Balam Mexican Kitchen, Lynwood CA

I finally made it to Balam today, after being reminded about their existence by the LA Taco 2017 March Madness contest. I tried to go two months ago, but a rare case of 'bad taco luck' delivered me on a Monday, the one day they are currently closed.

I thought about taking a mini posse with me, but it was very spur of the moment, during a heat wave, and I was in the mood for a quiet, observant, taco experience. Lynwood is 25 miles from Pasadena. It's also 20 miles from the heart of Hollywood. If you're lucky enough to still live on the Westside, it's only 20 miles from Westwood. This place is definitely worth the drive. Make it an outing!

I recommend going for lunch, when traffic is lighter all around. Their hours are 10am - 8pm (6pm on Sunday.)

They just celebrated one year in May, which means they missed last year's competition. Always good for a newcomer to score well, and they did, making it all the way to the quarterfinals. The contest was eventually won by Sonoratown's perfect carne asada street taco.

So how is Balam? First of all, I love the name and the logo! Balam means Jaguar in Mayan. In Spanish, Jaguar is pronounced Ha-Guar. It's a very sexy word and so is Balam. It does sound slightly East Indian, but that's OK too as chef  Manuel BaƱuelos is definitely mixing his metaphors across a number of culinary ethnicities.

Okay, okay, the tacos! As I was alone, I could only pound down 3 on this first visit. But I believe I chose wisely Obewan. I was pretty much thinking about the coconut shrimp taco the whole way there. Why is that the greatest combo? Dunno, but it's a winner.

I have seen tacos served on a pliable, impossibly, thinly sliced, round of jicama for five years now. But alas, I can never find anyone doing it consistently.  I will go and they'll be out or it's seasonal or no one seems interested in it. I haven't tried it at home because where do I get a jumbo mutant jicama and how do I slice it without a meat slicer?

I love it because it's so darn light and refreshing that it allows you to eat more tacos, without getting filled up on corn. Speaking of corn, they make their own tortillas at Balam. I learned from a brief chat with the chef (more on that later) that the masa they use is organic for both the white corn and the blue corn. Now that's impressive and delicious.

The taco features a red slice of jicama 'tortilla', causing many to think it's served on a giant radish. It's red because it's soaked in jamaica water, (before the sugar is added to make the agua fresca) presumably. Jicama, jamaica. Jicama, jamaica. Say that 5 times fast before you have your 2nd beer. They have an excellent beer selection and I overheard el Jefe chefe telling an associate he would like to have draft beer and plans to soon.

Is this the most A.D.D review you've ever read? It must be the heat. I chose to sit inside, for the lighting. Most of the customers were outside and I was there early. I was lucky to catch the boss chilling in a booth. But not for long. Once it got crowded he was up and greeting regulars.

I did overhear him say he really wanted to try Sonoratown. (The Taco Snoop strikes again!) As I'd just reviewed them last month, I had to shout out across the cafe, 'You must! You must! It's awesome.' And then we got to chatting about tacos.

So that magnificent shrimp taco was battered in a tempura-like substance. I see from earlier photos on Yelp that sometimes it's the more traditional shredded coconut and bread crumbs. It had a wonderful, mild, mango salsa and that delicious 'tortilla.' They provide 3 different salsas to add on. I didn't use it, but I'm pretty sure I saw some habanero go by in a mini squeeze bottle. It is the perfect summer snack!

At LA's Tacolandia in June (curated by Bill Esparza) Balam won Best Taco Innovation for this fantastic shrimp taco. The trophy was proudly displayed on their counter, along with their LA Taco Madness medals.

I had to choose between the Chicken Tinga Masala taco and the Mole Almendrado. I went for the Mole. I really just wanted to say 'Almendrado' which rolled off the tongue in a way that made me hungry. It was delicious. The sauce was very thick and rich and it came with a scoop of yellow basmati rice on a blue corn tortilla, Full of flavor. I still got my East Indian on after all.

Between the beefs, it was choice of a Kogi Style taco or Barbacoa. I was getting pretty full by then. I went with the Barbacoa. It was flavorful and filling but I was wishing I had gone Kogi. I always fear the sauce will be too sweet on a Korean style taco, but I'll find out next time. The Barbacoa was a little chewy and a little heavy for such a hot day.

