Burritos at La Azteca (E. Los Angeles, CA)

Prompted by a list that appeared on fivethirtyeight.com, my daughter and her fiancé decided to go on a burrito quest (with me in tow). And why not, since Southern California has one of the highest concentrations of the best burritos in America. One of the restaurants that made the list was La Azteca, which technically is not a restaurant at all, but a tortilleria. It also happens to be in the same neighborhood as Molés La Tia (reviewed here), within a block of each other on Cesar E. Chavez Avenue in East Los Angeles.

Even at 1:30 in the afternoon, the place was packed with customers, some eating at the skimpy few tables and counter space inside. Above the order counter printed on a blackboard is the menu, which reveals that La Azteca also sells tacos, quesadillas, tamales. And there are the tortillas, both flour and corn. But people come here for the burritos.

Along the west wall is a huge mural of an Aztec with a background of a masonry wall and portal and blue sky that continues through to the entire ceiling. To the right of the order counter are copies of food reviews. One of them, written by Michael Krikorian, journalist, novelist and occasional food critic, who writes primarily about Los Angeles crime, provocatively mentions La Azteca in the same breath as French Laundry and Alinea. It also happens to be L.A.’s highest rated burrito place on Yelp.

la azteca

All the burritos are wrapped in Azteca’s glorious, freshly made flour tortillas. There are no excessive fillers, as in Mission-style, only a thinly applied spread of refried beans and pico de gallo, plus the main ingredient.

Our party ordered three kinds of burritos: chile verde, carne asada and chile relleno. It took a good half hour, maybe even longer, to get them in hand, which apparently is typical on a busy day.

The carne asada was the least appealing of the three (☆☆). Tasty enough, it had shortcomings. The beef was hardly tender, probably overcooked. Because of that and the fact that they were cut in large slices, they had the annoying tendency to pull out whole with almost every bite. Worse, many pieces were gristly. La Azteca’s fame can’t possibly rest on this burrito.

The chile relleno can be had with or without asada, which I would recommend against (read above). The vegetarian burrito (☆☆½) consisted of a roasted poblano chile stuffed with white cheese, battered and fried, then wrapped in a flour tortilla. It didn’t generate any excitement among those who ate it, including diners back at the house for whom we ordered takeout, a clear disconnect between our circle and those who generally gave it high marks.

Chile relleno burrito

Chile relleno burrito (image posted on Yelp by Roopa S.)

Except for the superior tortilla, the burritos failed to impress. Our own hunt for the best continues.

La Azteca Tortilleria
4538 E Cesar E Chavez Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90022

No ‘Garbage’ Here: Luigi’s Italian Sandwiches (Medford, OR)

I thought I was in the wrong area, looking for Luigi’s Italian Sandwiches, surrounded by Macy’s, J. C. Penney, The Gap, Sports Authority, and the like. A neighborhood joint was what I was expecting. Then, I saw it, a small building sitting on the corner of Ohio and N Riverside, across the street from the sprawling Rogue Valley Mall.

I’m guessing little has changed since 1969 when Luigi’s first opened. There are a paltry few places to sit down outside, still more room than the few stools lined up next to a small counter along the south side of the walk-in area, no more than eight-ft square. It’s best to order take-out or eat in your car, which you can park in an equally small, tight lot.

Luigi's Italian Sandwiches

Luigi’s Italian Sandwiches

A dozen people were crammed inside, most of them waiting for their orders to be filled. The menu is thankfully perched above everyone’s head, easy to read. For me, it would be an obvious choice, the Garbage Grinder (labeled ‘World Famous’), the sandwich that brought Luigi’s fame. My wife spotted on the menu Luigi’s meatball sandwich, conjuring up visions of Pizza Napoli’s near LAX (now closed). All sandwiches can be ordered in three sizes: small (6″), regular (8″) or large (12″). We each ordered the small.

