The carnage from the COVID-19 pandemic continues in the restaurant business. Recently we lost two of my favorite new restaurants from the past 18 months: By the Way Grill at Bill Wright Toyota and Casa Flores Restaurant Bar (in the old Lie-N Den).
I appreciated By The Way Grill not just for using Bill Wright’s old famous TV commercial signoff (respect for local history) but the way the food was good enough to inspire a visit when you weren’t getting your car fixed. Casa Flores was a family-run Mexican coffee shop operation, and the potential was there, but this virus has been vicious to this industry.
The good news is that the new tenants have stepped into those locations: El Taco Rojo in the Auto Mall and Tacos El Asadero on Niles Place. Both specialize in birria (pronounced beer-ya), also known as Mexican beef stew, a dish that originated in the state of Jalisco, traditionally featuring goat meat but can also be made with beef (growing in popularity), lamb or chicken. Vegetables typically used are tomatoes, onions, garlic and various chilis, and the slow cooking process can tenderize some tough cuts.
Both restaurants use beef, and if you’ve never sampled this before I predict you’ll be hooked by what they’re offering. Think really moist shredded beef with the flavorful nuances that vegetables can add to the dish. Each has risen out of humble origins — Rojo from a food truck, El Asadero from a swap meet vendor — to join the bricks-and-mortar crowd.
Our first visit was to Taco Rojo for lunch (hours are limited to weekdays 7 a.m.-3 p.m.) where we ordered a chicken burrito ($7), a carne asada street taco ($1.25) and what the woman taking our order said was the most popular menu item, the birria taco dorado ($3).
How good was the birria? When we go back, we’ll get the plate ($14) with rice and beans, the stringy beef moist and almost greasy but in this kind of a meal that’s an expected condition. Everything was impressive: The chicken burrito filled with moist, small chunks of poultry, lots of moist rice and whole beans, onions and cilantro. More chicken and rice than anything else, but quite tasty.
The crispy taco dorado had the birria in it with a tomato-cilantro broth brushed over it after assembly, the cheese inside melting from everything, a style popular in Sinaloa. Again, what they offer here is not your standard fare that we find elsewhere. The asada was OK, but when you can get the birria it’s hard to go for that other version of beef.
We were even more impressed by El Asadero, where the whole family was wearing masks all the time, taking the pandemic seriously with laminated menus at the table and cleaning often. (Based on emails from readers, some are still leery of visiting restaurants that aren’t diligent about safety.)
The menu is far more extensive here, and we sampled the taco asada ($2.25), the taco pastor ($2.25), the chicken taco ($2.25), a birria burrito ($10.50) and a birria quesataco ($3.75). Yeah, we ordered too much but it was so amazing. The burrito came with a consommé that you can use like an au jus to dip your burrito in, but this came with a spoon and could be consumed like soup, as it's far less brackish than the typical au jus. The burrito was grilled brown after assembly, nice and crispy.
The tacos are Tijuana-style, our waiter told us, meaning they are made with charcoal-grilled meats and come with a great guacamole dollop and two salsas on the side, a medium green and a spicy red. He told us that they had an even spicier version of the red available on request. The birria taco was the best, having queso fresco, onions and cilantro inside but so rich with meat it was like eating a sandwich.
The pastor was fine, but it just paled in comparison to the birria, which is really hard to resist after you’ve sampled a good version. I know it’s been wildly popular in Los Angeles, so it’s nice to see us getting some similar options up here in Bako.
Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears in The Californian on Sundays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @pftittl.