre. Just keep that in mind.

Leo's Tacos, Mid City Los Angeles

I also recommend trying the al pastor con piña in quesadilla form for a take on Mexican ham and pineapple "pizza". Ask for less cheese (poco queso) so that it doesn't overpower the delicate pork slices and pineapple. This was delicious – like candy!

Leo's Tacos, Mid City Los Angeles

Thanks for reading. And thanks to the Great Taco Hunter for everything he's eaten for us.

Leo's Tacos
La Brea/Venice (76 Gas Station)
Everyday 6 pm - 2 am
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Thursday, September 02, 2010

Hoy Kha Thai Noodles, Monterey Park - Thai Soup Noodles in SGV

Hoy Kha Thai Noodles, Monterey Park

Little China, or as most people know it, San Gabriel Valley, welcomes a new restaurant to an otherwise homogenous land of Chinese restaurants ranging from Hong Kong/Cantonese, the mainland including Yunnan, Hunan, Sichuan and Chiu Chow. Instead of being greeted by someone saying "ni hao" or "how meh-nee peepo!" on an old Aiwa stereo-turned-PA-system, you'll hear "so waat dii", which is Thai for "hello". Thai restaurants are not a new thing in San Gabriel Valley but from many experiences, most seem to offer the usual suspects during lunch special and sport purple tablecloths and Buddha paintings. Over the last two decades, Thai has become the new "Chinese" and offer the same old pad thai, tom yum soup and papaya salad – not many of them feature soup noodles. Although this place is nearly hidden in an ugly grey shopping center, this place actually sticks out like a sore thumb.

You may know of Hoy Kha Thai Noodles, formerly as Ord on Hollywood Blvd. It was at Ord that Lawan Bhanduram established her noodle empire and then branched off to Panorama City to launch Ord 2. She sold Ord on Hollywood to a nice, hardworking family led by Bell Morawong. The food didn't taste exactly the same but it was still a favorite amongst noodle whores of all shapes and sizes. But much to their surprise, Bhanduram made an unexpected return to Thai Town a few months later. As much as I love Bhanduram's Pa Ord, it was a bit too close to the original Ord if you ask me. Now Morawong has expanded her business down into a new territory and I'm hoping they get some decent attention for some otherwise "different" soup noodles in Little China.

If you've been to Dean Sin World, which I believe just changed its name to something else weird, for their dumplings, then you've seen this ugly shopping center. For years I've wondered when exactly tumbleweeds would roll through there. But with the addition of Dean Sin World and Hoy Kha Thai Noodles, this shopping center seems to be slowly regaining a pulse. Since they've only been opened for 2 weeks, they don't have a sign, so look for the homemade sign with Thai writing on it. It looks squigglier than Chinese and drawn with Crayola markers.

Hoy Kha Thai Noodles, Monterey Park

I took a seat and one look at the interior, knew that this was a Chinese restaurant in the previous life. Well I got a hint, the booth seats actually had Chinese embroidery. My dad, Noodle Whore Senior, told me about this place and we weren't sure if this was in fact Morawong's new project or a newcomer also offering the favored Hoy Kha Tom Yum soup noodles. I recognized the condiments and containers used here... especially the tin box containing the chopsticks and metal spoon and knew this was place was opened up by one of the Ord owners. Hoy kha means 'dangling feet noodles'. Don't worry, the cooks weren't soaking their feet in your broth, it's a reference to the bench seating at this particular noodle shop along the rivers in Thailand. The seating along the edges of this outdoor restaurant don't have any flooring so you have to sit on the floor and drop your legs through, and eat off the table that's built into the side railing. Next time you're at Hoy Kha Thai Noodles in Hollywood, look at the photos of the dangling feet and you'll understand.

With the Thai soup noodle places, it's important to know that you can choose between many types of noodles, five to be exact. You can also order this sans soup. In Chinese/Chiu Chow places, you'll also have the option of wide, egg noodles. Like Italian pasta, some shapes hold better than others.