All in all, the selection was fabulous, service was efficient, the place is very clean. The chef appears to be very passionate about keeping this restaurant going strong into its Sophmore year. It's very hard work to keep a new place going, keep it creative, keep it consistent. It's exhausting work too. No one at Balam is complaining, but as someone who has done this at a professional level, I know how hard it is.

I applaud them for their skill and innovation and I can't think of one good reason why every Millennial 20 miles N. W. or S. of here shouldn't skedaddle their 30-year-old firm foodie arses down to this taco mecca. I'm serious. This place was delightful and I'll be back with a few hungry men in tow.

Balam Mexican Kitchen
11700 Long Beach Blvd., Lynwood
(424) 338-6762   @balamtaco


Sonoratown, Downtown Los Angeles

Proud winners of the LA Taco Contest for Best Taco in LA. Literally, the best single taco. Not the best taco restaurant, but the best actual taco.

Of course I was intrigued! Thank you LA Taco for continuing to highlight all the amazing taco places we have in Los Angeles!!!!

I have to say I fell in love with Sonoratown from the minute I walked into the teenie tiny box of a taco waiting room.

The adorable server was so friendly and delightful, completely unruffled by the line that formed behind me and out the door, like a magic trick.

She answered all my questions - even my disbelief that the best taco in LA was only $2!!!!! That's right, $2!!!!!!!! Wait, this little, simple, carne asada taco? This street taco? Really?

It was so good, I would eat it totally plain. Just meat and the fresh, soft and tasty homemade flour tortilla. The only corn tortillas they serve are fried (for the Tostada.) RIGHT ON!

I ordered several things. Everything was delicious. Fresh, flavorful, nice spice, simply, just, delicious.

It was a unanimous agreement in our group that the humble $2 taco was the best and most addictive thing on the menu. I'm thinking I can eat 6 next time, no problem. Not because they're small, just because they are so stimulating to the taste buds.

Similar to the style of Mexicali Taco, the grill magic hails from Sonora itself. Is it the spice? The wood? The smoke? The marinade? The cut of meat? All of that and it's all that, people.

Run, hop, skip, jump, fly to 208 E. 8th Street, between the hours of 11-4, 6 days a week. They are closed Sunday.

Order at least 5 of those tacos. Just because.


Taco Roundup #6 - California Central Coast Tacos SLO & Los Alamos 2017

Is it already the end of April? Ayiyiyi. Where does the Taco Time go? Rest assured friends, I have not stopped eating tacos. Nor have I stopped taking pictures of those tacos to the annoyance of all my friends and fellow customers. Does that count as an apology?

I spent a few months this winter up in San Luis Obispo. A lovely town. Very creative, very clean, a very well organized Tourist Board and a fair amount of mid-level Mexican food in every direction. I tried just about everything on Yelp and did not find any inspiring winners in the crispy taco category.

My favorite authentic street taco in the area was from Tacos de Mexico. They have two locations, but I preferred the location in nearby Morro Bay. Serious flavor and no nonsense service. They have a beautiful mural in the parking lot. The Chile Colorado taco was #($*(@)*#)@. Seriously.

A better than decent crispy taco required a drive South to Grover Beach. Technically in Oceano, Efren's Deli is a staple for those in the area and I enjoyed their tacos very much.

An honorary mention goes to Taqueria Santa Cruz. Fast, efficient, tasty, full of people, reliable, and popular in San Luis with the Cal-Poly crowd.

The most orgasmic food item I ate in SLO was ironcially a donut. The gluten-free donut at Bliss Cafe was a revelation. I tried multiple flavors (Hello Homer Simpson) and they were all so delicious, especially the Lavender. Their vegan food is great too. I didn't see any tacos on their menu but you never know. Hint, hint.

On the way back to LA, I stopped in Los Alamos. A mere 50 minutes S. of San Luis Obispo, Los Alamos has been growing for the last 3 years and is a delightful stop on any Central Coast foray.

Check out the list of the best local places at The Alamo Motel. Right down the street is Charlie's Restaurant. The tacos are not necessarily the thang as they boast great burgers, but dang people, those crispy beef tacos were a tasty treat. Grab two of those and then stop at Bob's Well Bread Bakery and you're good to go.

Fast becoming a weekend getaway for wine tasting from both SF and LA, I'm excited to see the Mexican food scene develop a little bit more in this scenic and relaxing part of California.

Taco Maven out.