East L.A. Road Tripping

My pal Alex wanted to make a pilgrimage to the fabled Ramirez Liquor in Boyle Heights, East L.A., home to one of the best tequila and mezcal selections north of the border. Who was I to say no?

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With our gal pal Erin in tow, we set out on a misty June Tuesday morning from our quiet green canyon and onto the freeways of greater Los Angeles.

Traffic was light, and within 40 minutes we were rolling along past the taco shops, check cashing store fronts and auto body shops of East L.A. We had some trouble locating our destination, distracted as we were by a pair of large cheeseburgers adorning the roofs of side-by-side hamburger joints.

Inside Ramirez, we gazed at the wall of mezcals something like children in a candy store. Alex was looking for a particular bottle and asked about it. The woman said they didn’t have it there, but she could check with their “other store.”

Erin and Alex face off the mezcal wall at the Ramirez warehouse.

Erin and Alex face off the mezcal wall at the Ramirez warehouse.

At the words “other store,” I could see Alex’s very pulse quickening beneath his skin.

While I will admit to having become something of a minor mezcal connoisseur — especially since my pal Michael introduced me to his extraordinary line of premium mezcals, Del Maguey — Alex has become positively obsessed. We visited Vinos America in Puerto Vallarta recently and selected a number of bottles to either try there or take home with us. We had both added significantly to our collections since being back home, and Alex was busily spreading the mezcal gospel throughout the canyon.

We were back in the car headed to the “other store” — only a mile away and, being a warehouse, about 20x the size. The kind lady behind the counter had also tipped us that the Ramirez warehouse was home to a burger stand that made the best burgers in L.A. This was not a recommendation we would take lightly.

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The mezcals rose tall and wide along a wall at the Ramirez warehouse. There was much deliberating, discussing and pacing of the floor before we finally made our purchases and strolled to the back of the store, where Vaka Burger had taken over a small corner.

It was the these-days standard hipster burger stand with retro branding, warnings of no substitutions and medium-rare-only-please, clichéd ingredients like truffle oil, sriracha, pork belly and chipotle aioli, and fries cooked in duck fat with house-made ketchup. The good news is, as ubiquitous as the self-conscious gourmet burger joint has become, there are a lot of really good burgers out there. And this was no exception. The three of us split a Vaka burger on the recommendation of the girl behind the counter, who aptly compared it to a “gourmet version of the Carl’s Jr. Western Bacon Cheeseburger”. The barbecue sauce was, but of course, house made; a large tempura-battered Maui onion ring added crunch, while bacon jam contributed the smoky porky fattiness; the meat was perfectly undercooked and a soft Texas toast completed the picture.

The Vaka Burger

The Vaka Burger

Our restrain in ordering one burger for three was due to the real culinary mecca ahead — Guisado’s tacos.

It is a rare taco joint that earns a spot in Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold’s “Top 101 Restaurants of Los Angeles.”

Alex had forewarned us that the place was a bit “gringofied.” And sure enough, there were plenty of attractive, well-dressed young white business people waiting in line alongside regular folks from the neighborhood Hispanic population. But a leathery guy playing mournful rancheras on an accordion (and then asking for money), the sound of Spanish being spoken all around us and the commingled scents of dirt and oregano added grit and authenticity.

At Guisado's.

At Guisado’s

I ordered a cochinita pibil taco and a chicharron taco — a pork double header. Alex got the sampler of six mini tacos, and then scampered to the liquor store across the street to grab three 24-oz Modelos, the only possible accompaniment to a table full of tacos.

Alex had commented that he had read that the measure of a great taco was how good the tortilla was. The Guisado’s experience certainly bore out this theory. The fillings were delicious, of course — particularly the chicharron, which simmered in salsa verde was silkier and less crunchy than my own version. But it was the toothsome, fragrant corn tortillas being hand formed by a señorita in the window on Cesar Chavez Blvd. that made this taco so great.

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I can offer no reviews of the mezcals we purchased. I was due back at home to pick up my son and carry on with the remainder of my vaguely reputable afternoon pursuits. Alex and Erin, on the other hand, upon dropping me off threw restraint to the wind and commenced sampling without further delay…

For your own East L.A. field trip:

Ramirez Liquor Warehouse/Vaka Burger
2765 E Olympic Blvd
Los Angeles, California, 90023-3409

Guisado’s
2100 East Cesar E Chavez Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90033

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6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mom
    Jun 10, 2016 @ 03:10:59

    I’m jealous, as usual.

    Reply

  2. Cheryl "Cheffie Cooks" Wiser
    Jun 10, 2016 @ 08:06:18

    fun-have a great weekend!!!

    Reply

  3. Amanda
    Jun 10, 2016 @ 17:19:59

    Tacos and Modelo Negra is one of my favorite combinations! Yum!

    Reply

  4. Trackback: Goodbye, Year of the Taco | skinny girls & mayonnaise

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