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May 02, 2008

Eastern Avenue Taco Crawl

Las Palmas - Dominic Armato
Last week, I rather enjoyed putting off the Top Chef Power Rankings until Monday. It gave me a chance to dig a little deeper and to work on the podcast, which seems to have been received pretty well so far. So we'll stick with that schedule going forward -- new rankings on Monday. And in the meantime, much as I love reality TV analysis with an obsessive level of detail, it'll be nice to get back to Skillet Doux's regular restaurant and recipe analysis with an obsessive level of detail. This week, tacos, specifically those in my backyard. One of the things I love about Baltimore's Little Italy is that it's a classic, old ethnic enclave bordering on a new, vibrant ethnic enclave. Eastern and High street? Pasta. Three blocks east to Eastern and Broadway? Tacos. In preparation for a Chowhound outing, I've been scouting a lot of tacos lately. Not that I like to reduce Mexican cuisine down to its best known street food, but it's a big neighborhood with a lot of ground to cover, and a taco crawl seems a good way to benchmark some of the local eateries and identify the ones worth focusing on. I've already posted my thoughts on Tortilleria Sinaloa in extensive fashion, but I figured I'd run down some other recent explorations along Eastern Avenue in rapid fire fashion.

Las Palmas - Dominic Armato
Starting on the west end of the strip is Las Palmas. It's a cute little shop on the north side of the street with a fairly extensive menu of standards and it's the nicest room of this bunch. It's still very small and exceedingly downscale, but it's bright and well-maintained and generally pleasant to hang around. Unless you're doing battle with the chef's son over an appropriate volume level for Power Rangers (I felt 8 was reasonable, but he seemed to feel that 23 was necessary for the full effect). But the folks are friendly and it's easy to drop in and grab a bite. I'm pretty sure they're using Sinaloa's tortillas (most of the taquerias in the neighborhood do, and with good reason), but unfortunately Las Palmas' tacos are a little weak. They just seemed underseasoned all around, though the texture on the lengua I tried was a medium dice seared to a nice crisp, and I loved it. Frankly, what excited me most about Las Palmas was the salsas. They serve a red and green with the tacos, and both are very simple, clean and delicious. The red was smooth and a little oily with a nice smoky chile flavor. It clearly wasn't meant to stand on its own, but as a taco accent I thought it was particularly nice. The green, however, was awesome. It's very watery, which I mean as an expression of its consistency and not an indictment of its flavor, which is excellent. It's a tomatillo base with jalapeno, cilantro, very finely diced onion and bits of avocado (among other things, I'm sure). Nothing special or unusual in terms of ingredients, but it was exceptionally fresh, green, light and vibrant -- obviously made with great care. The bistec ended up being one of my favorite tacos in the area on the strength of that salsa, even if it wasn't particularly noteworthy otherwise.

Palomino - Dominic Armato
Moving further east and a couple of blocks up Broadway, there's a silver taco truck on the east side of the street that goes by Tacos Jalisco. I tried their chivo and some manner of beef (I've now forgotten which) and both were good, but speed and convenience aside I didn't see a compelling reason to pick them over some of the other options in the immediate area. They were significantly cheaper, but the size seemed proportional to the price. The next place down the line, however, is very compelling. Back on Eastern, just east of Broadway and directly across the street from Tortilleria Sinaloa, is a funky joint that goes by either Palomino Restaurant or the Starlight Bar & Lounge, depending on which sign you believe. I can't find evidence of either name anywhere on the internet, so it remains a mystery. Palomino is long on character, an impressive bar running one side, pool tables in the back and a tableful of guys playing cards that seems to be a permanent fixture. If you aren't deaf when you enter, you will be by the time you leave, since the stereo blares an odd mix of Mariachi music and Mexican hip hop at Friday night levels even on Tuesday afternoons. However loud you think it is, it's louder. The fact that I return probably says something.

Palomino - Dominic Armato
Palomino throws in a small bowl of soup with every meal, which is nice, but the fact that the soup is usually quite good is extra nice. I've never had anything subtle. They've all been potent, spicy, slightly oily broths with varying bases. The one you see here was a spicy chicken soup with a drumette thrown in. Once you get to the tacos, Palomino certainly has its style. Grilled and griddled options are completely absent, and the taco selections instead focus on braised and roasted meats. The carnitas, pictured here, were quite lovely if not as porktastic as you'd expect from the places that specialize in carnitas. They were also the driest of the tacos I tried (though only on a relative scale), as the rest of the list is rather saucy. The barbacoa, in particular, is bold and wet, almost more stewed than what I think of as barbacoa, but delicious nonetheless. The one complaint I could make is that Palomino is often very heavy on the grease. Given the nature of my old 3 AM haunt back in Chicago, the grease feels like home to me. But it might put you off and I wouldn't think less of you for it.

El Taquito - Dominic Armato
Though it's been inconsistent at times, El Taquito, another block east, is where I had the best plate of tacos I've yet tasted in Baltimore. I had the puerco, cecina and lamb barbacoa on that particular occasion. The puerco was moist and tender and had the fat that Sinaloa lacks and Palomino has in abundance. Simple but great flavor. I loved the cecina (salted beef), pleasantly chewy with a nice marinade, seared and crispy on the edges. The lamb barbacoa was probably my favorite on that day, tender but with substance, lightly seasoned, and chock full of meaty lamb intensity. I later sampled the pollo, not a typical choice for me, and loved it. I suspect it was roasted, then shredded and crisped on the griddle. But in any case it was crusted in places with a great seasoning mix, and even the tortillas had been skillfully griddled, taking on just a little crispy texture in places. And the price is right. Three great tacos, a Mexican coke, tax and tip for $10 says winner in my book.

Tijuana Tacos - Dominic Armato
All of these restaurants already mentioned have their merits, but one place for which I can universally recommend a pass on is Tijuana Tacos. I had a good feeling upon walking in the door, but it's possible that's because, based on the name, I was anticipating Tex-Mex and tequila. In actuality, it's a humble little taqueria/bodega with all of the usuals on the menu. The tacos section has seven or eight offerings, each for $2.50 apiece. In what may be the deal of the century, ordering three tacos will earn you the privilege of paying an extra 50 cents, since an order of three tacos is listed at $8.00. My first visit was mediocre, but my second put me over the edge. The carne asada was sautéed. Not a hint of fire or smoke to be found. Also, when you order carnitas and al pastor and can't determine which is supposed to be which, that's really not a good sign. Fortunately, other options abound. And I've still only gotten to about half of the taquerias on my hit list. More later.

Las PalmasPalomino
1622 Eastern Ave.1700 Block of Eastern Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21231Baltimore, MD 21231
410-537-5024
El TaquitoTijuana Tacos
1744 Eastern Ave.2224 Fleet St.
Baltimore, MD 21231Baltimore, MD 21231
410-563-7840410-522-0003

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