There are dozens of Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles like Spanish Harlem's El Aguila, with its white, yellow, and red color motif, neon menu, and it's assembly line of ingredients. It's the classic In N Out framework applied to the taqueria. Places like King Taco, Tito's Tacos, and Burrito King, may just be Mexican inspired fast food, but I've seen heated social scuffles take place over the superiority of a places' lengua burrito. But this is New York, and we are merely lucky to have El Aguila, a 24 hour stark white outpost on 116th Street, with another location thirteen blocks downtown, and another in New Jersey.
The menu is streamlined: tacos ($2.50), tortas ($5.99), burritos ($6.99), and tamales ($1.50). A corner of the restaurant is reserved for its panaderia, with speed-racks of conchas still warm from the oven and glazed pastries filled with strawberry jam and cream cheese. At the center of the room is an elevated box of a bakery station where you can watch a man fill rectangles of dough with bright yellow pineapple preserves as you wait for your tacos.
What El Aguila lacks in finesse it makes up for in speed. Meats for tacos are plunked onto the flat top, reheated and slid down the line for a quick adornment of cilantro and onions, or corn kernels, tomatoes, cheese, and scallions. Everything is infinitely customizable, here. The tacos are large, under-seasoned, and quite dry; the braised meats, barbacoa and carnitas trump the carne asada and grilled chicken. The burritos are large, and that's about it.
The tortas, made from fresh, house-made rolls, are split down the middle, spread with mayonnaise, and secured to the flat-top, which must be cranked to 11. In 30 seconds the bun has formed a golden crust, a toasted mantle to lay swatches of avocado, Oaxacan cheese, rings of sweet white onion, a shmear of pinto beans, pickled jalapenos, lettuce, and a thick cutlet of chicken, milanesa de pollo. The bread is soft and chewy on the outside, toasted at the middle, and the chicken, thicker than most, still juicy from the fryer. Any misdeeds are ameliorated by the condiment bar, which offers four Crayola-hued salsas to choose from.
About the author: Scarlett Lindeman wears many hats: a food-writer, recipe editor of Diner Journal, a food/arts quarterly, and a doctoral student of sociology. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.