There are nine kinds of grinders, each with different fillings (including a vegetarian). All of them are served open-faced, exactly as they come out of the small, flat, stainless steel oven, like a pizza. And there the similarity to the pie doesn’t end because the bread is more pizza-like than, say, French roll, having a denser chew and developing a crackly exterior as it bakes. It is also thin, which places the emphasis as it should on the toppings. The ‘Garbage’ (image above) has salami, ham and pepperoni, two kinds of melted cheese (one of which is mozzarella) and their ‘secret’ sauce. After baking, the sandwich is topped with fresh vegetables: mild sliced onions, half moons of Roma tomatoes, green bell peppers, pickles, olive oil and something called EZ salt. Every sandwich is made-to-order, which can end up in a long wait when there are lots of customers, but the result is piping hot. Fold the sandwich over in half and eat. The Garbage Grinder (☆☆☆☆) is my third excellent dish I’ve enjoyed on this road trip.

The meatball sandwich came on a French roll. It too is baked, with a smear of house-made spaghetti sauce and minced onion and bell peppers and sliced mushrooms. My wife liked the sandwich (☆☆☆), especially its savory meatballs, though she prefers the southern Italian version which has a zestier sauce (marinara) and more of it, and no visible aromatic vegetables.

Meatball sandwich

Meatball sandwich

On the wall is a map of the U.S. where customers can place a push pin where they’re from. Started in February of this year, there were at least three pins from all 50 states, a remarkable statistic. It would be interesting if there was also a map of the world. Luigi’s claims to make 150-200 sandwiches per day. Is Luigi’s an excuse to stop in Medford when passing through again? It would be a great temptation, I’ll say that.

Luigi’s Italian Sandwiches
1819 N Riverside Ave
Medford, OR

Better Than Your Average Brew Pub: Falling Sky Brewing (Eugene, OR)

Craft breweries are springing up almost everywhere. The Pacific Northwest has seen its mini-explosion start business only within the last decade. It’s fun when the beer is served in a pub setting, even more so when there are noshes, too. Most of these places are content to sell burgers, fries and pizza, maybe chicken wings. It’s the rare pub that aspires to something more and succeed at it. Better still that its ingredients are sourced locally and has vegetarian and gluten-free options. Enter Falling Sky Brewing and Gastropub in 2011, which has received numerous commendations and a loyal following. In 2013, Falling Sky Pour House & Delicatessen opened with even a larger food menu and questions began to be raised if this could be the best brewpub in all of Oregon, which could tweak Portlanders. Zounds, they even do their own baking, smoking, curing, brining and fermenting.

Copper brewing equipment

Copper brewing equipment

Order counter

Order counter

Finding the place can be a bit tricky, located as it is in an alleyway. The tavern is spacious with communal beer hall tables from which can be seen their huge copper brewing equipment through large glass windows. The current beer list is printed on a blackboard, as are the specials and wine list. Their standard menu is also handed out before you order.

Flight of four beers

Flight of four beers

The list of house beers is impressive, covering the gamut of styles, from lagers to IPAs. And, if you have specific preferences about your beer but know nothing about Falling Sky’s offerings, a convenient system of classifying their beers is provided: alcohol percentage (ABV) and bitterness (IBU), which can sort of tell you what to expect. (Falling Sky also supplies a beer’s original gravity, or OG, number.) I had a four-beer flight: Ready to Mingle Belgian Single (4.6% ABV, 19 IBU), Morning After Pils (5.0% ABV, 25 IBU), Dr. Optic Standard Bitter (3.6% ABV, 28 IBU) and Mash Transit Ale (5.8% ABV, 40 IBU), all of which were pretty nice.

As I mentioned, the food menu is taken very seriously. Going through it gives an indication of how serious. For example, appetizers include roasted brussels sprouts with hazelnuts and pretzel sticks. The chicken wings are thankfully not buffaloed but coated in za’atar and honey. One of their favorites is poutine, that Canadian snack of fries topped with gravy and cheese curds. Falling Sky’s gravy is made from mushrooms. Their sandwiches include two vegetarian ones (one of them a burger), a lamb burger and a burger made from grass-fed local beef and served (hallelujah!) medium-rare, which can only be possible when the quality, safety and provenance of the meat can be verified. It would normally be VERY tempting.

