Easy as one, two, three
A trio of Puebla Tacos serves Greater Pasadena
By Erica Wayne 07/07/2011
Question: When does it pay to be No. 3?
Answer: When No. 1 is Puebla Tacos on North Lake Avenue, No. 2 is Puebla Tacos on East Villa Street and you have the same name, the same great food and the same relatively low prices. Puebla Tacos No. 3 on North Los Robles Avenue, is every bit as good as the original and its older sister.
The original Puebla’s been open for longer than I can remember. Like a couple of other locals (Rick’s Burritos on Walnut Street and Señor Fish in South Pasadena come to mind) it serves up wonderful Mexican food with absolutely no pretensions and lots and lots of flavor. (The ambiance, you might say, is in the cooking instead of the decor.) It’s also open later than almost any other food provider in town!
When Puebla No. 2 first opened, it seemed almost indistinguishable from the original: limited seating and customers lined up at the counter to order from the menu plastered on the wall. On-street parking is a bit easier, since Villa is mostly residential.
Nevertheless, around 11:30 a.m., the wait seemed interminable, with people milling about waiting for their lunches to be prepared. It was always worth it, though — Puebla’s shrimp burrito is, as far as I’m concerned, the best in town.
There were higher aspirations for the Villa Street location than to remain a storefront operation. The Puebla folks eventually acquired the adjacent space and created a rustic, cozy, booth-lined dining room with brick walls, mariachi murals and a trompe l’oeil sky. They have printed menus and table service, so you can chomp on chips and salsa instead of cooling your heels by the door as you await your order. And evening dining can be a leisurely affair, complete with “cerveza” (beer to us gringos) or a margarita.
Meanwhile, Puebla No. 3 opened in Hen’s Teeth Square, the cute little shopping center at the corner of Los Robles and Woodbury Road. This Puebla seems a cross between the other two: a bit more spacious than No.1 but not a “full-service” restaurant like No. 2. Most important (at least to my spouse), No. 2 is the only one of the three with a liquor license.
Come into any of the Pueblas at breakfast time and they’ll hand you a plump breakfast burrito, loaded with eggs, cheese, chorizo, etc., for a mere $5.95. I don’t know about you, but that deal sure beats an Egg McMuffin and maybe even a Grand Slam. And if Puebla doesn’t refill your coffee every two minutes like they do at Denny’s, the simple red, green and white interiors are a heck of a lot better than a drive-thru.
Better yet, skip the coffee altogether. All three Pueblas include “champurrado” on their beverage lists. This Mexican hot chocolate is thickened with masa (corn flour), spiced with cinnamon and darkened with cocoa powder ($2.25 for a medium, $5.25 for a large) and is traditionally drunk at breakfast. You’ve got to try it, and it may easily become addictive.
The best of Puebla Tacos, as far as I’m concerned, comes later in the day. I’ve spent several sublime lunchtimes sitting at one of their tables, happily dribbling searingly hot salsa out of the end of my gargantuan burrito de pastor (barbecued pork-$6.25) or burrito de camaron (shrimp-$8.25) onto my clothing. And frankly, if I’m going to go through a two-inch stack of paper napkins, forget those commercials; I’d sure rather do it at Puebla than at Carl’s Jr.
The burritos come in almost as many “flavors” as Baskin-Robbins ice cream: pastor, carnitas, lengua, asada, cabeza (head), buche (don’t ask!), pollo, birria, tripas for $6.75-$8.25. A bit less overwhelming are the soft tacos (with the same fillings) for $2 plus apiece. You’ll need at least three if you’re hungry. The advantage is, of course, that you can try a wider variety in a single meal.
The condiment bars at all locations are primo — providing onion, cilantro, peppers, pico de gallo and three homemade salsas, including an extremely smoky chipotle to spice things up. (But the food, as it comes from the kitchen, is plenty flavorful without any doctoring at all.)
If you want to get fancier, Puebla No. 2 offers seafood soups (three varieties) ranging in price from $8.50 to $12.75. The Pueblas’ menus include three shrimp entrees (garlic, diabla and Mexicana) for $11.75, including beans and rice. If you stick with the tacos and burritos (as I invariably do), one of the most satisfying meals in Pasadena can be had for under $10.