Restaurant of the Week: Arturo’s Puffy Tacos

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Arturo’s Puffy Tacos, 15693 Leffingwell Road (at Lambert), Whittier; closed Sundays

Only a couple of times before (Covina’s Capri Deli, San Bernardino’s Mitla Cafe) have I written a Restaurant of the Week about a spot outside the Inland Valley. Both were worthy spots, in business for decades, that seemed of potential interest to you.

Arturo’s in Whittier is a similar case. I wanted to go there as I’d had puffy tacos while on vacation in San Antonio, Texas, in November, at Ray’s. Puffy tacos are kind of a San Antonio thing. Except they’re not, exactly, because they may have originated in Southern California in the 1960s at Arturo’s, and Art is said to have exported them to Ray’s. (The official story is here.)

I met up with the New Diner blogger at Arturo’s one night earlier this month to try the SoCal version. Arturo’s was brightly lighted and occupies a vintage if divey building with this quaintly awkward motto emblazoned along the roofline: “For a new taste in Mexican food try California’s only…the original Puffy Taco.”

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It’s a walk-up, where you order through a window, pick up your food inside and dine there. I got two puffy tacos: carne guizado ($2.50) and carnitas ($2.65), plus a horchata ($2.05); the New Diner, who’s gone vegetarian on us, got a bean and cheese burrito and taco.

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There were customers when we arrived and nobody when we left near closing time on a weeknight. The walls have a lot of San Antonio memorabilia.

A puffy taco comes in a flash-fried shell that turns flaky and delicate. Have you had cinnamon crisps, those pseudo-Mexican puffy chips dusted with cinnamon as a dessert? I’m not even sure where I’ve had them, Taco John’s maybe. Well, puffy tacos are kind of like that.

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Jonathan Gold once rhapsodized about Arturo’s in LA Weekly: “I’m not sure how I managed to live in Los Angeles this long without even knowing that these puffy tacos existed.” So has OC Weekly’s Gustavo Arellano, who advised readers: “It’s as if a taco dorado decided to evolve into a sope but quit halfway, and it combines the pleasures of the two: thick yet airy, earthy, crispy, golden, one of America’s great regional treats.”

I don’t think I’ll develop a taste for them, but they’re interesting in the best sense of the term, and the carne guizado filling, a beef stew, was especially good. The tacos seemed identical to the ones in Texas — and, obviously, are far more easily obtained.

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Restaurant of the Week: Mitla Cafe

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Mitla Cafe, 602 N. Mount Vernon Ave. (at 6th), San Bernardino

I’d never heard of the Mitla Cafe until Gustavo Arellano dined there with the New York Times in 2012 to talk about his book “Taco USA,” but it seemed very similar to the place to which I subsequently introduced Arellano, Ramon’s Cactus Patch in Ontario. Both were family operations launched in 1937, serving Cal-Mex food, although Mitla has the distinction that its cooks taught Glen Bell how to make hardshell tacos, a skill he eventually parlayed into Taco Bell.

Mitla also has the distinction of remaining in business; Ramon’s closed in 2013, shortly before its founder, Ramon Sanchez, died. Descendants of founders Vicente and Lucia Montano still operate Mitla, which is now the oldest Mexican restaurant in the Inland Empire, and among the oldest in Southern California.

Rarely do I head east, but in July I had to go to Redlands, and on my way back I eschewed eateries in that burg to go to Mitla. It’s pretty much equidistant from the 210 and 10 freeways, but only blocks from the 215, in the West Side barrio.

Mitla occupies what appears to be its original building and once inside, past the glass bricks in the entry, you’ll take in the front room with its counter, swivel seats and vintage Mitla calendars, and feel like you’ve stepped back in time.

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That first visit, I ate in the dining room and got the No. 6 dinner ($8.75), with a taco, enchilada and chile relleno, a kind of sampler platter. “Have you ever been here before? Everything on the menu is simply delicious,” the server said. “But, the one everybody likes is the No. 6.”

