Monday, November 13, 2006

Today’s subject: the potato taco
or, to be more specific, the wonderment of civilization that is the potato taco at El Atacor #11, a taquería chain’s grungy outpost on the fringes of Glassell Park. You have, no doubt, tasted a potato taco, perhaps the basic model of the starch bomb tricked out with chopped onion and a bit of salsa, or perhaps one of the fancy examples of the breed, cooked with the roasted-chile mixture called rajas or embellished with all manner of sautéed vegetables.

On most taquería menus, tacos de papas are what you eat when you happen to be a vegetarian yoked to a companion whose needs include drippy hunks of steamed cow’s intestine, or when the severity of your hangover precludes even a token three or four tacos made with turtle or spicy pork al pastor. As with the original po’ boy sandwich in New Orleans, which was stuffed with stale French fries and sold to striking newsboys whose poverty drove even the cheapest meat sandwich out of reach, the potato taco is inexpensive and filling, engineered to stave off hunger for just a while longer. Nobody has ever driven across town for a potato taco, no matter how artfully combined with sautéed zucchini or golden achiote.

I was tipped off to El Atacor #11 by an unsigned e-mail a couple of months ago, a message instructing me to Google the phrase “porno burrito.” I did. A healthy percentage of the results pointed toward the restaurant. The potato taco may be El Atacor’s enduring glory, but its fame in the online world comes mostly from its Super Burrito, a foil-wrapped construction the size and girth of your forearm, which drapes over a paper plate like a giant, oozing sea cucumber or, perhaps more to the point, like an appendage of John Holmes. It is impossible to look at a Super Burrito without marveling at the flaccid, masculine mass of the thing. It is probably even harder to bite into it without laughing. (There are mock-porn videos on YouTube of what I assume is the Super Burrito being sensuously consumed, tortillas stretched with firm, white teeth, the distended tube making its way down any number of eager throats.) The Super Burrito, a standard composition of beans, rice, sour cream, guacamole, meat, lettuce, etc., is a formidable item of food and a proper subject of veneration, but it may be more admirable as an object than as an actual burrito.

The chokingly fragrant menudo leaves no doubt as to the part of the animal from which the meat was excavated — menudo may be L.A.’s favorite hangover remedy, but it is hard to imagine confronting this menudo on a stomach trembly with drink. The tacos made with carne asada, beef tongue, carnitas, buche and such are perfectly fine, but lack the particular energy snap that marks the very best tacos. (They are cheap, though: Family packs include 25 tacos for about $20.)

The tacos de papas at El Atacor #11, however, are different beasts entirely: thin corn tortillas folded around bland spoonfuls of mashed spuds and fried to an indelicate, shattering crunch. The barely seasoned potatoes exist basically as a smooth, unctuous substance that oozes out of the tacos with the deliberate grace of molten lava. The glorious stink of hot grease and toasted corn subsumes any subtle, earthy hint of potato, and tacos de papas evaporate so quickly that you are thankful they come 10 to an order, slicked with cream and thin taquería guacamole, piled together in a foam takeout container like so many lunch-truck taquitos. Ten tacos de papas may seem like an excessive quantity, and you could probably share an order if you were in the mood, but I have seen families of five sit down to five separate orders, 50 tacos in all, and afterward there wasn’t a crumb or a spatter of sauce to be seen.

El Atacor #11, 2622 N. Figueroa Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 441-8477. Open 7 a.m. to 4 a.m., seven days. Beer 10 a.m.–10 p.m. only. Takeout. Street parking. Cash only. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $7-$8. Recommended dish: tacos de papas. Also at El Atacor #8, 6506 Whittier Blvd., East L.A., (323) 832-9263.

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