This week we travel deep into the heart of Oak Cliff to the neighborhood of Elmwood. Nestled around Cedar Creek is a picturesque community full of tree-lined streets, busy pocket parks, and small shops. Oliver Stone liked it enough to use it as a shooting location for his film Born on the Fourth of July starring Tom Cruise. It even looks pretty from outer space.
But the real beauty of this neighborhood lies in my memory. It is the setting of my childhood. I rode my bike along those tree-lined streets, scraped my knees at the pocket parks, explored the pools and gullies created by Cedar Creek, and walked to get my hair buzzed once a month by Lonnie at his barber shop a few blocks down (more on him and his shop turned taqueria in a future post). I also had my first case of star-strucked-ness looking at pictures of my mother’s piano students alongside a costumed Tom Cruise.
I almost expected to see the dream car of my youth (a yellow or maybe white- funny how the mind forgets- 1970’s Corvette Stingray) still parked at the gas station turned auto shop just up Ferndale from La Fondita. The small restaurant is not something I remember from my past. But its 11 years of business have given the small taqueria deep roots in this area. The exterior is one of the most inviting we’ve seen with its bright yellow facade and landscaping of native flowers and shrubs. We’re hoping the weather will cooperate and let us take a meal or two on the patio in a few weeks. Instead we made our way inside, where the welcoming atmosphere continued.
While we probably did not endear ourselves to the people whose meal we disturbed by opening the front door a little too zealously (it is a small dining room of about 7 tables so be careful on your way in), the staff and patrons were a very friendly crowd. I’m not sure why, but I immediately assumed many of the families eating in the restaurant were regulars. There was just something about their body language that signaled they were at ease, as if sitting at their kitchen table at home.
The owners, Victor and Reyna (who took our order), could be seen in action both in and out of the kitchen. The impressive menu boasts classic taco stand dishes alongside more elegant plates. We brought along some friends who ordered some great stuff: Caldo de Pollo and an item that can best be described as chicken fried chicken. The soup came out steaming hot with a side of rice and tortillas. It was full of chunks of white meat and whole vegetables; a bright orange carrot, silky potato, and zucchini squash, all cooked just through so as to save the delicate ingredients from turning to mush. The other plate held a thinly pounded chicken breast fried in a golden batter. The lightly seasoned batter was not at all greasy, saving a potentially heavy and filling dish from becoming tomorrows lunch.
“A” and I ordered a plate of 6 tacos for us and a bean and cheese sope for little “L”. Turns out she wanted some of the tacos, so “A” polished off her untouched sope. It was plate size, much larger than most we have found. And it was piled high with lettuce and deliciously salty crumbles of queso fresco.
The tacos were impressive all lined up in a row on our plate. Moving from left to right, we tried the lengua first. Always a favorite to end up a taco lineup, these tacos were also great in the lead off spot. Mouthwatering and simple, these tacos had “A” raving that she was back on the lengua taco wagon.
Next was the barbacoa- a total taco opposite. This taco perfectly married tender shredded meat with succulent bits of silky, melted fat. More often than not our barbacoa tacos too closely resemble Yankee pot roast or are overwhelmed by gobs of fat. La Fondita’s barbacoa was full of richness without the icky mouthfeel that usually comes with overly fatty meat.
The next 3 tacos were a blur of grilled meaty chunks. We ordered the carne asada, another beef filling and a pork taco (update coming when I go back to look at the menu). The differences in the three were slight. The carne asada I believe had more charring on the meat while the other tacos had a piquant, spicy flavor. The pork taco and the non-asada beef taco came with grilled onions. Neither were visually, texturally, or flavorfuly distinguishable. Maybe I got two of the same taco, maybe not. I didn’t worry about it too much. Both were tasty, though too tough for “A’s” liking.
Our last taco was full of delicious pork al pastor. It was so good that we devoured it in a few bites, neglecting to take pictures. Our only complaint was that it could have been a little bit bigger…just because we liked it so much.
Complimenting our tacos was an incredible bright orange salsa. When the tacos came out, the salsa was not included. When I inquired if the kitchen had any more salsas besides the standard tomato based salsa that came with our chips the server was unsure of my ability to take the heat. Thankfully I convinced her I could handle it, but had my doubts when she reappeared with the glowing concoction in her hands. The spicy bite burned in the best way, slowly and in the back of the throat, sparing me from a scorched tongue. Make sure you ask for some.
By the end of our meal our wonderful work was done, proven by an empty plate. On our way out we chatted with the owners who were just sitting down to an after-the-lunch-rush-meal of bright red menudo. We talked a little about how much we enjoyed the food and they revealed a little bit about why it is so good. Victor told us they make the food “just like at home”, with nothing made to sit in a warming tray, no meats grilled up until we order it, no tortillas warmed until they are ready to hit the plate. It sure tasted that way. By the time we said our goodbyes, we realized what a shame it was to have to leave for home- we felt like we were already there.