I finally made it to Balam today, after being reminded about their existence by the LA Taco 2017 March Madness contest. I tried to go two months ago, but a rare case of 'bad taco luck' delivered me on a Monday, the one day they are currently closed.
I thought about taking a mini posse with me, but it was very spur of the moment, during a heat wave, and I was in the mood for a quiet, observant, taco experience. Lynwood is 25 miles from Pasadena. It's also 20 miles from the heart of Hollywood. If you're lucky enough to still live on the Westside, it's only 20 miles from Westwood. This place is definitely worth the drive. Make it an outing!
I recommend going for lunch, when traffic is lighter all around. Their hours are 10am - 8pm (6pm on Sunday.)
They just celebrated one year in May, which means they missed last year's competition. Always good for a newcomer to score well, and they did, making it all the way to the quarterfinals. The contest was eventually won by Sonoratown's perfect carne asada street taco.
So how is Balam? First of all, I love the name and the logo! Balam means Jaguar in Mayan. In Spanish, Jaguar is pronounced Ha-Guar. It's a very sexy word and so is Balam. It does sound slightly East Indian, but that's OK too as chef Manuel Bañuelos is definitely mixing his metaphors across a number of culinary ethnicities.
Okay, okay, the tacos! As I was alone, I could only pound down 3 on this first visit. But I believe I chose wisely Obewan. I was pretty much thinking about the coconut shrimp taco the whole way there. Why is that the greatest combo? Dunno, but it's a winner.
I have seen tacos served on a pliable, impossibly, thinly sliced, round of jicama for five years now. But alas, I can never find anyone doing it consistently. I will go and they'll be out or it's seasonal or no one seems interested in it. I haven't tried it at home because where do I get a jumbo mutant jicama and how do I slice it without a meat slicer?
I love it because it's so darn light and refreshing that it allows you to eat more tacos, without getting filled up on corn. Speaking of corn, they make their own tortillas at Balam. I learned from a brief chat with the chef (more on that later) that the masa they use is organic for both the white corn and the blue corn. Now that's impressive and delicious.
The taco features a red slice of jicama 'tortilla', causing many to think it's served on a giant radish. It's red because it's soaked in jamaica water, (before the sugar is added to make the agua fresca) presumably. Jicama, jamaica. Jicama, jamaica. Say that 5 times fast before you have your 2nd beer. They have an excellent beer selection and I overheard el Jefe chefe telling an associate he would like to have draft beer and plans to soon.
Is this the most A.D.D review you've ever read? It must be the heat. I chose to sit inside, for the lighting. Most of the customers were outside and I was there early. I was lucky to catch the boss chilling in a booth. But not for long. Once it got crowded he was up and greeting regulars.
I did overhear him say he really wanted to try Sonoratown. (The Taco Snoop strikes again!) As I'd just reviewed them last month, I had to shout out across the cafe, 'You must! You must! It's awesome.' And then we got to chatting about tacos.
So that magnificent shrimp taco was battered in a tempura-like substance. I see from earlier photos on Yelp that sometimes it's the more traditional shredded coconut and bread crumbs. It had a wonderful, mild, mango salsa and that delicious 'tortilla.' They provide 3 different salsas to add on. I didn't use it, but I'm pretty sure I saw some habanero go by in a mini squeeze bottle. It is the perfect summer snack!
At LA's Tacolandia in June (curated by Bill Esparza) Balam won Best Taco Innovation for this fantastic shrimp taco. The trophy was proudly displayed on their counter, along with their LA Taco Madness medals.
I had to choose between the Chicken Tinga Masala taco and the Mole Almendrado. I went for the Mole. I really just wanted to say 'Almendrado' which rolled off the tongue in a way that made me hungry. It was delicious. The sauce was very thick and rich and it came with a scoop of yellow basmati rice on a blue corn tortilla, Full of flavor. I still got my East Indian on after all.
Between the beefs, it was choice of a Kogi Style taco or Barbacoa. I was getting pretty full by then. I went with the Barbacoa. It was flavorful and filling but I was wishing I had gone Kogi. I always fear the sauce will be too sweet on a Korean style taco, but I'll find out next time. The Barbacoa was a little chewy and a little heavy for such a hot day.
All in all, the selection was fabulous, service was efficient, the place is very clean. The chef appears to be very passionate about keeping this restaurant going strong into its Sophmore year. It's very hard work to keep a new place going, keep it creative, keep it consistent. It's exhausting work too. No one at Balam is complaining, but as someone who has done this at a professional level, I know how hard it is.
I applaud them for their skill and innovation and I can't think of one good reason why every Millennial 20 miles N. W. or S. of here shouldn't skedaddle their 30-year-old firm foodie arses down to this taco mecca. I'm serious. This place was delightful and I'll be back with a few hungry men in tow.