Dining with the Don
Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Taco Tuesdays
By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
I blame my bad attitude about Taco Tuesdays on the bar located a few blocks from my second apartment. It was my natural hangout when I wanted to drink something more complex than I could make, so I spent a lot of time there. The drinks were cheap and strong, the food adequate, so I might be found there from Wednesday to the following Monday.
You’ll note that I excluded one day.
On Tuesday the bar sold tacos for a quarter and beer for 50 cents, and the place was slammed. The tacos were smaller and saltier than usual, which didn’t seem to bother the boisterous crowd at all. I stopped visiting on Tuesdays, and thereafter gave a wide berth to anyplace else that offered a similar deal.
This continued until the day that I visited Don Chuy’s, a Mexican restaurant in a little plaza on Jefferson Boulevard just west of the 405. I had stopped in for lunch a few days before and had a very decent carnitas tostada, and coaxed my wife out of the house to try the place. I told her about the good service and peaceful atmosphere — and then we arrived at the loud, packed restaurant and I heard the dreaded words, “Taco Tuesday.”
I considered turning away, but she was really in the mood for Mexican food, so we decided to ask for a table on the quieter outdoor patio. One became available after a few minutes, so we settled in.
Don Chuy’s boasts serving the cuisine of Guanajuato, but you’ll see plenty of things you know — the difference between this and other regions in central Mexico are mostly subtleties of spicing. Carnitas, carne asada and the usual items are there, but so are less common items like goat stew, calves’ liver and dishes simmered in fiery molcajete sauce.
We ordered birria (goat stew) and pork ribs simmered in guajillo chile sauce, and
considered what to have for starters. After a moment of dithering over ceviche tostadas and cactus salad I went with the obvious — it was taco Tuesday, after all, so why not order some tacos?
The good thing about a plate of Mexican street tacos is that they give you a chance to sample a variety of meats accented only with a bit of onion and cilantro and a drizzle of sauce. Oh, and the tortilla — the kitchen makes them fresh here, and the corn flavor makes them more than just a wrapper. The carnitas had a concentrated porky flavor and a bit of crispness; Mexican cuisine is often considered to be centered on sauces, but this is an example of subtly accented natural flavors. The shredded beef was also well-balanced, but I found the al pastor to be a bit too mild — on that dish I expect a bit of zippiness in the seasoning.
There was no shortage of pep in the molcajete sauce, which we hadn’t actually ordered — our server, Andres, brought some because I was so curious about it. This mix of many kinds of chilies with sesame, tomatillos, lime and mint had several layers of heat: the immediate tang of fresh green chilies followed by smokiness of roasted red chilies and a long, lingering burn. It wasn’t just hot, because the citrus, onion and mint added other elements. If you’re a spice fan, this is a must-try — but have a cooling drink at hand.
The sensible choice for that beverage would be a fruit juice or licuado, but we had wine. The vintage list here is not impressive but the house pours weren’t bad. Beer drinkers will find a greater selection.
After we had ordered, Andres apologetically told us that they were out of birria, so we picked a zucchini quesadilla. He also apologized for the fact that service was slow that evening because of the Taco Tuesday crush, but he was so gracious and the patio so pleasant that we were in no hurry.
It wasn’t actually that long until the plates came out, and, as is typical of Mexican meals, the portions were huge. The pork ribs were a bit less tender than expected, but the flavor of the roasted guajillo chili sauce made them worthwhile; there was an interesting blend of fruitiness and heat from the toasted and dried chilies. The ribs were offered with either the volcanic molcajete sauce or the guajillo, and guajillo is the right choice if you want to actually enjoy the flavor of the meat.
The zucchini quesadilla was an unusually good vegetarian choice, with bright Serrano chili flavors alongside zucchini, onion and tomato. I rarely see serranos in quesadillas, but this convinced me to start adding them, as a moderate amount makes a fine foil to the rich cheese. The zucchini came with some very good guacamole, and I’m going to remember to order that on my next visit.
Our dinner for two with three glasses of wine ran just under $50, and the experience made us want to return. I won’t deliberately schedule that visit for a Taco Tuesday, but I won’t avoid it either, and for me that’s a major change in attitude.
Don Chuy’s Mexican Restaurant 11800 Jefferson Blvd., Culver City (310) 398-9606 donchuysmexican.com