Don’t get us wrong, we’re never too good for Taco Bell. Lately, though, we prefer its metal-as-hell counterpart that pops up in the back of the Slipper Clutch. And with a name like Taco Hell, how could we not?
“It’s just non-hacky fast food,” says chef Joel Miller, who’s also one half of E Stretto, the Italian deli housed at the front of the Downtown L.A. bar. “It’s exactly the kind of food I want to eat at a punk show. It doesn’t work everywhere, but back here, it makes tons of sense.”
One Friday and Saturday a month, Miller and his E Stretto cofounder, Dave Fernie, fire up a plancha on the back patio of Downtown’s highball-and-pinball bar for gourmet takes on Taco Bell’s classic hardshell with their own take on Fire Sauce and plenty of irreverence. (Just ask the menu board’s cartoon chili pepper screaming, “EAT MORE TACOS, YOU F*CKING COWARDS.”)
Two weekends a month, they also haul out the flattop for Burger Hell, an upscale take on fast-food burgers. Don’t get it twisted: This is all done in fun, but the Stretto chefs still worship at the altar of fast food.
“I grew up on fast food,” Miller says. “I didn’t have my first piece of ‘real’ food until I was in my mid-teens—I didn’t have my first piece of sushi until I was 17 or 18. To me, Mexican food was Taco Bell, and Italian food was Pizza Hut or Numero Uno.”
The former Wallace chef still hits up Taco Bell once or twice a month, downing four or five hard tacos at a time. Miller won’t order any other items there, but at the inspired pop-up, he diversifies: There’s a kind of buffalo chicken tinga hybrid, topped with celery ribbons and carrots; a carnitas taco take on a wedge salad, topped with blue cheese, tomatoes and iceberg lettuce; and a maitake mushroom al pastor with their house “Slayer” salsa (made with garlicky reduced pineapple juice, crema and cilantro). Not to be outdone by its originator, Taco Hell even boasts a Flamin’ Hot Cheetos quesadilla.
Their own version of Fire Sauce, dubbed “Hell Torcho,” packs heat with an adobo-and-achiote blend of peppers. Did they taste through every flavor of Taco Bell’s hot sauce while planning Taco Hell? Absolutely. (“If you ask for just an obscene amount of sauce,” Miller says, “they’ll give it to you.”)
At Burger Hell, just don’t expect a Whopper.
The patty gets a fat injection from the deli’s high-end scraps, such as prosciutto, so the burger practically melts while still retaining its form. It comes topped with yellow mustard and house bread-and-butter pickles, not to mention a mound of caramelized onions that cook down to a glorious mush made with kolsh beer, furikake and bonito flakes for depth and flavor. Then it’s practically drenched in cheese sauce.
Not into the burger? There’s also an off-menu grilled cheese, where they throw Monterey jack onto the flattop and crisp it up as a patty before dousing it with the runny cheese sauce on a bun.
Pop-ups run from 9pm to 1am, with double burgers priced at $9 and singles at $6 and with grilled cheese at $4, while all tacos are set at $3 apiece; payments are made by cash or Venmo (sent to @burgerhell666 or @tacohell666, depending on the weekend you swing by).
“We’re not trying to reinvent any type of wheel—we just want to have fun,” Miller says, adding, “There’s really no reason to not have a good time when you’re working. It makes the day more bearable.”
E Stretto pops up as Burger Hell in back of the Slipper Clutch, located at 351 S Broadway, Fridays and Saturdays twice a month, and one Friday and Saturday each month as Taco Hell. Follow E Stretto on Instagram for updates.