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Munchies

These Falafel Tacos Let You Eat the Whole World at Once

For centuries, through conquest, colonization, and migration, North Africa, and Latin America has been engaged in an ongoing culinary exchange. Fast forward to 2015, and you have things like falafel and shakshouka-filled tacos in South LA.

by Tasbeeh Herwees
Aug 17 2015, 10:00pm

All photos taken by the author

On a sweltering summer day in South LA, Chef Farid Zadi stands over a barbecue pit outside his restaurant, Revolutionario Tacos. When he opens the top, smoke wafts out in billows, revealing a large, glistening piece of brisket inside.

For six hours, he will smoke this brisket, which has been brined and dotingly massaged with a special blend of North African spices that he will later tear apart and serve on a warm corn tortilla. This is what Zadi's North African taco looks like: Algerian flavors wrapped in the embrace of Mexico's national bread. This new breed of mixed race tacos are also becoming the new norm as taco culture grows nationwide, from kosher tacos in Texas to untradtional tacos in San Francisco.

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Farid Zadi

"The taco is a vehicle for whatever goes on it," says Zadi, the 48-year old French-Algerian chef who has become known in Los Angeles for his Berber cuisine, a genre of food indigenous to Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and other parts of North Africa. Zadi and his wife, Susan Park, have been in the food industry for almost three decades, but Revolutionario Tacos—a humble, barely furnished eatery—represents one of their proudest accomplishments.

"Our customers get the idea that it's not about the kinds of plates we serve the food on," says Park. "It's not about the ambience. It's a south LA kind of build-out. No frills. Everything is about the food that's on the plate."

In Los Angeles, the phrase "fusion food" is more commonly associated with the mash-ups of food truck fare and the Roy Choi school of combination cuisine. But the North African taco is not as unlikely a product as that of its other fusion cousins. In an alternate history of the world, the Spanish Moors could have produced the North African taco themselves, long before Zadi did. For centuries, through conquest, colonization, and migration, North Africa, and Latin America has been engaged in an ongoing culinary exchange. "There was this back-and-forth marriage of ingredients and the spices that influenced Latin American cuisine, which largely came from North Africa and the Moors," says Park.

Consider the tomato—indigenous to Mexico but now a central ingredient in much of North African cuisine. Tacos arabes and Yucatan kibbehs, too, are evidence of more recent South American-Middle Eastern encounters, brought to Mexico by the 19th and 20th century waves of Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian immigrants.

But if the North African taco was going to be born anywhere, it was going to be in LA—specifically, this neighborhood of LA, West Adams, populated heavily by taquerias and located only a few miles from Leimert Park, a historic home for LA's African diaspora community. The constant presence of immigrant communities has shaped this city's many cultural crevices and ethnic enclaves, but it always be home to a Mexican community that pushes back against an aggressive border. The taco is this city's first language, and its many permutations reflect LA's perpetually changing demographics. But the North African taco is as much a product of LA's brilliant multiculturalism as it is a product of Park and Zadi's marriage. She, a first generation Korean-American raised in LA, and he, a French-Algerian immigrant to the US.

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Tagine pots

So what you get on your paper plate at Revolutionario is not just a meal, but a cross-cultural, transnational collision of history: round disks Mexican masa tortillas meet the kiss of smoked lamb, fragrantly flavored with a spice blend called ras el hanout, which includes cumin, cinnamon, cardamom and turmeric, among other ingredients. On a blue corn tortilla, Zadi and Park puts the split halves of a fried black-eyed pea falafel, crisped brown on the outside but still soft on the inside. Still, you might order the shakshouka tacos, topped with the famous breakfast dish of eggs cooked in a mixture of tomatoes and sweet peppers. "I use a lot of ras el hanout, a lot of harissa. Those are some of the main spices and sauces from North Africa," says Zadi. "And there is a little bit of a Spanish, South American influences, knowing that, after the Inquisition, the Moors moved pretty much all around the world and there was some trace of them in Mexico, Chile."

The tortillas, too, are thoughtfully selected. "We want to honor Mexican and Latin American traditions," says Park. "If you consider the full cultural, political, social-economic meaning of a corn tortilla in Mexican culture, we don't want to just put out any tortilla." They source their tortillas from a local bakery, she says, that uses real nixtamal, fresh masa, and not dried maseca flour. These tortillas are a canvas for LA's highly syncretic cultural milieu. Topping his tortillas with chickpea tagine or cilantro yogurt chicken, Zadi is participating is a rich tradition of food appropriation, one that pays tribute to the multiple origin points.

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Nixtamal-based handmade blue corn tortillas

Zadi and Park plate the grilled meats and charred vegetables on a tortilla, but the rest of it depends on the creative designs of their customers, who add their own toppings. Their customers are able to choose between a variety of pickled vegetables like kimchi curtido, a shout-out to Park's Korean-American heritage, bright pink radishes and yellow onions, and sauces include, among others, a habanero harissa and an extra spicy chermoula.

Zadi and Park's insistence on keeping the menu simple, however, is not just a practical consideration, but a political one. Although word of their novelty tacos has lured in moneyed customers from as far as the west side of Los Angeles, they remain intensely devoted to keeping their food accessible to their working-class clientele from the immediate neighborhood. "We have an incredibly diverse customer base, not just in terms of cultural background but economic background," says Park, "because our minimum buy-in to eat here is $1.75 for a taco."

"People in Los Angeles, they get tired of the valet parking, the $100 six-course menu," says Zadi. "Here, it's like Algeria. There is no pretension. It's very very simple."