If You’re Going to Splurge on Mexican Lunch, Tinga on La Brea is the Place to Do It
I’m starting to think that tacos in Los Angeles are like pizza in New York. They’re cheap. They’re everywhere. They can be a meal, or a snack, a lunch, or a super late night stomach filler. Quality varies wildly, but it’s hard to find a truly horrendous version of either. You’ll see some people order one, most lunch specials include 2, but 3 is the number most pros go for. And nobody is ever going to agree on who makes the best version. You can get satisfying $1 versions of both, and seeing either cost more than $2.50 kind of makes my blood boil. And yet, occasionally, we find it in our hearts to accept a version of each that costs more than it should. Whether it’s because of expensive ingredients, or expert craftsmanship, the lowly taco or lowly slice can occasionally be elevated to a level that is worthy of spending $3+.
I don’t know enough about regional Mexican food to really pass judgment on most places (I leave that to this guy), but I do know this: the newly open Tinga (on La Brea just north of 3rd) is one of those “worth it” places. And I can say that because it isn’t trying to be an “authentic” (whatever that means) divey taqueria, or a hipster fast casual place trying to make Mexican food palatable to white people. They’re just making food that tastes awesome.
When Tinga opened at the beginning of the month (on La Brea just north of 3rd) the positive reviews started pouring in. Apparently modeled after Super Rica in Santa Barbara, Tinga’s menu is deceptively compact. There are only 6 kinds of tacos, two quesadillas, tinga tostadas, nachos, and a few side dishes, but each item is far from simple. Technically it’s fast food, and you order from a counter- but there’s no menu on the wall, presumably because they are still working things out (although take out menus did come in this week, so maybe they’ve finally settled on a basic menu.)
The tortillas are clearly made fresh, and every dish comes fully composed (in contrast to the taquerias that give you a salsa bar for dressing the food yourself.)
Pork lovers have two options, both $6.50 for two tacos. If you’re looking for spicy go with the cochinita pibil, a pulled pork slow cooked in achiote and bitter orange. It comes topped with a habanero salsa, and is by far the spiciest of all the dishes.
If you can’t live without the pork, but want something a bit healthier (not healthy, of course, just healthier!) go with the pork loin, rubbed with cumin and garlic. The meat is cubed, and is far less fatty (if that’s your thing) and the pasilla peppers add a great smokiness to the dish. (It also looks really similar to the Super Rica Especial.)
For a couple of extra bucks ($8.50), you can get their flat iron steak tacos- which were shockingly not chewy at all. The meat was real easy to bite through, and came topped with a guacamole-like salsa, pickled onions and queso fresco.
If you prefer your beef stewed, the 48 Short Rib tacos are the way to go (also $8.50). $4.25 is a lot to pay for a single taco- but the perfectly cooked, melt in your mouth, short ribs come served on top of papas bravas- so you’re essentially getting two tacos in one! (You can just papas bravas, 2 for $5.50) Meat and potatoes taco… I love you.
If you can’t bring yourself to order anything other than chicken (you know you’re out there) the namesake dish is for you. Two crispy tostadas, topped with stewed chicken (tinga), crema, shredded lettuce and pickled red onion. For me it was the least flavorful of all the dishes, but the tostadas were tasty and if you’re looking for something a bit less in your face, this is the dish for you. There’s also chicken tacos (pechuga, $6.50) if you prefer grilled white meat chicken to shredded chicken tinga.
Despite being listed under the “Bits and Bites” section (that doesn’t sound very large) and costing $9.50, I felt compelled to try the mushroom quesadilla (the chicken quesadilla was an out of the ML price range $10.95!!!) The mushroom “pate” (which is just a mixture of sauteed mushrooms and cream cheese) is way better than it sounds, especially if you like mushrooms and cheese. I don’t know if it’s worth $9.50, and I don’t think I’d order it as my lunch, but if I was there with a bunch of people and sharing a bunch of dishes, this would be one of them.
Chips and guacamole is standard order at places like this… and their version is pretty damn good. Super chunky, and really flavorful, it had a nice kick. And the chips (which also come with every order) are fresh, salty, and super addictive. The cheap bastard in me thinks $5 is waaaay too much for what you get… but by this point, it’s hard to still gripe about price. Everything tastes too good to complain.
Finally there’s the “elote especial”, a super creamy sweet grilled corn dish topped with a lime crema, poblano puree, and cheese (naturally). Once again… not entirely worth $5 (the constructed version can cost as little as $1 in some spots) but damn does it taste good. (You might say the secret ingredient is butter.)
Finally, Tinga rounds third and brings it home with the drinks. There’s an amazing watermelon lemonade ($3.75), and a very good horchata (also $3.75). But my favorite concoction was the “dirty horchata”, their house made horchata with two shots of fresh in-house roasted espresso poured in. You know, for fun. This could be by new favorite coffee drink.
So… will there be some who find fault with Tinga? Sure. Unless you’re careful it can get pretty expensive, pretty quick. There isn’t a ton of room in the tiny space, and as it gets popular it will be harder and harder to find a seat. And if you’re a picky eater or like your Mexican food on the tame side, the already assembled dishes at Tinga might not be for you. On the other hand, every dish is interesting and has clearly been crafted with care. And on rare occasions, that can trump price… even for this cheap fatso.
THE + (What somebody who likes this place will say)
- Screw “authenticity”. I just want expertly prepared food, and don’t mind paying a bit of extra money for it
- It’s great to finally have a taco place that makes great food- but picky co-workers won’t be afraid to go to with me
- The house made tortillas are really excellent.
- I love place that don’t hold back on the flavor…. and their salsas definitely don’t hold back.
- I will dream about those short ribs.
- Their drinks are amazing. Horachata + espresso? Genius.
- Pickled onions and tons of queso fresco on everything. I love it!
- The chips are fried fresh and totally addictive.
- It seems expensive… but it’s pretty much the same price as Loteria. And everything tastes waaaay better. (Yeah, I went there.)
THE – (What somebody who doesn’t like this place would say about it)
- Screw this hipster shit. I like my tacos cheap and my taquerias dirty.
- $8.5o for two tacos!? You’re joking. And everything is kind of small
- Short ribs are overrated. Give me lengua and cabeza for 1/4 the price and I’m a happy man.
- I don’t like that they put everything on for you. I like to put my own salsas on.
- Where are the burritos? The mole? The enchiladas? F this…
- When it gets crowded there’s no place to stand, and you have to fight for a seat.
- Did I mention it’s too expensive?
Tinga, 142 S. La Brea