With El Chato, the guessing games are over. I park, I walk up to the ordering window, and I know exactly what I’m going to get: the al pastor quesadilla, with griddled onions on the side. I’ve long ago traded the palm-sized $1 tacos for the $5 quesadilla, arguing with myself that I get more meat, more flavor — and more of that unstoppably smoky salsa — if I spring for the larger order. The thing is a beast to eat, and would by any reasonable health professional be deemed a threat to humanity’s arteries, but there is nothing so satisfying as those first few bites, shoulder-to-shoulder around the trunk of a car under the warm decadence of a flashy action franchise billboard.
That is El Chato. The hunkered-down eating over a trash can or a car hood, the messy parking lot, and the crowds that never seem to dip below 20 people anymore. To eat at El Chato is to experience a Los Angeles that isn’t trying to be anything else — more or less — than what it already is.
It’s always nice to find a solid “you buy, we fry” fish shop, even if they’re often tucked into the corners of one-off strip malls. That’s where you’ll find Penguin Fish & Chips, a soul food-leaning fish fry spot on Pico Boulevard. Moving west around the parking lot, you’ll find an odd Indian-NY pizza slice spot, a dry cleaning operation, the weirdest health food store (store?) you’ve ever seen, a coin-op laundry and the ubiquitous 7-11 that anchors any strip mall worth its pavement.
This is an peculiar stretch of Pico Blvd., with Little Ethiopia to the north, the Kosher corridor to the west and that odd L.A. Burger stand with the mislabeled banner proclaiming them champions of an invisible burger war. Still, strip malls have a way of surprising you, even when you think you’ve seen — and tasted — it all.