Friday, August 22, 2014

A Tale of Two Taquerias - City Tacos vs. Tacos Perla (North Park)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times – mostly because my beloved hood where I’d lived for the last decade had turned into hipsterville overnight, which brought crowds, noise, and zero parking. But on the other hand, North Park’s gentrification meant a fancy new set of libation stations, so I tried to embrace the positive points and support some of the new eateries popping up on the block.

Tacos Perla (3000 Upas St, Suite 105)
It seemed like Tacos Perla was trying to string together a bunch of gimmicks that made them unique. It was the equivalent of a forty year old with a belly button ring – trying just a little too hard. From toppings of crispy crickets and chicharones to their salsa bar featuring seven varieties, the focus didn’t seem to be much on the actual taco itself.

First of all, it took 30mins to get four tacos.

Adobada: slow roasted pork marinated for 24 hours with dried guajillo chili and achiote seed, served with a fresh green salsa (avocado, tomatillo, serrano, cilantro, and garlic) and a slice of pineapple $3.95
I asked for cheese on this (75 cents extra), but it came without and since our order had already taken so long, I didn't feel like waiting to have them fix the mistake. I enjoyed the addition of pineapple running the length of the taco, but the meat was fatty and flavorless, so all I tasted was the sweet fruit - major disappointment*.

Del Mar: sautéed shrimp with a mix of dried chiles, international spices, jack cheese, and avocado $4.95
My shrimp taco wasn’t much better. I looked at the four scrawny, scrimpy shrimpys barely filling the tiny tortilla. I think it would work in Perla's favor if they offered a couple big shrimp instead of trying to save money by substituting multiple, mealy minis because there was no way I'd order this again.

Ocho: grilled octopus marinated in a Mexican pesto (green chiles, garlic, and herbs), jack cheese, and avocado $4.95
This was tender enough, but like the adobada, weirdly flavorless, which was surprising since the strong arm of pesto was involved. The octopus just seemed washed out and muted. That also could have something to do with the unusually thick, homemade, corn tortillas that almost had a stale-tasting quality.

The salsa bar: Sail the seven seas of salsas! They had tomatillo, nut salsa, pineapple, some gingery one, pico de gallo with tomatillo, and a few more I don’t remember. I admit it was fun to try them out, but it was overkill. The nut salsa was way too spicy and burned away any flavor that dared come near it, while the pineapple salsa was thick and overly sweet. There was an overall mediocrity to the collection and just another disappointing distraction from the actual taco.

*Tacos Perla take two: In their defense, I was near there about a week later and felt ravenous, so since there wasn’t a line, I grabbed a quick adobada taco. It came out within minutes and seemed to be a different animal altogether (literally and figuratively). Juicy and well-seasoned, this was totally unlike the last time.

I also mentioned the missing cheese on my last order and they remedied the mistake by not charging me for it this time, which I appreciated. But overall, I didn’t see myself going back often.

City Tacos (3048 University Ave)
City Tacos had a little more grit to its presence than the polished interior of Tacos Perla, but it was simple, straightforward and our order was ready in record time, even though the place was packed. All tacos were $3.50.

(top row: the Borrego; bottom row: the Camaron on either side, Mahi al Adobo in center)

Borrego: Pulled lamb W/ wild mushrooms, cotija cheese, tomato, cilantro and fried leeks in a chipotle cream sauce on a house-made corn tortilla
A lamb taco for $3.50 could go horribly wrong. What cut did they use? Cooking method? Proper fascia and excess fat removal? My worries were laid to rest within moments as my mouth found the texture of shreddable, short-rib-esque lamb. The thin, coarse warmth of a house-made, corn tortilla surrounded the delicate meat and crispy, fried leeks were the final crunch on top (my favorite new taco topping) favorite new taco.

Camaron: sautéed shrimp in a serrano chile egg batter topped with grilled calabacitas & corn in a delicate green tomatillo salsa with cilantro and red onions on a house-made flour tortilla
Now this was a shrimp taco - three gorgeous, plump, supple shrimp, lightly battered and still juicy. Plus, who knew I would like hunks of zucchini in my taco? Not me, but I loved it! The calabacitas (aka zucchini) added a mild, veggie crunch, cradled in the softness of a house-made flour tortilla.

Mahi al Adobo: seared Mahi filet in a traditional adobo rub topped with a mango habanero jelly in a smoked chipotle avocado cream sauce on a house-made flour tortilla
City’s tacos were all $3.50 and although the mahi was tasty, it was barely there. I understood because it was a more expensive fish, but I thought that they should either increase the price and give a bigger piece, or find a cheaper fish that was a better fit for the tortilla (by the way, both the corn and flour house-made tortillas were scrumptious discs of delight).

Everything City Tacos did made sense. The entire menu was well thought out, down to the smallest detail, and it was easy to see the tremendous effort taken to perfect each dish. City Tacos had already become my regular Friday night reward – cheap, quick, quality, and the fact I could phone in my order and pick it up, made it that much sweeter.

And in the end:
It was the best of times - City Tacos.
It was the worst of times - Tacos Perla.