[Photographs: Paul Bartunek]
In recent years, the Eagle Rock neighborhood in Los Angeles has continued to awesome-ify itself into becoming a downright trendy place to be. Along with nearby Highland Park, Eagle Rock has become a vital destination for eastward-moving families and young professionals.
How you feel about all of this depends, to some extent, on what you think of the idea of a place in Los Angeles serving up $4.65 tacos. At CaCao Mexicatessen on Colorado Blvd. (right next door to a Trader Joe’s, naturally), that’s exactly how much a huitlacoche taco will set you back; no small change for a city teeming with tasty $1 tacos. The only problem is… it might be worth it.
Even if you don’t agree with the prices, there’s still lots to love about CaCao Mexicatessen. The smallish space is due for a big expansion later this month, after owner Andrew Lujan decided to take over his parents’ adjoining flower shop. Soon, they’ll serve cervezas alongside their expansive menu of tortas, sopes, burritos, tacos and large plates. For now, you can grab a seat on their patio and snack mightily on their fresh-fried tortilla chips, beautifully thick and crisp with a duo of salsas riding along.
Anyone looking for a bigger bite can peruse the taqueria menu, where choices like pollo asado, cochinita pibil, duck confit and huitlacoche can be tossed into a double-stack of hand-patted corn tortillas, wrapped into a burrito or slid onto a thick masa sope. The carne asada is served ahumado, which means the beef is smoked with oak chips before spending time on the grill. The result is a tender chew and plenty of built-in depth, although the cool salsa verde and crisp white onions certainly add to the mix.
The cochinita pibil is an unintimidating rendition with little heat, but plenty of porky character. It’s juicy and fatty, with a vibrant mound of pickled red onions. If the kitchen could raise the heat index on otherwise mild affair, they may have a stronger contender on their hands.
Of course, there are things to avoid. The Wednesday Baja fish taco special is a soggy bump in the road, with little crunch to speak of from the beer batter. You’d also do well to steer clear of the chorizo, a mealy paste that offers a fraction of the flavor you’re looking for, and none of the grilling that might otherwise help to bring out its smokiness. The fried duck skin (part of a separate exotics menu of taco options) is also a miss, thanks to someone with a heavy salting hand and the fact that regular ol’ chicarrónes already do quite well in this part of town.
Let’s talk about that exotics menu for a moment. CaCao has diversified their options with a simple duck confit that really works. It’s not as hefty or earthy as, say, the carnitas, but taking in a pocket or two of duck fried in its own greasy fat will do wonders for your stomach. Similarly, the venison is a hit, thanks to the same smokiness as the carne asada but a much more prodigious char. Add in a few deflated cherry tomatoes still steaming from their time on the grill and you’ve got a fresh, crisp, fatty deer taco that more than pays for itself.
And, finally, that nearly $5 huitlacoche taco. Served with thin radish sticks and full corn kernels, the Mexican corn smut that reminds us all so much of truffles is the single best taco you can buy at CaCao Mexicatessen. It has the funkiness of an aged cheese, with the same slight tang. It’s got a little texture pop from the corn kernels and freshness from the radish slices. On a warm tortilla fresh from the masa pile, this is the sort of taco that can change a neighborhood. And while CaCao Mexicatessen hasn’t redefined Eagle Rock just yet, don’t be surprised if their flower shop expansion is the first sign that they’re taking over.