"Some people sit around and watch TV in their spare time. I prefer to perfect my tortillas."
As Daniel Snukal tells me this on the patio of his tiny restaurant, I am snacking on one of the handmade tortillas that form the foundation of everything on the four-item menu at Tacos Punta Cabras in Santa Monica.
Josh Gil, the other chef behind the establishment, chimes in. "You can't hide anything in a tortilla, and if you fuck it up, the whole taco will be fucked."
The handmade tortillas are buttery, chewy, crispy around the edges, and deeply redolent of toasted corn. They are not too thick and they are not too thin. Dare I say that they are even better than some I've had in the motherland, about three hours south of here. As I eat more of the tortilla and listen to Gil and Snukal's tortilla philosophies, the pristine, fried, flaky pieces of battered wild Pacific cod that the tortilla is supposed to contain somehow become superfluous in light of this impressive specimen of Mexico's staple food.
These two guys are perhaps the most underestimated team doing Mexican cooking in Los Angeles, pumping out some of the best tacos, tostadas, cocteles, and ceviches in the city at the moment. You can probably thank their respective fine dining backgrounds for this; Snukal worked under chef Ludo Lefebvre and at places like Urasawa, and Gil worked at iconic establishments like Joe's Restaurant in LA before busting his chops in Baja.
Do they care that they don't get taken as seriously as everyone else, just because they are based in West LA? Judging by their laidback, OG-Venice surfer bum vibes, and Sublime's 40 oz. to Freedom album playing loudly in the background, nope. They're over it.
Tacos Punta Cabras was born out of selfishness. Gil and Snukal caught themselves having to drive to East and South LA way too often in order to have Mexican food that was up to their standards. They finally realized, "Why not have legit Mexican food in Santa Monica?" For them, this meant applying their fine dining backgrounds to the humble taco. This was in 2013, by the way, when the options for fast-casual, refreshing Mexican food in this part of town were slim pickings. Being the stubborn westsiders that they are, they opened up Tacos Punta Cabras in the absolute worst area for parking, too.
They both noticed LA's dirty little dependence on mass-produced, packaged tortillas early on. "We tried a prepackaged tortilla to use on our first day open," Snukal tells me. "But when the day was over and we finally tried a taco, we were like, 'This sucks!'" His rant resonates deeply with any Mexican national who has recently arrived in LA. He continues, "I get tired of the whole double-tortilla theory to hold your taco together, because what does it matter if neither of them arem good tortillas to begin with?"
I take another huge bite of his freshly warmed tortilla and analyze the flavor a little more deeply. The tortilla is a little salty, and I get the sense that there might be just a little bit of fat added to the masa in order to crisp it up to pancake-level glory along the edges. I grill Snukal and find out that indeed there is some olive oil and seasonings in the masa, among another secret ingredient—beside some added lime juice—that Snukal will not disclose, no matter how hard I beg him.
As a result of their cavalier tortilla ways, they purposely tank the few points when it comes to that part of the health and safety report.
According to Snukal and Gil, adding a little olive oil to the tortilla before it is cooked mimics the insane level of deliciousness that a taquero achieves when they dip the tortilla in a little bit of the meat drippings right before toasting it for a taco. It does, and I find myself snacking on my third tortilla—which just came out of their miraculous gasless kitchen—by itself.
Snukal and Gil spent a couple of weeks developing the tortillas. "There were so many attempts within the attempts of perfecting this tortilla. In total, I would say it went over 25 different iterations before we arrived at its current version," Snukal proudly tells me.
Yet, there was one small problem with this perfect recipe: It required the masa to stay at room temperature—a rule that did not fly with the health and safety department.
Unsurprisingly, the two didn't really care that they were essentially going against health and safety laws by refusing to put the masa in the refrigerator. "Health and safety doesn't care about how good our tortillas taste, but we do," Snukal affirms to me. According to them, the masa dries out and the corn flavor starts to dissipate when it is chilled in the fridge.
I don't blame them, especially since they've also shared with me that they go out of their way to get their fresh white corn masa delivered to them from a tortilleria in Westchester every single morning. It arrives warm and wonderfully fluffy, since it is nixtamalized and ground especially for them.
As a result of their cavalier tortilla ways, they purposely tank the few points when it comes to that part of the health and safety report. Nonetheless, they still post a proud "A" in their restaurant window, since that that just means that they have to make sure that everything else is in tip-top shape. It is a risky, die-hard philosophy that has not gone unnoticed by their customers. They use more than 200 tortillas a day on tacos, and sell them cold by the half-dozen as well.
"Tortillas are our crack," Snukal admits.