JP’s Food Adventures: A Little Bit of L.A. at Taqueria LES

Taqueria Les, 198 Orchard Street. Photo by Cynthia Lamb.
Taqueria Les, 198 Orchard Street. Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

Manhattan has become a much better place for a taco fix in recent years. Gone are the days when your friends from LA burst into laughter at the offerings here.  Now they just make the inevitable comparisons to their favorite spots on the Left Coast.

My current “go to” spot has been Brooklyn Taco in the Essex Street Market (also at the Hester Street Fair). Their tacos are indisputably good, but the hours of the market and the fair may not suit everyone. And their style is more Brooklyn than Los Angeles.  If you’re pining for an LA style bar/taqueria, the obvious neighborhood choice is Taqueria Lower East Side (198 Orchard Street).

They make no bones about being LA style, even though “Lower East Side” is part of their name. When it comes to the decor, Lakers and Dodgers memorabilia compete with Mexican kitsch and classic rock posters. And they get it right – the place feels like you took one of the better bar/taquerias from the City of Angels and shrunk it down so it could be shoehorned into the ground floor of an Orchard Street tenement. It only took a few minutes in this environment before I was resenting the grey clouds and scattered showers outside.

Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

The area around the doorway is painted red and decorated with black and white tape to evoke Eddie Van Halen’s iconic guitar from the 80’s. This proved a harbinger of what was in store for us, as the playlist during out meal was entirely Van Halen.  The AC/DC stools at the bar didn’t escape my notice, either. This place is unabashedly rock and roll. I was surprised the server (who kinda looked like Ryan Adams) didn’t call me “dude”, though his friendly yet laid-back manner practically implied it.

What of the tacos? They were exactly like the versions I ate in LA two years ago while spending a few months in Los Feliz (at $2.50 – $3 each, the prices were similar, too). They have probably the best fried fish taco I’ve had on this coast. The pork taco is just about perfect as well – moist roasted meat topped with cilantro and onion, wrapped in a pair of corn tortillas. Well into salty-greasy territory, but that’s what makes a good pork taco – earthy roast pork contrasting against bright cilantro and a squeeze of lime. The beef taco is better than the steak tacos at some other neighborhood joints, and a better value. A decent level of spice on the meat was appreciated – no hot sauce required at the table. Their lamb taco is a bit richer and more mild, but a satisfying choice. Happy to see that on the menu. My only quibble? There was no lengua (beef tongue) taco. Why do everything else this well then fail to offer the best taco of them all?

Taqueria LES also has reasonably priced tortas ($6.50), which I’ll be back to try (if the tacos are any indication the tortas have got to be out of this world). And they have a full bar. If you can handle the Los Angeles/Classic Rock theme and like real tacos, you’ll probably love this little joint. It ain’t health food, though. A few bites in and the wax paper on the bottom of your plastic serving basket will be practically transparent from dripping meat juices. But that’s the way it’s supposed to be. And I’ll happily take that over some of the disappointing faux-upscale options nearby. I may not be averse to kimchi on my tacos, but I am very much against chichi. You’ll find neither at Taqueria Lower East Side.

Taqueria LES opens at noon weekdays, 11 a.m. on weekends. It’s closed on Mondays.

JP Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world repeatedly, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is a serious home cook with over two decades’ experience cooking for family, friends and fellow rock and rollers. Mr Bowersock keeps a toe in the wine business as well, consulting for the wine lists of several neighborhood establishments, including Clandestino, 35 Canal St. When not on tour or in the recording studio he’s scouring the neighborhood for frugal food finds.

I’ve become a fan of the Verdejo grape. The first time I tried a Rueda, the wine made from it was in Spain to play the Benicassim Festival, which many consider the best of Europe’s music festivals. But the grape itself has a great story: depending on who you ask it was either brought to Spain from North Africa in the 11th Century, or it’s indigenous to the Rueda region. For centuries it was used to make the kind of oxidized white wine that today is nearly impossible to find – unfashionable wines with no fruit whatsoever and a slight nuttiness. Then in the 1980’s Bodegas Riscal started making modern style wines with this grape. A new D.O. was born, and these wines have been gaining in popularity ever since. Montebaco Rueda 2009 is 100% Verdejo, and a pleasant example of these whites that are usually meant to be drunk young. Fruit on the nose, with hints of white flowers and herbs gives way to refreshing acidity in the finish. It’s not quite crisp in the way Sauvignon Blancs can be, but it’s a perfect summer drinker for $13 at Seward Park Liquors. It’s also a nice introduction to this up and coming white wine.