First Taste

CRUjiente Tacos Elevates Arcadia's Taco Game

When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out — and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).

Restaurant: CRUjiente Tacos
Location: 3961 East Camelback Road
Open: About a month
Eats: Gourmet tacos
Price: $15-$20/person

Are we at peak taco yet? Not even close. For some of us, though, the enduring ubiquity of tacos is no tragedy. Tacos are only boring if you happen to be eating the wrong ones.

If you too remain committed to the taco as a unit of sustenance, and if you don't bristle at the notion of chefs playing with the form, then you may find CRUjiente Tacos of special interest. CRUjiente Tacos is a new high-end taqueria from chef Richard Hinojosa that recently opened its doors in Arcadia, and I suspect it will stir up some controversy among the local taco cognoscenti.

There is the matter of price, a question that tends to crop up a lot when you talk about tacos. Many of the tacos on the menu hover around the neighborhood of $5 a piece, and are constructed in the "street" style vein, which has become restaurant-speak for very small tacos, about four inches in diameter, designed to be inhaled in a couple of bites.

If you are on a strict taco budget, be warned that the bill can quickly get bloated at a place like CRUjiente Tacos. One taco tends to lead to another, and before you know it, you have racked up $80 in taco-related expenses. It helps to budget for about three or four tacos per person, depending on your appetite.

There is also the matter of location. CRUjiente Tacos is situated in Arcadia, a neighborhood not normally associated with the kind of stationary food trucks you see on the avenues on the west side — trucks equipped with blisteringly hot flattop grills, which have a tendency to make everything, and tacos in particular, taste so very good.

But if you're amenable to the idea of eating "street" tacos in a tufted leather booth, rather than, say, on an actual street, there is much to enjoy at CRUjiente Tacos.

The smallish, shoe box-shaped restaurant and bar is friendly and comfortable, if a little loud. The word "hipsterish" is a useful descriptor to deploy here, because it communicates certain base features: there is a long, wooden communal table illuminated by modern pendant lights, vaguely retro-style tufted booths, a well-stocked bar accented with glass made from vintage bottles, and loud indie-rock blasting over the house speakers.

There is a small "antojitos" menu — the "little cravings" designed to be paired with your margarita, sipping glass of reposado, or craft beer. The house guacamole and chips are good, although most likely not the most memorable you've ever had. The guacamole, though, on a recent Saturday night, was served ultra-fresh, inflected with the assertive flavors of fresh lime, and faintly herb-scented.

Maybe you'll be tempted to skip ahead to the "street" taco menu, which is where you'll find many of the kitchen's most intriguing bites. Perhaps the most useful way to approach chef Hinojosa's taco menu is to think of it as a restaurant tasting menu — the courses just happen to be served atop warm corn tortillas.

There is a wonderful short-rib taco, which is purportedly cooked for 36 hours, a claim that seems entirely feasible when you notice how the soft, tender, lush meat seems to dissolve on your tongue. The delicious beefy muddle is wrapped in a heady hot sauce that flairs and lingers, in the best sense possible.
There is a very good lengua taco, too. The oft-rubbery meat is transformed into a soft, melting bundle of meat, tricked-out with the heat of guajillo, and brightened with a paper-thin slice of radish. The fragrance of cilantro, and the cooling touch of avocado, round out the well-balanced bite.

A duck taco is wonderful, the thin-sliced, pinkish rounds of well-cooked meat draped in a nice, bittersweet mole sauce, and paired with salsa verde and a few well-placed scatterings of sesame seeds.

A blue crab taco with avocado mousse? It works beautifully, as does a vegetarian taco that consists of tempura avocado. It offers a satisfying, rich crunch, and a sprinkling of salty cotija cheese melds into the cool, rich lumps of fleshy avocado and smear of black beans.

CRUjiente translates as "crunchy" in Spanish, and so there are three namesake "crunchy" tacos on the menu. These are larger and heartier than the street tacos, and at six bucks a piece, they are not exactly a steal. The beef crunchy taco, in particular, is very good, the bundles of smokey, well-seasoned shredded beef seems to erupt with juice, which soaks right into the craggy, delicious, deep-fried taco shell. On a recent visit, the juices overwhelmed its container, and the shell ultimately came apart in my hand. But it was a small complaint from a menu boasting some big, beautiful flavors.