Pili's Tacos: Estados Unidos de México
Ben Calderwood the wall at Pili's Tacos
The Westside comida wars are fought along a patch of Santa Monica Boulevard where numerous Mexican and Central American micro-neighborhoods converge and fruit vans patrol long into the night. The nearly invisible Pili's Tacos seeks victory via a kitchen that outputs all of Mexico: Tiny street tacos, mole both rojo y negro, ceviche, barbacoa de chivo (goat in herbed broth), even albondigas. The menu is vast, but the competition is overwhelming. Oaxacan clayuda depot Monte Alban is directly across the street, Campos is always somewhere nearby and Juquila and Benito's, the notorious 24-hour alcohol sponge, lurk a few blocks away. Skip the obligatory combo platters and burritos--if only to avoid the 30-weight rice and beans--and try something from the multicolor pastiche of food photos on the wall. There is costilla de puerco, knobs of melting pork rib doused in a tangy verde sauce, or the breakfast enfrijoladas, scraps of pan fried corn tortilla tucked beneath of mass of black beans, egg and cheese.
Items come and go without warning on Pili's menu (chivo, I'm looking at you), but for every special that disappears, another regional delight materializes in its place. The pozole--Pili prepares it with pork rather than pollo--blooms with chili, dried oregano, aguacate (avocado) leaf and moist hominy, split white corn kernels pre-digested by a bath in lime, the alkaline rather than acid kind. And the seasonal empanada de flor de calabasa, an over-thick disc of masa encapsulating wads of fresh squash blossom and quesillo cheese, might be the best dish in the house, griddled until the interior is grassy and sweet and the flecks of char on the half-moon tortilla crack like spun sugar under the pressure of your knife. The house-made red salsa, ripe with chili and vinegar but revealing an attenuated, smoky heat, is worth drizzling over everything.
Ben Calderwood Amarillo chicken and squash blossom empanada
Pili and her husband are committed to defying the hole-in-the-wall moniker. The modest storefront hides gaily decorated tables and an immaculate open kitchen. There is a cooler stocked with everything from Jumex nectars to Red Bull, and little acrylic display cases packed with Mexican candy and snacks. The room is unexpectedly cheery--you may catch yourself lingering over atole de leche rather than slinking away with take-out. The wall between Pili's and the Latin sundries shop next door was recently knocked out--now there are even more ways to kill time waiting for your miniature tacos or molotes, heaped with aggressively seasoned chorizo and potatoes. After dark, a ring of incandescent bulbs caterpillars around the "Tacos Estilo Mexico" sign, in the manner Circus Circus might advertise a $4.99 T-bone. It's an inspired bit of marketing. After all, Pili's serves breakfast, and everything else, until 2 a.m.
Pili's Tacos: 11924 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles; (310) 820-3109.