LOS ANGELES — At Xoia Vietnamese Eats in the city’s hip Echo Park neighborhood, huge bowls of pho stream out of the kitchen alongside plates of tacos. The humble taco has already been integrated into the cuisines of other (mostly Asian) ethnicities in LA. Perhaps the most famous fusion is the Korean taco, perfected by the Kogi truck, which now has a small fleet and slings tacos at a brick-and-mortar spot called Alibi Room. There are also Thai tacos, Japanese tacos, and Native American fry-bread tacos. But back to Xoia, where you can feast on an order of pho beef tacos. Does it work? Friend or pho?
Friend. And it’s not pronounced like “foe” anyway, it’s “fuh.” In a city where it’s impossible for the hungry visitor to make even a dent in the impressive and multifaceted taco landscape, Xoia is as good as it gets for fusion, an essential taco sub-genre to experience alongside the underappreciated hard-shell and authentic Mexican truck versions. But before delving too deeply into the aromatic Southeast Asian broth in which the pho beef has been simmering for the past eight hours, it’s worth looking at the fusion in context.
Tito’s Tacos, opened in 1959, has made its mark on the LA taco scene. The Culver City landmark sells only one kind of taco: “Tito’s Taco.” It comes with or without cheese. Tito’s are hard shells containing shredded beef and iceberg lettuce (some with a pile of shredded cheese on top). The meat is juicy and supple, the perfect foil for a hard shell. Iceberg lettuce provides a secondary level of crunch as well as some appreciated greenery. A bright, bracingly cold fresh tomato salsa, served on the side, livens everything up, and the taco turns out to be not boring, but rather outstanding in its simplicity. It is the contrasting temperatures as well as textures that make this taco so special. Tacos are served with a handful of tortilla chips, which are unapologetically the same as the taco shell. There is something both charming and viscerally satisfying about this redundancy. Kind of like eating garlic bread with pizza.
Those looking for a more authentically Mexican soft-shell street taco face a plethora of options. One of the best is the El Flamin’ taco truck, which has two locations: one on the corner of Sunset and Alvorado in Echo Park and the other in Koreatown. To see the truck in full swing, head to the Echo Park outpost on a weekend, where hungry Angelenos of all stripes in various stages of sobriety munch on $1.35 tacos until 4 a.m. It’s impossible to miss the truck, with its orange and red fire motif painted on the sides and an LED screen flashing menu items such as “LENGUA” (beef tongue) and “CHORIZO.” These are two of the best options. The lengua is disarmingly tender; its deep, garlicky juice will run down your chin. The chorizo approaches the frontier of true spiciness without fully crossing it; it’s heady and flavorful in all the right ways. Both are so delicious that the gleaming condiment station, laden with salsas, radishes, pickled red onions, cilantro, chopped white onions, and lime slices, becomes irrelevant. The meat needs nothing beyond the pillowy tortillas made fresh on the truck.
But to find El Flamin’ Taco without trying the al pastor would be missing the point. After watering the infield with some of the other varieties, turn your attention to the al pastor rig (called a “trompo” in Spanish) off to the side of the truck — that’s right, a separate street-side al pastor carving station. When you order al pastor, the cashier gives you a slip of paper, which you take to the carver. He carves your meat and hands it to you, topping it with a thin slice of pineapple.
Jose Sarinana, the chef and owner of Xoia, knows and likes El Flamin’ Taco — it’s just down the street from his eatery. Sarinana, whose roots are in the northern Mexican state of Durango, grew up in LA enjoying Vietnamese food. And his wife is Vietnamese. Tacos at Xoia aren’t a gimmick; to him, they seemed like a natural pairing. The chef wasn’t planning on serving tacos at the restaurant, which opened about three years ago. After traveling through Vietnam and honing his pho recipe, it dawned on him that he could repurpose the excess beef used for making the pungent pho stock. And that’s exactly what he does. For pho, the beef simmers for about eight hours with aromatics like cinnamon and star anise. Then Sarinana removes it from the stock, shreds it, and finishes it on a flattop before plating it on soft tortillas and sprinkling it with cilantro and chopped red onion. He serves a traditional Mexican chile de arbol salsa on the side.
“The way I look at it,” the chef explains, “is I grab stuff that works together. There’s . . . a part of Vietnamese [food] that has limes, cilantro, chili, so [Vietnamese and Mexican] blend really well.” He doesn’t think he’s doing anything too offbeat. “It’s just interesting how people think it’s different,” he says, “and it’s just kind of normal.”
El Flamin’ Taco truck Sunset Boulevard and Alvorado Street, Echo Park; South 5th and Vermont Ave., Koreatown.
Tito’s Tacos 11222 Washington Place, Culver City, Calif., 310-391-5780.
Luke Pyenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.