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The enchilada and chile relleno were covered in a meat sauce that was reminiscent of Ramon’s, a good sign. Those two items were good, but for me the taco was the standout, and I wished I had more. It was very similar to Ramon’s: fried with a ground beef patty, plus shreds of lettuce, diced tomatoes and yellow cheese.

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“Now you’re part of the family,” the server declared. How could I not like this place? (And I had not introduced myself. He was just being friendly to a stranger.)

On Tuesday I had to be in San Bernardino for work reasons and took that as an opportunity to go back to Mitla — and order more tacos. This time I sat at the counter and got the three-taco combination, ground rather than shredded beef ($7.25), and got to marvel at them anew.

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To be clear, there is nothing cutting edge about this food, and the menu even has a section I believe was called “American Tastes,” with hamburgers and hot dogs. Mitla is almost a classic coffee shop, only a Mexican-American version, where you can get fries with your huevos rancheros. My point is, you could have superior tacos and burritos at many other places, possibly even at the two Mexican restaurants on other corners of the same intersection.

But as an admirer of Ramon’s and all it stood for, Mitla Cafe fills that void for me, and might for you as well: food, ambience, family, tradition, history.

Heck, there are even two cactus gardens outside.

(Incidentally, it would be possible to take Metrolink to Mitla, as the San Bernardino station is visible from the restaurant. It’s probably a half-mile walk. After a meal, though, I’m not sure you could find anything else to do.)

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Lily’s Tacos to move; former Orange Julius stand to be pulped

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You may know it as one of Pomona’s better taco shops, but 2128 N. Garey Ave. (at La Verne Street) began its life as an Orange Julius stand. And it’s not long for this world, as the wrecking crew is coming. The stand will be demolished as part of the renovations of the undistinguished strip mall behind it. A new, undetermined restaurant will replace Lily’s.

In the meantime, Lily’s is still serving customers despite being isolated by construction. You have to admire their gumption. And Lily’s is going to relocate — more on that in a moment.

What’s the history? The stand operated as an Orange Julius drive-in from its opening in 1963 until 1980. From that point, the stand was home to a series of taquerias; Lucky 7, El Merendero, Tehuacan, Los Dos Compadres and Taqueria Alvarez are the names brought to my attention. Lily’s has been the longest tenant, since 1992 according to its sign, which means Lily’s occupied the stand longer than Orange Julius. How about that!

Lily’s was a neat spot, especially on a warm night, when you could eat in comfort on the picnic tables out in front of the walk-up stand. The food was reliably good and they would even serve it on a plastic plate and put your drink in a plastic cup.

I had dinner there Monday, for the first time in a couple of years. It required parking in the adjacent lot for Las Margaritas and walking around from the sidewalk. I got three al pastor tacos and a medium horchata for $6.06 and ate at one of the three picnic tables. It was a nice outing and a chance to remember meals past under that shaded awning, light bulbs hanging, the sizzle of the grill audible.

Thankfully, Lily’s will survive elsewhere — and indoors this time.

“Much to my delight, Lily’s is currently working on their new location at 901 N. Garey, a bit north of Holt on the west side of the street,” says fellow Lily’s fan Mark Lazzaretto, Pomona’s development director. “I don’t know when they’ll be open, but it can’t be soon enough for my liking.”

An employee said they hope to open within six weeks. They’ll remain at the little stand as long as they can.

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Restaurant of the Week: Tacos Jalisco

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Tacos Jalisco, 595 W. Mission Blvd. (at Parcels), Pomona

Appearances can be deceiving. For years I’ve driven past Tacos Jalisco, housed in a dull-looking restaurant that might well have begun as a Spires, and assumed it was a sit-down restaurant of dubious quality. Although the reference to a particular state in Mexico (Guadalajara is its capital) should have tipped me off that this wasn’t going to be a downscale El Torito.

A taco-loving source at City Hall, which is nearby, surprised me by telling me Tacos Jalisco might have the best tacos in Pomona, up there with De Anda. As I’d say De Anda and Tijuana’s Tacos are my favorites, this was credible information. (We would hope for no less from City Hall.) We walked there for lunch so I could judge for myself.

