Some restaurants cannot be contained by their four walls, insisting on spilling out of doors and into parking lots or on to the streets. Lately, this expansive approach to serving food has been mobile in form, with a number of Southern California restaurants opening truck-based kitchens and starting twitter feeds, getting on the Kogi bandwagon while the getting is still good. But taking food to the streets need not involve a car engine or any social media skills–just look at the countless Mexican restaurants that occasionally chose to cook al fresco, setting up temporary sidewalk or parking lot kitchens, just a wall away from their more permanent flattop, grill, oven and range.
The logic behind the restaurant-adjacent taco stand isn't the clearest. What's the advantage to cooking and serving food outside rather than inside? How can a restaurant be empty all day long, seeming to serve barely a handful of platos throughout the day, then pull in a huge sidewalk crowd at night, technically after hours, serving the same food made with the same ingredients cooked by the same chefs? It's during the darker hours that these impromptu kitchens tend to pop up, often catering to a late night, post-bar crowd. Diner's stomachs and minds are aided, or perhaps clouded, by whatever chemicals–psychoactive, depressant or otherwise–may have preceded a taco nightcap, a fact that has to be considered in attempting to understand the relationship between the indoor taco and the outdoor taco. To many, this is what eating tacos is all about–a quick, cheap, late night meal eaten under the yellow-orange glow of a nearby street light, just a short few seconds lapsing between the moment when whatever meat is wrapper up in a tortilla and the moment its devoured. But does an outdoor taco actually taste any better than one served indoors at the same restaurant? Dueling Dishes takes up the issue in this post, for a less restaurant-specific version of this weekly post.
Mi Pariente, a hole-in-the-wall in Long Beach, acted as the case study. Something between a restaurant and a taco stand, the majority of the tables are actually outside, under an awning. Every evening a catering cart is rolled out into the parking lot–a spit for roasting al pastor pork, steam trays for other fillings, a flat top for crisping the edge of tortillas and re-frying meat. Plastic tubs of red and green salsa, cilantro, diced raw onions and brine baths of pickled onions and carrots, a tub of water full of floating whole radishes all stand on another card table. The theater of the spinning pork, the fat flaring up occasionally, all dripping with red-tinged pineapple juice, made tacos al pastor the obvious pick for outdoor tacos. The tortillas were dragged through the drip pan before going onto the flattop, grease giving them a splotchy red dye job. The al pastor came out of a steam tray bin, somewhat disappointingly so, rather than being cut right off the spit, shawarma-style. Topped by my own heavy hand at the salsa/condiment bar, two tacos were enough for a meal–and a very good one at that.
Indoor, the tacos were largely the same, but without the casual feel of the parking lot, which was something more like a family barbecue than a dining establishment. There was no al pastor spit in sight, making the porcine perfume factor much, much lower–but the tortillas still got a Pollack-like splatter of red grease before being sizzled on the flat top. Toppings were dolled out with much more reserve–and sans pickled onions–making for a much more manageable eating experience, if not a bit less flavorful. Tacos still ran for a buck twenty-five, same price they fetch in the parking lot, and I still sat outside, under the awning, to eat.
Was there a difference in taste? Not so much. The pickled onions were a nice touch, but their addition to the outdoor taco was less about where the taco was made and served rather than what toppings were on hand. And a salsa bar for indoor tacos are quite common, featured in many Mexican restaurants in Orange County. So it was more about the context, about the roast pork smell wafting across the parking lot, the impressive sight of spinning meat, the sound of knives chopping in the parking lot. Outdoor tacos are ate standing or sitting, wrapped in foil or off of plates–its relaxed, communal, the crowd pulling in people who would otherwise pass by the little taco shop, but upon seeing a pop-up kitchen, a crowd of diners, the visual and olfactory draws up front and unavoidable. Its all enough to make you think that tacos eaten in that setting will be better, that they would have to be. And there's nothing wrong with believing that, even if it might not be completely true.Mi Pariente: 146 W. 10th St., Long Beach; (562) 951-8226