Pearly plates 

Unique Mexican taquería brings a shine to 'street food'

Call it a "drowned sandwich" and I'm sold.

Just as it's fun to order drunken noodles at a Thai place, it's novel (once you understand the translation) to ask for a torta ahogada at the west side's newest gringo-pleaser, La Perla Tapatía.

Owner, 10-year Bon Appétit food service veteran and round-the-clock lone cook Sergio Lauriano says tortas ahogadas are the most popular street food in Guadalajara, the central-western Mexican metropolis from which he hails

Traditionally, the dish starts with a bolillo, a cousin to a crispy baguette loaf, stuffed with fried pork hunks and then topped generously with a spicy chili pepper and/or milder tomato sauce, onion slivers and citrus juice. Lauriano serves his largely true-to-form, substituting only a spongier American baguette and adding a small ladle of soft pinto beans to the mix. With American palates in mind, he also serves a thin hot sauce on the side.

Lauriano's torta ahogada ($7.50) is firstly enormous, and secondly surprising — it doesn't taste like anything you'd expect from a Mexican restaurant (or street), mainly because of the white bread and Italian-esque tomato sauce. For a soggy dish, the pork falls a little on the dry side, and only the hot sauce coaxes out a lot of character. I'd call it a should-try dish if you're a curious consumer and appreciate newness in — of all places — a Mexican eatery.

Also rare or nonexistent on other local menus: authentic tacos al pastor ($2.25 each), tacos dorados (three for $3.50) and flautas (three for $5.50).

I fell for tacos al pastor last year in Mexico, and Lauriano's rate high, especially considering that (for cost reasons) he's not shaving directly from a gyro-like meat log positioned under a sweating pineapple on a small rotisserie. Rather, he marinates his seasoned pork with onions in pineapple juice overnight, allowing the fruit's enzymes to tenderize the meat that way. He then serves the delicious strands in a double-wrap of soft corn tacos with onions, a few pintos and avocado slivers. This is the go-for plate; three (tacos) is the magic number.

The tacos dorados selection offers a choice between refried bean or potato stuffing, or a mix of the two, inside a deep-fried corn wrapping. A light tomato sauce and cabbage topping adds a fresh, crisp complement, and the dish makes for a lighter choice than the tasty chimichanga ($6.50), which, also fried, brings a load of ubiquitous yellow cheese and your choice of meat.

The flautas consist of long, fried corn tortilla flutes also stuffed with shredded chicken and topped in cotilla cheese (a mild white Mexican cheese), sour cream, tomatillo sauce and shaved lettuce. They're hard not to like. As are the great, ideally textured flan rendition and an interesting flan-like dessert called jericallas (both $3.25). The latter lacks only the caramel accompaniment and is baked individually inside glass ramekins submerged in water. Think something like a loose crème brulée, minus the caramelized top.

Also in the sweets department: a pleasant pineapple water and a lovely homemade horchata (each $2.50), the Mexican favorite comprised of blended rice, a touch of condensed milk, vanilla and cinnamon.

Aside from the food being spot-on, Lauriano's got everything you'd desire in largely non-Americanized Mexican dining: reverent soccer posters, a loud TV set to the Spanish channels, friendly service, clean tables and freshly fried complementary chips and warm salsa.


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