Manhattan has its hot dogs, Mumbai its vada pav, Tokyo a steady diet of sushi, and Buenos Aires an endless procession of empanadas. But in Los Angeles, we have tacos, the best in the country. Beyond their unflappable ability to stuff tens of thousands of bellies each day, tacos offer us so much more than mere sustenance. As crucial a part of our civic landscape and culture as palm trees, rolling cameras, and tangled freeway overpasses, tacos teem our streets and boulevards. Between loudly humming loncheras, stalwart neighborhood taquerias and carnicerias, and faceless tables setting up when the sun falls, not to forget those trendy food trucks twisting family histories between two tortillas and four-star hotels offering “Taco Tuesdays,” it’s easy to agree, L.A. lives on tacos.
Los Angeles, long synonymous with roadside burgers and drive-through dining, today embraces the taco as its cherished birthright, prized point of pride, and vital lifeblood. From our neighborhoods to our buzzing work stations, hives of student life, upscale restaurants, and surfer-stoked seasides, the taco resonates louder with our local identity than a thousand force-fed slices of all-American apple pie.
As a Southwestern metropolis with a Mexican heart, the taco serves as a proud cultural symbol of a city that finds its meatiest attractions stuffed into tiny pockets that must be sniffed out, much like one’s ongoing hunt for tacos arabes, vampiros, or whatever may be the next great regional recipe undergoing upgrades by an under-the-radar taquero.
More than mere emblem, tacos at their base, nourish us for next to nothing, and at their best, can possess the power to stretch across lines that famously keep L.A. divided, bringing different denizens together in the enjoyment of a particularly esteemed taco. Beyond just eating them, with a sharp squeeze of lime and shower of cilantro, no doubt, tacos often speak to us for their ability to broaden borders, reminding us that the thrill of the chase is only second to the pleasures of cracking a killer taco in L.A.
While more or less consistent in shape, tacos embody a seemingly ceaseless hodgepodge of meats, organs, coverings, cultural expressions, names, techniques, and sometimes, even insects. While almost every North American recognizes the gringo tacos of their middle school cafeteria as served at Tito’s and Henry’s, widespread appreciation continues to build for authentic specialists like the Baja brood flame-grilling asada and hand-cleaving chorizo at Mexicali Taco & Co., the insanely addictive tacos dorados de camaron at Boyle Heights’ Mariscos Jalisco, the focused artistry of Ricky Piña frying battered lobster and shrimp at Ricky’s Fish Tacos, and notable chefs like Ray Garcia bringing the street indoors with the taco de lengua at Fig or French chef Laurent Quenioux, who was bitten by the taco bug and in return, has a penchant for filling tacos with ant larvae.
So whether you’re a die-hard taco fanatic following fast on the heels of celebrated taco spelunkers like Jonathan Gold and Street Gourmet L.A.—from whom many of our favorite tacos have been passed through the years— and lose sleep over the outcome of the annual Taco Madness Tournament, or you’ve simply wondered where to launch a beginner’s crawl through “The Big Taco,” we’ve put together this slideshow guide to 40 of the city’s favorites.
Of course, as anyone who has ever played Ahab to a lonchera’s white whale knows, no list of L.A. tacos can really ever be complete. Devotees know that the next great taco could always be just around the next corner, an obsessive, haunting preoccupation that keeps pushing them out there, alert, and on the prowl for a new or improved experience. This is really just the tip of the iceberg. Given the constraints of time and our own stomach’s capacity, we’re even likely leaving out a few of our own favorites, and no doubt some of your own best discoveries.
So, enjoy our slide show toe into L.A.’s incredible taco scene, and please leave your recommendations for your own favorite tacos in our comments.