Eastbound and Down to Montclair's Tacos Palmitas

It's been a rough couple of weeks. Health insurance fiascos, rescinded job offers, car problems and an apartment that is crumbling before my eyes. Basically, if it was crappy, it happened to me. So instead of breaking down in tears (again) or wondering why the heck the world has decided to use me as its punching bag, I did something much more reasonable. I went out for Mexican food. In Montclair.

Taco Palmitas Asada & Carnitas Vampiros
Now if you live on the Westside of Los Angeles, as most of our friends do, you might ask yourself, "Where exactly IS Montclair?" Well, I'll tell you. It's about an hour east of Los Angeles on the 60 freeway. So when I offered to head east with my Mom to help her pick up some work orders, I had no idea that we were headed to one of the Meccas of Mexican food. I mean, Jonathan Gold could have probably told me that, but unfortunately I don't have a direct line to the ethnic food aficionado himself.

Instead I found it for myself in a tiny, strip mall restaurant called Tacos Palmitas. Walking in, it's a decorate-by-numbers kind of Mexican cafe. Tile floors, Southwestern-themed wooden tables and chairs, wagon wheels hung under the counter, a small yet thorough collection of Jesus and Mary photos lining the walls. But it was a warm welcome from Vianey behind the front counter and a quick glimpse at both the authentic, bottled Mexican beverages and homemade condiment counter that sold us. The menu is thorough, if not filled with traditional south-of-the-border cuisine like tacos, burritos, tortas, combo plates, vampiros (similar to tostadas) and an all-day desayunos (breakfast) menu.

Tacos Palmitas Interior

The Menu
I opted for a carnitas (pork) and an asada (beef) vampiro, which are essentially tiny tostadas layered with meat, diced white onion, cilantro, cabbage and salsa. My mom, nothing if not slightly unadventurous (love you, Mom!), went for a bean and cheese burrito. But just as I was about to encourage her to add Carne Asada (or just something else, for God's sake), I spotted them hiding in the open kitchen: homemade Chili Rellenos, possibly one of my mom's favorite Mexican food items ever. They weren't cooked, mind you, and they weren't on the menu either. They were a special of the day; 12 huge, freshly roasted poblano peppers sitting next to Juan, the one and only cook in the place. He had just filled them with chunks of cheese and cinched them closed with toothpicks. It was a no-brainer; I looked at my Mom, looked back at Vianey and simply asked, "How long until the Rellenos are ready?" "About 30 minutes," she replied. "We'll wait."

Carne Asada and Carnitas Vampiros
Mom's Bean & Cheese Burrito (I kid, but it was one of the best B+C's she's had)
Not being one to pass up an opportunity to document the making of 100% authentic Chile Rellenos, I asked Vianey if I could take a few photos of Juan as he worked. I stayed to the side, shooting a few photos of Juan working as he tried to hide his smile. First, he heated about an inch of vegetable in a well-seasoned cast iron skillet. While it warmed, he coated the poblanos with a light dusting of flour and set them aside. Then came the egg batter, made from scratch by whipping eggs whites into a serious frenzy and folding in their yolky counterparts. As he was about to dip the chiles into the batter he ushered me closer, wanting me to catch every step. He dipped the chiles into the almost pancake-like batter, and then gingerly laid them tip-first into the hot oil. The coating began to puff immediately, turning golden brown in a matter of moments. He added two more peppers, flipping them over to cook on both sides, and laid them on his industrial cooktop to rest.

Worth the Wait: Juan's Chile Rellenos

Juan working his Chile Relleno magic

Look at that batter puff up in the hot oil

Chile Rellenos, fresh out of the cast iron skillet
Admittedly, I'm a picky one when it comes to meat. Especially beef. I'm the girl who really detests hunks of fat or cartilage in her meal, whether it's in a taco, a burrito, a wrap or just protein on a plate. But these vampiros were excellent. The meat was moist, tender, chopped into bite-sized chunks and topped with a light and refreshing mix of raw white onions, cilantro, cabbage and salsa. And as much as I joke around, my Mom's burrito was actually great. The tortilla, if not homemade by Juan, was certainly made earlier that day by someone who knows their craft. The beans were light and the cheese was nowhere close to the American or Cheddar monstrosity you sometimes find in imitation Mexican restaurants. But the real winner was Relleno; we got it to go because we knew we'd be full from our other treats, but snuck a bite before heading out. Right away I noticed that it was not greasy, which can be a major Relleno faux pas. Instead, the batter was incredibly light and fluffy, the pepper still held its structural integrity, and the cheese was gooey, salty and incredible. The combination came with rice and beans, but we went straight for the good stuff.

The finished product, topped with Juan's homemade salsa
After all was said and done, we had happy, full tummies and a $17 bill. A win-win if there ever was one.

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