Tacos are a perfect food. Two small tortillas piled with savory meat, some onions, cilantro and a little salsa to kick things up. Sustenance and pleasure in a neat little package requiring only one hand and a couple of bites to consume.
Tacos and where to find them incite passion and debate in some parts of Southern California the way pizza does in New York. When you walk into Tacos Poncitlan it doesn’t seem very promising, but then you take a bite.
The menu is written in black marker on a mirror behind the steam table. There are only a few tables and chairs and a refrigerated case built into the wall with sodas and beer. By the register, sometimes, there are iced barrels of horchata and jamaica. There is no air conditioning, just a couple of large fans circulating the air. Tacos Ponciltlan is not about the ambience, it is about the food.
Jesus Angel, affectionately known as “Pillo”, is the manager and main chef at Tacos Poncitlan. He emigrated to America from Poncitlan, a city in Jalisco, Mexico. The store was originally a meat market. Google Maps thinks it still is. One way or another, the family lost control of the store. Details of what happened and the story of the store are vague, but this last January Pillo’s family got the store back and now operate it as a taqueria. To quote my older daughter, my inability to get a complete interview doesn’t matter because,“The food speaks for itself.”
Pillo didn’t go to culinary school. He cooks with the skill perfected over generations of family recipe refinement, and with an obvious pride over the quality of the results. Every meat I’ve tried here is good. Remember the steam table from the second paragraph? It’s only a temporary stop, as Pillo constantly prepares fresh meat through the day to meet demand. The carnitas are both nicely moist and caramelized, giving that little crunch and sweetness. The carne asada is lean and nicely chopped. The al pastor is where the quality begins to really shine. It is lean, nicely spiced and, if you ask, served with a fresh-made pico de gallo.
The next step up is the chile verde. The chunks of pork almost melt in your mouth, but again, it is not fatty. The chicharron is crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle. The chorizo is among the best and leanest I’ve ever had. It has a marvelous kick. If you are used to the red oil that often runs off, it’s not here. I have no idea how he achieves it. I asked, but all they would tell me is it’s because of Pillo.
Everyone I talked to in the store has an obvious admiration for Pillo and the effort he puts into cooking quality meats. The best part: all these tacos are generously filled and cost all of $1.25 each.
Breakfast is served every morning, and breakfast burritos and a plate are available for $7.95. The only letdown is that the spice level of the chorizo drops when mixed with the eggs, tomatoes, bell pepper and onions. Saturday morning features fresh menudo, which I’ve been told by reliable sources is quite good.
Friday nights are special here. The cooking moves outside and the choices of meats change: buche, lengua, asada and adobada. Adobada is a marinated pork, and is cooked to order on Friday night. The line can get long, but the atmosphere is of a community get-together. Lots of adults talking around the outside communal tables while kids run around playing with big grins on their faces. For a moment, you’ve been transported to small town life.
There are lots of good tacos in SoCal. What sets Tacos Poncitlan apart is the quality of all their meats. In three months they intend to remodel and make the interior a nicer place. It doesn’t matter to me; the flavors provide all the atmosphere I want. Be kind to yourself, for $1.25 you can have some down-home Mexican cooking and a slice of community on the side.
Tacos Ponctlan is located at 2291 N Lincoln Ave, Altadena, CA 91001