Sometimes I think the sign out front ought to read: EL INDIO: PROUDLY HELPING DRUNKS SOAK UP THE ALCOHOL FOR OVER 30 YEARS!
24-hours a day, this Northridge taco stand buzzes with a steady stream of policemen, students, and blue collar joes. But El Indio really starts hopping after the bars close down. Everyone in the valley knows this is the hotspot for post-party tacos. I secretly enjoy eavesdropping on packs of club-hopping young men drunkenly nursing their bruised egos with a hefty side order of sour grapes, "That chick wasn't even that hot." Personally, I think they're far better off with the carne asada tacos anyways.
When I worked the late shift, I would wander up to the window early in the morning, somewhere between 3am and 6am. At this hour, when restaurants usually stick me with last night's leftovers, El Indio is still willing to freshly cook up anything on the menu. They also patiently put up with my mangled Spanish. (Please understand that all of the conversations I am about to recount here took place in broken Spanish).
The menu has the usual tacos and burritos, along with homemade sopes and gorditas. For fillings, there are the obligatory carnitas, machaca and carne asada, but nothing here is just run-of-the-mill. El Indio's carne asada never has a trace of fat or gristle. The carnitas manage to hit the perfect balance of crispy and moist, but sometimes they can be just a little dry depending on the hour. The machaca, or shredded beef, is served straight up for tacos, and scrambled with eggs for the breakfast selections. I have also found the machaca taco a tad dry at times, but it's nothing smothering them in frijoles wouldn't fix. The Milanesa is a pounded steak, breaded and deep-fried, kind of the chicken-fried steak of tacos. Again, El Indio excels in this department. Their Milanesa is peerless.
Another place where El Indio rises above the herd is with their refried beans. Frijoles are such a humble ingredient, yet such a critical element for building the perfect burrito. One night I was complimenting the cook on the creamy consistency of the frijoles. I mentioned that they must use a lot of manteca. He said, "Without manteca, they're not beans." They cook the frijoles up in the biggest pot in the world.
El Indio, like Michoacan, is a very common name for taquerias. I also frequent an unrelated place called El Indio on Artesia in Redondo Beach. It's almost like saying, "Mom's Place" or "Joe''s Diner". There are three restaurants in the Valley called El Indio. There is an El Indio Azteca on Roscoe off of Tampa and another on Devonshire near Haskell in Granada Hills. Do not be confused by look-alikes. I am specifically talking about the El Indio at 17019 Roscoe Blvd, just East of Balboa. One day I asked one of the workers, "There are three El Indios? With one jefe? One dueno?" He insisted, "There is only ONE El Indio." I asked about the ones on Roscoe and Devonshire. He repeated, a little pissed off, "There is only ONE." I asked, "Solamente?" And he proclaimed, "Solamente!".
El Indio's piece de resistance, the one thing that keeps me coming back 24 hours a day, is the chile relleno burrito (Imagine a choir of angels singing here). A perfectly cooked omelette wraps around the cheese-stuffed chile like a lover's embrace. The creamy fat in the beans makes them so much more than the perfect foil. If this were a Hollywood-style burrito love story, this is the part where the burrito would tell the frijoles, "You complete me." The chiles are not too hot, and there are never any seeds. Many a chile relleno has been ruined by the lazy shortcut of not scraping out the seeds.
On my recent photographic expedition, I asked the cook to cut the burrito in half so I could take a picture of the beautiful inside. I was surprised to find something orange. The chile was orange. I asked the cook about it and he said, "Yeah, it's usually (he tried to think of the color in English and then just pointed at his red shirt). I said, "But it's supposed to be (and pointed at my green sweater). Chiles change color as they ripen, so really, you never can tell. I asked "Pasilla?" and he nodded. I could tell he was just humoring me. He was clearly at the point of, "Look, lady, it's just a chile. Let it go."
Amongst taco connoisseurs, El Indio is known for their fantastic buche, which is something you can't find at just any old taco stand. Buche usually refers to a pig's throat. In spite of the fact that the flavor of organ meats is often too intense for me, I'm willing to try anything once. Buche kind of looks like pig's ears. The meat is neither soft like lengua and sesos, nor tough like cabeza. The taco tastes pretty average at first, like any old taco. As you continue chewing, the sinister gaminess of organ meat slowly rises up and carries you over to the culinary dark side. Compared to other foods I have eaten, I would say it reminded me the most of ox heart. A very pork-y ox heart.
As I was leaving, I stopped to say goodbye at the window. I asked the cook if I could see one of the chiles they use in the rellenos. When he brought out a bell pepper, I was floored. I couldn't believe that all this time it had been sweet bell pepper, not even the semi-wimpy Anaheim green chile. I'm not into sesos or buche, and now I discover that my favorite chile relleno is a stuffed sweet bell pepper?