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May 27, 2008

LEO Eats: That’s not a gordita. This is a gordita

Las Gorditas: Las Gorditas’ fresh fare includes two tacos, carnitas and lengua, and a gordita. Photo by Robin GarrIn
Mexico City, a sprawling metropolis of 20 million souls, you’ll
find a taco stand on just about every corner.
In
Louisville, not so much.
But
the good news, as Louisville’s small but thriving Latino community
grows, is that it’s now possible to enjoy a Mexico City-style
experience at a taco wagon or two around town.

One
of the best, a relatively recent arrival, rolls into the parking lot
at Eastland Shopping Center (where Buechel meets Fern Creek on
Bardstown Road) just about every weekend evening.

A
sparkling white trailer with a big service window on the side and,
weather permitting, a blue tent to provide diners protection from the
elements, it’s dubbed “Las Gorditas” after one of its most
popular menu items, a thick, crispy stuffed taco that bears little
resemblance to the Taco Bell offering of the same name. Don’t look
for a sign, though, as you’ll find none. Just look for the trailer
and tent out in front of the La Preferida Mexican grocery.
Line
up at the window, pick your choice of Mexican street-food fare, and
make yourself at home on a stool at the single table if there’s
room; or take it back to your car and dine tailgate-style. There’s
no formality here. But there’s almost always a crowd, and it’s
usually a happy mix of Latino and Anglo diners, united in shared
enjoyment of really good food.
If
you’re wary about a language-barrier problem, put your fears to
rest: The hospitable proprietor, Pat Costas, is a native of Los
Angeles, and his wife, Esperanza, and sister-in-law, Ofelia Ortiz,
who do the cooking, hail from Big D. They’re equally fluent in
Spanish and English, so monophones will have absolutely no problem
placing an order or getting a clear explanation of the items on the
brief menu.
The
family moved to the Louisville area five years ago, and for some time
operated a hot dog cart outside the La Favorita Mexican grocery in
Clarksville.

Under
Indiana’s relatively flexible licensing laws, the definition of
“hot dogs” was loose enough to permit them to sell elotes, a
hearty Mexican snack made with corn, mayonnaise, parmesan cheese and
a squirt of hot red-chile sauce heated in a Styrofoam cup. Delighted
customers scarfed them up, and begged for tacos, too.

Costas
said he was reluctant to expand the menu, which would have placed him
in competition with a taqueria nearby. But he kept his eyes open,
and, eventually, in a remarkable combination of old Mexican tradition
and modern technology, he found a food-service trailer on sale for a
good price ... on eBay.

“I
decided this could be our ticket right here,” he said. Kentucky
food-service law, more stringent than Indiana’s, won’t license a
hot-dog vendor to sell other foods. But with a properly equipped,
self-contained food trailer, he was in business. Starting last
August, they began driving the trailer and tent over to Eastland on
weekend evenings from their home in Shepherdsville, Ky., and a hungry
crowd soon followed.
Business
was so good that they continued right through the winter, missing
only a few weekends when ice and snow would have kept even the most
loyal clientele snug at home. On cold days, they drop walls around
the tent and set up heaters inside; in more pleasant weather, it’s
open to the breeze. And after losing a couple of tents in gale-force
winds (“once it flew right up over the top of the trailer and went
away”), he keeps the tent packed away on windy days, although on
one recent blustery evening friends had pulled a squadron of SUVs
around the trailer to build a wall of sorts.
Las Gorditas Kitchen: Step inside the Las Gorditas trailer and suddenly you’re in a small, bright, clean restaurant kitchen. Pictured here: Ofelia Ortiz (right) makes the gorditas; Esperanza Costas (left) stuffs them; and Pat Costas (back) takes an order at the window.By
the time spring came around, business was so good that Esperanza gave
up her job of 10 years as a manager at McDonald’s to devote full
time to Las Gorditas. Her fast-food experience shows, though, in
crisp, quick efficiency and a spotless operation.

The
trailer receives the same Jefferson County Health Department
inspections as other mobile food operations, and it boasts an
excellent record. “We are required to be fully self-contained. In
other words, we need to be able to cook, clean and sanitize
everything in the trailer itself,” Costas said. “We have all the
equipment to do so. The last thing in the world we want is for
someone to become sick because of our food. We do everything we can
to ensure that will not happen.”

We’ve
sampled quite a few items from the menu in repeated visits, and I’m
prepared to declare the food right up there with the best of the
region’s bricks-and-mortar taquerias. Costas attributes all this to
Esperanza, who, he said, “is a real good cook, so good that she can
take an empty refrigerator and make a good meal out of it. Myself, I
stay out of the kitchen and take the orders.”
We’ve
sampled tacos ($1.50), the traditional Mexican soft style made from a
pair of corn tortillas topped generously with fillings and a garnish
of chopped fresh cilantro and grilled onions. (You may also order
tacos on wheat-flour tortillas for an extra 50 cents.) Carnitas,
fried pork, consisted of juicy chunks of pigmeat, sizzling and deeply
flavored. Lengua, beef tongue, was tender and subtle, although the
flavors didn’t pop like the pork. Desebrada, thin-sliced beef with
a tomato and poblano chile marinade, might have been the best of all.
I would have liked a dozen.
A
small quesadilla offered a good blend of melted white cheese and taco
beef folded into a toasted flour tortilla. A friend’s torta ($5), a
Mexican sandwich, looked like a meal in itself, on a fat,
golden-brown sandwich loaf.
The
aforementioned elotes ($3, known as esquites in some Mexican
regions), is corn served in a cup. Costas provided a recipe: “At
the bottom, we put a little mayonnaise, butter, sour cream and
parmesan cheese, then the corn, and top it off again with more mayo,
butter, sour cream, and if so desired, chile with lemon juice. It’s
very popular among the Hispanic community.” I was a little wary
when I saw parmesan being dispensed from the familiar green can, but
the rich flavor and texture mix made me a believer.
You
really shouldn’t visit Las Gorditas without trying the eatery’s
namesake. Gorditas ($2.50), made to order, start out looking like
extra-thick corn tortillas, cooked on a griddle, then finished by
pressing a hot, heavy weight on top, a procedure that makes them pop
like miniature pitas. Slit one side, stuff with beans and your choice
of taco filling (I chose pastor, thin-sliced marinated pork with a
tangy-piquant seasoning and addictive flavor).

Unless
the weather is so icy or windy as to make towing the trailer
hazardous, Las Gorditas opens year-round, starting Fridays at 6 p.m.,
Saturdays at 4 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 6 p.m. It’s
open until 11 p.m. or as long as people keep coming: They’ve been
known to keep on serving into the wee hours. They also take phone
orders for those who prefer to call ahead and have dinner waiting.
Recalling
the storied local success of Bruce Ucan, who started with a big blue
taco truck and eventually graduated to the popular upscale
restaurants Mayan Gypsy and Mayan Café, I asked Costas if he
shares a similar dream. “We’ll take it one day at a time,” he
said. “We’ve talked about it; however, a restaurant has more
overhead, more employees, more to deal with. Plus, we’ve targeted
the Mexican community, and they love this, just like in Mexico, to
eat outside around the trailer. It just gives that feeling of being
at home.”
Las
Gorditas

4756
Bardstown Road
492-0112

Contact
the writer at rgarr@louisvillehotbytes.com