The entry from Mission was as disappointing as it looked from the street — although one is conflicted about knocking gentility.

“From the street,” my source agreed, “this place looks a little too nice to have the real thing.”

Inside, though, it turns out you order at the counter and sit in molded-plastic booths. This was more like it. For whatever reason, I had expected waitresses in costumes. It’s relatively nice inside, and clean. The menu has tacos, burritos, quesadillas, sopes and, on weekends, menudo and birria, and beverages include champurrado and aguas frescas.

My source got a chorizo taco and al pastor burrito (below); I got four tacos ($1.24 each): al pastor, asada, carnitas and chicharron, plus a horchata ($1.40), meaning my entire lunch was $6.92. These were excellent tacos, and four made a good meal. A standout was the carnitas, which was redolent of porkiness. If they’d slaughtered the pig out back a half-hour before, it wouldn’t have surprised me (except code enforcement works close enough to have put a stop to that).

I returned a month later for an al pastor burrito (around $6; final food photo) and a Mexican Coke. An excellent cheap meal.

Best tacos in Pomona? Fistfights have started and friendships ended on lesser questions. Tacos Jalisco at this point is in my triumvirate alongside De Anda and Tijuana’s. But wait, what about Lily’s? Oh. What comes after a triumvirate?

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Restaurant of the Week: Taqueria Guadalupana

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Taqueria Guadalupana, 820 E. Mission Blvd. (at Towne), Pomona

I was on foot at Towne and Second one recent evening looking for a place to eat. This proved more difficult than expected, as Los Jarritos was closed and Nancy’s Tortilleria, also on that corner, was closing. I’d left my car in the garage at Western U figuring I could find grub nearby. But I pressed on on foot, knowing Mission Boulevard three blocks south would have a few options.

And it did. I opted for a place on the southeast corner: Taqueria Guadalupana. The broad windows and brightly lighted interior were friendly and welcoming. It’s a small place with a limited menu of tacos, burritos and tortas with seven meat choices: cabeza, al pastor, asada, lengua, buche, chorizo and pollo. I suppose I should try tongue, brains or cheek someday, but not yet: I went for al pastor (marinated pork) in burrito form ($5.50). With a medium jamaica drink ($1.25), dinner was $7.36 with tax.

Decor is limited and so is the seating, although it feels expansive compared to Tijuana’s Tacos. I sat at a communal booth, in view of the open kitchen, a telenovela playing on the TV and a Virgin of Guadalupe mural on one wall. The burrito was very good, warming the stomach and the soul.

The menu is slightly broader than I indicated: They have menudo on weekends and something called carne en su jugo, which turns out to be a beef and tomato stew. Might be good on a cold night.

On my way out, I noticed another Mexican spot on the northeast corner. The sign was dim but the name was Taqueria la Oaxaquena. A sign out front touted 60-cent tacos on Tuesdays, which this day was. Oh well. I can always go back. For tonight, I was glad to have found Taqueria Guadalupana.

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Restaurant of the Week: Taqueria De Anda

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Taqueria De Anda, 1690 S. Garey Ave. (at Franklin), Pomona

A friend recently ate at a taqueria on South Garey but couldn’t remember the name. The only one I knew of was Taqueria De Anda, which I recall enjoying once maybe six years ago, but never wrote about here. I went back to try it again.

The freestanding restaurant, which has a drive-thru, is neat and clean, with tiled floors, a muted color scheme and art on the walls. And they have tables and chairs. It’s relatively upscale for a 24-hour taqueria where you order at the counter directly from the cook.

Tuesday was my lucky day: That day’s special is 99-cent tacos, cheaper than the usual $1.37. I ordered three carne asadas and a jamaica drink, for a total of $4.71. The tacos were excellent, generous with the meat and cilantro and with a tasty salsa. They’re some of the better tacos I’ve had in Pomona.

They also have burritos and quesadillas, but that’s it. Basic menu, quality food. I emailed a photo of the restaurant to my friend, who replied, “Yes! That’s it! So good!”

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