Taco Asylum's homemade hot sauces, made from the world's two hottest peppers: a bit sludgy, could use more flavor given the heat overwhelms any discernable notes...
Taco Asylum's homemade hot sauces, made from the world's two hottest peppers: a bit sludgy, could use more flavor given the heat overwhelms any discernable notes...

Taco Asylum Is Tasty--But Not the Taco Part

"Okay, we need to remember that we are here objectively," said one of the Zambrano brothers behind Soho Taco. It wasn't Gabriel. Was it Andrés? So many of those pinche wabs I can't keep track. "We can't let our conception of what a taco is skew what they're trying to do. We need to be fair. Just judge it on the food and nothing else."

We were at Taco Asylum in Costa Mesa, the much-buzzed-about, much-hyped, much-anticipated attempt at "non-traditional tacos" by the guys behind Haven Gastropub in Orange. The Zambrano hermanos invited me just for the hell of it, and though I usually leave the new restaurants to Edwin, I was more than happy to kick it with them. Fun guys!

The Zambrano admonition to play nice came just after a waiter told us about what they offered: "street tacos." At five bucks a pop. For something on a flour tortilla slightly bigger than a palm--and that was the "big" taco. The small tacos were made with 3-inch flour tortillas and came eight for $18.

We all looked at one another: Play nice. Play nice.

I thought taco trays became extinct in Southern California in the 1970s...
I thought taco trays became extinct in Southern California in the 1970s...

The Haven guys know how to cook. The beef heart--transformed into a confit, fatty and rich, and sluiced with a spicy, thick harissa--could shine at a French restaurant. The short ribs, multilayered and dense, would work great inside a sandwich. The grilled octopus, mixed with kalamata olives and feta, would work great as a salad.

Notice a theme here? All of Taco Asylum's stuffings that they put in their tacos work--just not as a taco.

See, the cooks committed a fundamental sin in creating these tacos: They got the tortillas all wrong. Terribly wrong. I'm not sure what possessed them to try and make the tacos with flour tortillas--only Texans have mastered that craft, and they only bother with them as breakfast tacos or stuffed with a guisado, heavy flavors that get completed by the light tang of flour tortillas and random char spots. But that's a Tex-Mex anomaly: nearly everywhere else in Mexico and its galaxy, what's known as a taco comes in some manifestation of a corn tortilla, whether puffy, acorazado, taquito, hard-shelled, or plain ol' taco.

What's so wonderful about eating a taco is the flavor that a great corn tortilla imparts, that earthy center from which the other flavors in the taco can ground themselves on and take your palate for a twirl. It's how Mexicans have been doing it for millennia, so we must know something about the craft. Flour tortillas--especially those outside Texas, Arizona and Northern Mexico--just don't have as illustrious a flavor as corn. This can be excused if you use the flour tortilla as a burrito, where you need a big vessel to contain the treasures inside and the burnt marks that characterize all great flour tortillas increase in numbers. Concentrated into the size of a taco tortilla, though, there is no match--corn over flour.

That's my personal taste, at least, and I might have excused Taco Asylum for using flour tortillas (made in-house) if they could at least execute a good flour tortilla. They couldn't. The tortillas weren't cooked properly. I'm not talking about them being cold--many a Mexican in Southern California has happily eaten cold burritos because the tortilla is soft, retains that bit of flavor flour tortillas possess after undergoing a couple of flips on the comal. But Taco Asylum didn't cook them long enough during their actual making; the result were limp, chalky tortillas that progressively got ickier as we moved down the taco line.

As it stands, the ingredients in the "tacos" Taco Asylum sell would work better as a sandwich, on a slice of bread, to add some crunch. These are not tacos--they're not even non-traditional tacos. It's just yummy stuffings inside wax paper. To call these "tacos" is a misnomer and, frankly, misleading. And before the trolls start babbling: I do believe gabachos can make great tacos--look at the vegans over at Avanti Cafe. I do believe you can make high-end tacos; the giant filet-mignon tacos at Taléo in Irvine--fat with beef, rich, on perfectly cooked flour tortillas--nearly justify the gasp-inducing $18 cost.

But taco-making isn't just about heating a tortilla and rolling it around something. It's a craft--the interplay of ingredients, the sprinkle of a salsa, the all-important attention to the tortilla. The Taco Asylum guys (who were nice and attentive, but maybe that's because I was outed by some Twitter gal while eating there) can cook--let me stress this. But if you celebrate the taco stuffing at the expense of the tortilla--if you think you can get any ol' tortilla--then you don't get tacos.

Oh, and having a flatscreen television hanging behind the bar tuned into Taco Asylum's Twitter feed so eaters know people are talking about you? WEAK SAUCE.


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