Orange County has hard tacos and soft tacos, lonchera tacos and those bought at drive-thrus. Korean tacos and gourmet ones, varieties bought frozen and those prepared at home. The mighty taco acorazado at Alebrije's and even rarer ones such as beso de monja, a Cuernavacan speciality that's like a three-layered ham-and-bacon taco made with flour tortillas. Hell, we even have breakfast and puffy tacos—and the only other place you can find those in the United States is Texas.
But perhaps the rarest taco form in la naranja is al vapor, a curious subspecies in the taco galaxy. As the Spanish suggests, these are steamed tacos, with a tortilla cooked on the comal just enough to make it pliable, then stuffed with only those ingredients—usually potatoes, refried beans, cabeza, carne asada or chicken—that lend themselves well to the slow-and-low style of cooking. The contents turn almost gelatinous, while the tortilla plumps up and achieves an orange sheen from absorbing the salsa-spiked ingredients. They are a specialty of Mexico City, but none of the county's chilango restaurants serves them because they're exotic even to Mexicans: soft, wonderful, hearty heaps that don't make for easy eating (the steam bath usually makes the tortilla stick to the butcher paper, and the contents are piping-hot for a good hour) but are worth the trouble.
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In fact, the only true specialist of the genre is the Tito's chain. The two Tito's La Especials in Santa Ana have long fed the city's masses, but Tito's La Familia opened about a year ago to take advantage of the fact that Orange's Mexican dining scene is anemic. The setup is similar to that of the other Tito's joints—immaculate counters free of chopping blocks or lamps that keep meats hot, replaced instead by large steam trays that keep the tacos ready for an order. The owners prepare them fresh every morning; upon your request, they are placed in a Styrofoam tray alongside some pickled carrots, radishes and a bottle of hellish red salsa.
The tacos al vapor are perfect—the refried-beans one tastes like a Sunday morning before church, and the carne asada nearly turns into a pâté. It sells combo plates of other Mexican standards—gooey enchiladas, finely fried chile rellenos, weekend menudo—and even other tacos, but those entrées merely guarantee the rent. These al vapor tacos are rarities—seek them out lest they disappear as did Orange County's rarest taco, the taco árabe. What's that? We're going to have to wait until they return one glorious day.
Tito's La Familia, 1948 N. Tustin St., Orange, (714) 602-9831.
This column appeared in print as "Taco Steam Bath."