(A) Big, flat rice noodles
(B) Rice noodles used in pho or pad thai
(C) Thin, egg noodles
(D) Vermicelli (common in the pink-colored Yen Ta Fo)
(E) Glass noodles (bean threads)
(F) Square rice noodles/rolled cylinders (used only for Kuay Jup soup noodles)

Hoy Kha Thai Noodles, Monterey Park

Hoy Kha Tom Yum Noodles
I tried the namesake noodle dish first. This is based off a Chinese/Chiu Chow soup noodle dish which is basically a soupy version of chop suey and noodles. Like most peasant food and for people on the go, this was a mix of either leftovers or unwanted animal parts plus your choice of noodles. In this Thai version, you have Chinese BBQ pork (cha shu), ground chicken, pork balls, pork liver, fishcake and dried shrimp. The soup tasted exactly as I remembered from the first location. The soup is light, slightly sweet and just tart enough. It was good. But my only problem with this dish and most of the places that offer the mini/large bowl soup noodles is that they throw in too many raw ingredients like bean sprouts and lettuce, which bring down the soup temperature. Booooooo. So try asking for steamed bean sprouts as some people do with Vietnamese pho.

Hoy Kha Thai Noodles, Monterey Park

Kuay Tiao Luh Thai Boat Noodles
I fell in love with Thai Boat noodles at a place you wouldn't expect. It was sometime in the early 90s, when Noodle Planet/World was the "hot spot" for SGV denizens. A brilliant idea run by a young man of Thai and Caucasian decent, this was a place where you could order soup noodles from "around the globe". And they happened to offer Thai Boat Noodles. One look at my dad, who was sweating bullets while finishing the last spoonful of soup, I could tell this was a good bowl of soup noodles. But like Chinese beef noodle soup, there are so many interpretations. People love Sapp Coffee Shop, which we used to frequent back in the 90s, for their daring, more vulgar broth that gave off salty, bloody, spiceful and sour tones. My recent favorite is Pa Ord's, which has a nice thickness to the soup that isn't as rich as Sapp's, yet has a balance that I prefer. But here at Hoy Kha's, it's a good thing they didn't name the place after this dish because it's definitely not the main event. The soup had the five-spice action, but there was no punch. I added vinegar from the green chili relish to make it work.

Hoy Kha Thai Noodles, Monterey Park

Another thing was there was only braised beef shank, which tastes good, but I was really craving some pork blood cubes and rare beef. I was hoping for more out of this but I'll definitely try it again next time I come. Why not, it's only $3.50.

Hoy Kha Thai Noodles, Monterey Park

Crispy Pork & Holy Basil Rice with Fried Egg
Yes, I know, I always order this with my diminutive noodle bowls, but this dish is for me a way to gauge a Thai restaurant. A pho restaurant that can't do a decent bowl of pho... a taco truck that can't do a carne asada taco right? I never eat pad thai, even if it's offered in gigantic dumpster trays at office meetings... I just have no interest. But this dish, this is what you'll most likely see the employees of a Thai restaurant eating on their lunch break. Crispy pork that is wok-fried again before service, crunchy long beans, basil and a sloppy fried egg. Man.

Hoy Kha Thai Noodles, Monterey Park

Damn.

Hoy Kha Thai Noodles, Monterey Park

Look at that. Magic happens once you crack that egg. Make sure you ask for it over-easy, runny yolk. It's as beautiful as cracking a beautifully poached egg into your bowl of tonkotsu ramen. Pa Ord's is still my favorite, but I have to say that this tasted better than the original location.

For those that can't venture into Thai Town for Pa Ord or Ord, this serves as a great option for your Thai soup noodle needs. Also, it's a nice break from Little China. I recommend the Hoy Kha soup noodles with mild spice and Crispy pork rice with basil (not Chinese broccoli) and runny over-easy egg. The Thai sausages from what I remember are a good appetizer as well. Thanks for reading.

Hoy Kha Thai Noodles
230 N. Garfield Avenue
Monterey Park, CA 91754
(626) 927-9629
Everyday 10 am - 9 pm
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