Cafe Review: The Taco King of El Mirage

Al pastor tacos provide a gateway to the deep charms of this gem in the far west Valley.EXPAND
Al pastor tacos provide a gateway to the deep charms of this gem in the far west Valley.
Charles Barth
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Let’s cut to the chase: The al pastor taco at La Bamba Mexican Restaurant Grill is the best al pastor I’ve had in the Valley. Outside, the El Mirage restaurant wedged between a laundromat and Discount Tire has no sign. Inside, the jovial chef of the pork-fragrant eatery, Edson Garcia, works quiet miracles.

Garcia started his restaurant career as a dishwasher. He worked his way up to line cook and then restaurant-opening roles in the far west Valley. Just four years ago, he says, he was homeless. His al pastor — and all his other tacos — are next-level because of his upbeat personality, self-taught recipes that bend convention, and pursuit of radical freshness.

Garcia and his one or two cooks cut vegetables every two hours. They slice limes every 30 minutes.

And Garcia has other tricks, too. His dining room is almost half cooking space, a truly open kitchen. In one corner stands the steel dish pit, where Garcia and his cooks wash pots and the like within full view of diners. On the kitchen’s other end, a set of glass-doored refrigerators hum. In them, you can see a chilled rainbow of produce — dimpled oranges and glossy purple cabbages, mounded limes and papery onion bulbs. Some pineapples for that magical al pastor await in the fridge, and some ferment above it.

On top of the fridge, pineapple rounds and sides fill a few lidded bins. The rotund bottoms and long yellow flanks suspend in sallow solution. This mixture of sugar, cinnamon, and pineapple will slowly, over four months, turn into pineapple vinegar.

Garcia marinates his al pastor pork in this house-fermented vinegar.

Below the yellowish bins, he and his cooks work much more quickly. They bustle, scrape, sauce, fold, fry, and serve. He greets many customers by name and will likely throw you an “Hola, amigo” as you enter, even if he’s buried in 17 tasks, which he always seems to be.

La Bamba's lush horchata comes in a super-sized glass stein.EXPAND
La Bamba's lush horchata comes in a super-sized glass stein.
Charles Barth

Though the ballet in the open kitchen is frenetic, it is a controlled frenzy, a calm chaos. A sizzling of meat erupts perpetually from the plancha, perfumes the small restaurant with taco-related ephemera on the walls and Mexican pop music playing on two TVs. Cooks ladle out giant steins of horchata and agua fresca, both, like the al pastor, among the best in town.

And man, is that al pastor great. Pork bits and pineapple lengths and wedges heap on flour tortillas, off-white rounds browned and blistered. Chopped raw onion and cilantro scatter through the pork. Beside the tacos, you get cucumber slices, petals of grilled onion, and lime. But what stands out most about these tacos are the three sauce lashings across each middle: mint-green, crimson, and mustard-yellow.

An avocado salsa. A red salsa. And a “special” yellow salsa that, because it’s Garcia’s signature, he won’t discuss.

And then, lifting a hot, pliant tortilla, what stands out most is flavor.

Simply put, the depths of pork and pineapple astound. The two harmonized flavors seem to be concentrated, distilled by some alchemy into an ultra-compact version of their mortal selves. The pork dissolves in gushes hot, baroque, and fatty. Regulars say that Garcia uses pork belly. (He does.) The pineapple comes in so richly but not sharply, the acidity low, the tropical fruit carrying the pork. Even the raw onion feels dim by comparison.

Garcia has been serving tacos to the families, 9-to-5 crowd, and construction workers of El Mirage and Surprise since July 2018. He cooks a few kinds of tacos, plus, according to his chalkboard menu, a pair of tortas, quesadillas, and a few other items. But the menu, in many ways, is about as informative as a wall tile. Most of Garcia’s menu is off the menu. He serves rotating daily specials plus further specials that run just from 5 to 8 p.m. On top of these specials, there is a deep secret menu.

Edson and his cooks fill glasses of agua fresca using soup ladles.EXPAND
Edson and his cooks fill glasses of agua fresca using soup ladles.
Charles Barth

The times I ate at La Bamba, the chalkboard menu listed al pastor, carne asada, and La Bamba (carne asada with griddled cheese), available as tacos and a few other items. But it didn’t list horchata, agua fresca, guacamole, chorizo, shrimp, chicken, fish, sopapillas, and cajeta-stuffed churros, all of which I saw ordered or ate myself. Additionally, the Facebook page lists huaraches and enchiladas. These, too, were absent from the written menu.

But the menu shouldn’t be seen as an obstacle. It should be seen as an adventure. Garcia will ask you what you want to eat, especially if you sit at the counter wrapping the open kitchen. Answer that you want at least one al pastor taco, and then just talk to him. He’ll guide you.

One visit, Garcia, who moved to Arizona from Veracruz, Mexico, 14 years ago, guided me to off-menu fish tacos. Loaded with a drippy slaw, they were superb. The flaky tilapia wasn’t outdone by the slivered slaw forest, which actually served to highlight the hot fish pockets within, gilding them with coolness and fat.

Another visit, I asked about elotes. They were off the menu that day, but Garcia said he could make them if I wanted; one ear would take him 20 minutes. It was a nice offer, but, out of respect for his lunch rush, I had to decline.

Luckily, too, Garcia guided me to a quesadilla with chorizo. The heavily toasted half-moons were so fragrant that I thought there were black truffles in my first bite. The ample queso Oaxaca has a slow, gluey ooze, the kind that sends hot ripples of comfort to your toes. His restrained use of chorizo imparts oil, heat, and beefy richness to the molten cheese, the ground meat functioning more on the measured level of a spice than as meat blaring huge flavor at center stage.

At the same time, the beef tacos are also really solid. Carne asada featuring darkly grilled steak is a strong version, especially when paired with the hot, tropical habanero hot sauce (which you have to ask for). Regulars tend to upgrade carne asada tacos to La Bamba tacos, meaning they contain lacy crisped cheese. They are very good, but I believe that the plancha-toasted mixture of three cheeses throws the salsa-tortilla-meat ratio out of balance. It isn’t on the level of the al pastor, which, like Einstein in an astrophysics class, ruins the curve for everyone else.

Sopapillas puff full like sails. Warm and honeyed, they make a nice end to a great meal.EXPAND
Sopapillas puff full like sails. Warm and honeyed, they make a nice end to a great meal.
Charles Barth

With any first-time meal at La Bamba, be sure to order horchata. Its lush flavor rolls and rolls and rolls, and just when you think it’s about to slow, it rolls some more. The sweetened rice fragrance seems to depart the realm of sweetened rice, instead entering deeply creamy, floral, coconut-rich zones of flavor. And the cinnamon on top! And the refills!

You can’t go wrong at La Bamba. Sure, the menu could be more helpful. Sure, the chicken tacos could be less dry. Sure, the watermelon agua fresca might take, one afternoon, a long time to arrive in your stein. But you have to account for how many people La Bamba’s few cooks are serving. And besides, that cool agua fresca is just sweet enough to embellish the fruit’s blush spirit, and how could that chicken taco possibly stand up, as a second bite, when your first bite is that glorious al pastor?

La Bamba Mexican Grill Restaurant
1202 West Thunderbird Road, El Mirage
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday

Al pastor taco $1.99
La Bamba taco $2.99
Fish taco (off menu) $3.85
Chorizo quesadilla (off menu) $8.50

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