Moules frites

Moules frite

But, we weren’t particularly hungry, so we settled for a shared house salad and moules frites, one of tonight’s specials. The salad with lemon-tahini dressing and Belgian-style hand-cut fries were very fine, but the mussels were outstanding (☆☆☆☆). The mollusks were perfectly cooked, meaty and succulent, bathed in a cream sauce with leeks and star anise. No spoon was provided, so both my wife and I polished off the broth with empty mussel shells. It’s tragic that this is not on the regular menu.

Falling Sky’s motto is LET IT POUR, which (aside from being a clever phrase) has significant meaning in this Land of the Ducks. When it rains, a discount is applied to your beer, which happens often.

Count me in for return visits whenever I’m back in town.

Falling Sky Brewing and Gastropub
1334 Oak Alley
Eugene, OR 97401

Back to Taqueria Los Temos (Salem, OR)

The drive down through Oregon wasn’t the downpour that I had braced myself for. By the time we got to Salem though, it was drizzling and there was enough pall in the sky to call it gloomy. The atmosphere completely changed when we walked into Los Temos, a return visit to an outstanding taqueria after a hiatus of over a year. Unlike last time, the restaurant was packed with families out for Sunday lunch. The back room, dark back in 2013, was now jammed with customers being entertained by a mariachi band. We would’ve joined the festivities but for the fact that every table was taken.

Los Temos lacks in ‘atmosphere,’ by which I mean what Americans have come to expect as a large, modern restaurant with an equally large menu of Tex-Mex food and a bar. It is, after all, a taqueria, and one that seems to cater to the large Mexican population in and around Salem. It would scarcely attract passersby looking for a place to eat, even more so because it’s surrounded by agricultural fields. The building seems little more than a project of DYI amateurs. Different shades of brown paint hide imperfections in the interior wall plaster. The parking lot gets muddy during rains.

los temos

It’s all about the food, especially birria de chivo (goat stew). Great food is impossible to keep a secret. We don’t see birria tacos in the States much, but when you eat the stew with tortillas, it’s a no-brainer to offer them that way. Goat’s flavor profile is closer to lamb, which may explain why birria is made with mutton as well. My birria combination plate (with rice and beans) had enough filling for a half dozen soft tacos, which meant that my wife needn’t have gotten her two tacos of birria and adobada, even if the latter itself was very good. A generous stack of freshly made corn tortillas arrived with my order. And, like before, the consommé from the birria pot was divine, as good as the best jus that comes with French dip sandwiches. You could spoon the broth over the goat meat, but served in a styrofoam cup, I much prefer to drink it straight.

(Top to bottom) Condiment bowl of onion, cilantro and lime; chile sauce; birria de chico consommé

(Top to bottom) Condiment bowl of onion, cilantro and lime; chile sauce; birria de chivo consommé

Combination plate of birria de chivo

Combination plate of birria de chivo

Update (11-28-15): The drive down from Seattle today was sporadically foggy with temperatures in the frosty 30s. The sky was a brilliant blue in Salem. Naturally, I had to have the birria tacos, which did not disappoint.


What caught our attention this time around was a special that Los Temos was offering, possibly for the season but also just as likely a specialty that will be available from now on: a stew made with goat, called caldo de birria, that everyone else in the restaurant seemed to have ordered that would have been the perfect antidote to the cold weather. Next time.

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Los Temos Taqueria
7000 Portland Rd NE
Salem, OR 97305

Gingerbread Village at the Seattle Sheraton

Every holiday season, Seattleites can look forward to the Gingerbread Village, sponsored by the Seattle Sheraton Hotel (on 6th Avenue, between Union and Pike Streets). Architects and chefs combine their creative talents to design and construct large gingerbread creations. This is the 22nd consecutive year of the event. While all of them were worthy of admiration and joy, the one that struck me the most was 4D Architects and chef Jay Sardeson’s “I’ll be home for Christmas”/”Santa is coming to town”/”Christmas in the Northwest” that just happens to whimsically represent recognizable structures in the Seattle skyline, including the Sheraton itself (and, of course, the Space Needle). On the backside was a “subterranean” section that depicts the Seattle Underground. The event is free to the public.