A couple of weeks ago, Irene at TJ’s Tacos LA brought our attention to a taco pop-up event (2nd and 4th Tuesdays of the month) being held at a local bar. The name may not say much, but the headline, Vietnamese-style tacos, sure caught our attention. The word Vietnamese immediately piqued our interest, because of our shared love of Southeast Asian flavors. Viet tacos, say what?
So we headed out to K-Town after work, to check out the ongoing pop-up event at Lock & Key, a speakeasy off Vermont and 3rd. The streetside entrance led us into a dimly lit room, the walls lined with door knobs of all shapes and sizes. After some difficulty locating the actual door hinge that leads into the bar in a dimly lit room, Josie and I stumbled inside.
We headed out to the canopied patio behind the bar, where TJ and his small crew of friends and family, were setting up shop for the night. We were greeted by Irene, who’s actually TJ’s cousin and handles the marketing for these pop-up events.
TJ’s Taco Tuesdays showcase 3 radically different tacos, fusing Vietnamese influences with the Mexican tortilla, from a menu singularly devised by TJ himself . Beef and chicken tacos are $2 each, while shrimp tacos are $2.50 apiece. 3 taco samplers are $6.
Josie ordered a sampler plate containing the beef, shrimp and chicken, while I ordered a sampler with 2 chicken and 1 shrimp.
Josie – The beef tacos didn’t stray too far from the carne asada you’d get at any taco truck. However, the most notable thing about TJ’s beef taco was the spicy Sriracha salsa, made with Thai chili peppers. Normally most salsas aren’t spicy enough for me, but this salsa had a nice kick and a bite.
Justin – Fresh herbs are an essential part of Vietnamese cuisine, so much so that authentic Vietnamese meals are rarely complete without an assorted plate of fresh herbs, ranging from Vietnamese mint and basil to cilantro. Each chicken taco was topped with a perilla leaf (tử tô in Vietnamese), which definitely held its own, giving each bite of the lemongrass flavored chicken taco a subtle astringent kick that immediately really took me back to the bowls of bún thịt nướng we’ve had. It was the clear winner.
Josie & Justin – Typically shrimp tacos aren’t something we’d normally order. However, the shrimp taco was also interesting: butter-sauteed shrimp topped with fresh lettuce, raw bean sprouts and a anchovy-flavored pineapple chutney in lieu of salsa, definitely a combination we hadn’t had before. However our perception of salt was severely impaired from the sweetened signature cocktails we had ordered. After all, we had gotten drinks by the saccharine names of “strawberry mule” and “Oaxacan smore.” That said, the anchovy plus shrimp combo tasted quite salty to us. So, word to the wise: be careful what you drink as you eat the shrimp tacos.
We had heard so much about the man so we decided to meet TJ for ourselves. And chat we did. We learned a lot about the kind of vision TJ had in mind, both for his nascent menu, and for his culinary ambitions. He had recently relocated from Central Valley, leaving behind his 9-5 office job, and was working full time at a Japanese restaurant, while running these pop up events on the side, a testament to his passion for translating Vietnamese street food for the Angeleno palate. And what better way to do it than through tacos, itself an icon of Mexican street food?