Real carne asada, long the dominion of tíos armed with barbecue grills in their yards on Sunday after Mass, is finally starting to make its way into restaurants north of the border. San Diego has a branch of Tijuana's Tacos el Poblano; there's a taco stand at a llantera in South L.A. that even gets nervous Westsiders to venture south of MLK; even Vegas has TJ-style tacos at Tacos el Gordo. But Orange County has been slow to adopt; we love our lonchera flat-top carne asada too much.
But after we published the Only Taco Guide to Orange County You'll Ever Need last week, reader Jim Flores chimed in with Tío Flaco's, a brand-new taco shop in on Magnolia Avenue that grills their meat over wood fire.
Like a moth to flame, I was drawn inexorably to Fountain Valley (…Fountain Valley?!) to try these alleged wood-grilled meat tacos.
You can't miss it. It looks like every other standalone quick-service restaurant of a certain era, with a high roof and a patio out front, but you'll smell the wood fire from the intersection, and your stomach will give you the unmistakable order to stop and eat some tacos. It's got for a mascot a man wearing green pants, a green octopus suit, and a sombrero. I don't get it either, but at least it's not a paisa dozing up against a saguaro.
Walk in, and you'll see that spartan doesn't even begin to describe the place. There are bar stools up against the outer windows, the cooking area is fenced off with a sign warning people that the glass is hot, and there's a soda machine, a fridge, and a tub of ice with lime slices artistically arranged on top.
There's a tortillera cranking out tortillas hechas a mano, a flat-top comal bursting to life with puffing thick corn discs. They don't even have time to mellow in a basket before they're snatched up and stuffed: your choice of carne asada or carnitas, with onion, cilantro and salsa. The menu is simple: tacos, mulitas (cheese and meat between two tortillas, like a sandwich), or quesadillas.
The beef tacos take me right back to Tijuas, sitting at El Franc at stupid-o'clock in the morning, having stumbled into a cab after a marathon drinking session on Revolución, or at Los Primos on the main drag in Rosarito after doing whatever it is we did when we thought we were being cool in Rosarito. The mulita is even better, trying to decide whether it's a taco or a quesadilla, with cheese fused to the tortilla. I'd love to see them make a vampiro, where the tortilla is deliberately allowed to get hard and crispy on the comal. And while the carnitas are crisped on the flat-top and not grilled (because carnitas are never grilled), they're still worthy contenders.
Add some guac to cut the salt a bit, chile up the slightly bland salsa a bit so we can feel the pain–or give us bottles of Gringo Bandito to use– and you've got the best carne asada tacos in Orange County not from a place named Taco Maria. The smoky charred flavor will make you hate every single stewy drunk-food asada taco you've ever thrown down your throat.
Now the next logical step is a carne asada specialist who will grill various cuts and sell them: arrachera, palomilla, suadero, New York, etc., the way carnitas specialists will sell you the parts of the pig. Get on it, will you?