Cherokee Pastoral

Ian hastens to tasty Cherokee Street but can only waddle back home.

Jul 11, 2007 at 4:00 am
The pigeon waddling around the patio outside La Vallesana was the fattest one I'd ever seen. Marlon Brando at the end of his life fat. Homer Simpson when he learns that obesity qualifies him for disability pay and gets so big he has to wear a muumuu fat.


Now, the obvious joke here would be something like: You'd be that fat, too, if you spent all day hanging around La Vallesana's patio, pecking at a crumb of leftover taco here, a morsel of unfinished burrito there. But the tacos and burritos and everything else at La Vallesana are so awesome I can't imagine anyone leaving even a bite for the pigeons to scavenge. So I figure the pigeon must have plumped up at one of the other Cherokee Street taquerias and then wandered over to La Vallesana just to torture itself.

I don't keep a numbered list of my favorite restaurants. But if I did, modest La Vallesana — a tiny building (a hut, really) on the northwest corner where Cherokee meets California Avenue; if you can't sit on the patio, you have to squeeze yourself into a spot along the counter — would certainly crack the top ten. I suspect it would make the top five. Factor in a cost-benefit analysis and it just might be number one.

Consider: For less than $5 you can have three tacos al pastor: pork seasoned a dusky red, grilled pineapple, diced onion and fresh cilantro sitting atop corn tortillas; on the side, a wedge of lime. These aren't big tacos. Let's say three bites each. But those nine bites are a perfect meal, each individual bite so incredibly flavorful that it should come with a surgeon general's warning — or at least a few of those Listerine breath strips. (A Starlite Mint comes with your check. Better ask for a second.)

The pork has a wonderfully smoky flavor: not exactly like pork that has been smoked in a pit, it's more like meat from a pig that spent a long winter's night curled up next to the fire. And while there may be culinary sensations as exquisite as a hunk of hot, sweet pineapple bursting between your teeth and drowning the savory meat in sweetness, I can't think of any that are better.

You can top your taco with red or green salsa, or both. Your server brings you a bowl of each. The red salsa is like burning your hand on the stove: You get the heat first; the pain follows shortly and lingers. The green salsa is more like a smack: sharp, then tingling. A cold Mexican-style Coke or fruity Jarritos soda eases, if not eliminates, the discomfort.

I've also enjoyed tacos with meltingly tender barbacoa and earthy, funky tongue. Even a straightforward carne asada taco might strike you as a revelation after years of brittle Old El Paso tortilla shells filled with ground beef and shredded cheese.

If you rate burritos by size, La Vallesana's might disappoint. They're half as big as the monsters at Chipotle, Qdoba or any Americanized joint. They are much better, though, especially when drizzled with salsa. The lightly grilled flour tortilla has an appealing, blistered crispness; the bulk of the interior is not rice or beans but lettuce and your choice of meat. I like the chorizo, but even the simple chicken burrito is excellent.

If size does matter, try a torta, a sandwich served on a delicious, oversize roll. On my most recent visit I had the torta al milanesa: steak pounded thin and then breaded and fried, with mayo, jalapeño, onion and even a few slices of carrot. It didn't quite match the glories of the tacos al pastor or chorizo burrito, but it was very good.

La Vallesana is known for its homemade ice cream and other frozen desserts — so much so that it has opened a separate ice cream parlor across the street. Yet another reason to return to Cherokee.

Really, though, who needs a reason?

Taqueria el Bronco "I'm sorry," I told my buddy Chris as I started dissecting my taco al pastor with my fingers. "This is sort of gross, what I'm doing, isn't it?"

Chris said it was fine, but I think he was just being polite. He's nice that way.

Those who join me on these dining expeditions have it pretty good, in general. They eat for free, of course, and they don't have to write (or even think) about the meal afterward. In truth, aside from me swiping food off their plates and occasionally telling them that the food they're enjoying isn't as good as they think it is, it's not much different from a regular trip to a restaurant.

But every now and then, overcome by curiosity or confusion, I have to take apart what I'm eating while I'm eating it — to understand it from the ground up, as it were. And on this afternoon, I didn't have a fork.

The taco came from Taqueria el Bronco, a narrow space across the street and a few storefronts west of La Vallesana. It's a simple, unadorned restaurant: a few booths, bundles of chiles on the wall, Univision telenovelas on the two TVs.

You get chips and bowls of red and green salsa when you sit down. (Chunky guacamole isn't free, but it's worth the few dollars.) These salsas look identical to those at La Vallesana or any other Cherokee taqueria, but flavor and subtle differences reveal themselves, differences not only from taqueria to taqueria, but also from day to day. On my first two visits to Taqueria el Bronco, the smooth green salsa wasn't especially spicy, but its intriguing character reminded me a lot of Indian raita. On my third visit, it had a citric sharpness — and heat.

Burritos — meat, lettuce, sour cream and cheese — are on the plump side. I ordered mine with marinated pork, a touch sweet. On another visit I had a torta with chicken in "red sauce." This was roughly the same shade as the fiery red salsa, but the chicken — and, despite its jalapeños, the torta as a whole — had a muted flavor.

I saved tacos al pastor for my last visit. They didn't look different from the tacos al pastor at La Vallesana, except for a couple of thin slices of raw radish atop each. I squeezed lime and spooned red salsa over one, folded it in my palm and took a bite.



There was no explosion of pineapple. I could taste it, faintly, but it was an accent for the pork rather than a foil. And so I disassembled my taco to find that the pork was chopped into relatively small cubes, the pineapple diced. I put the taco back together and finished it in one tasty bite.

Honestly, I didn't care if Chris or anyone else who had witnessed this scene thought less of me. Give me a plate of tacos al pastor, and I'll happily paw through it for degrees of deliciousness, as fat and oblivious as a pigeon.