Slideshow

Tortilla Triumphs: 40 Knockout L.A. Tacos

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Tacos dorados de camarones at Mariscos Jalisco

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.

What to Order: Asada, chicken, chorizo 702 N. Figueroa St. Downtown; 213-613-0416; (See the Listing) These boys from Northern Baja, who recently came in from the cold of their Downtown parking lot space, helped spread the gospel of true, flame-grilled asada that surpasses some steaks we’ve had, along with Mexicali-imported tortillas, superior small-batch salsas, hand-cleavered chorizo, and smoky, tender chicken that put scads of cheap meat shillers to shame.
What to Order: Whatever’s on the menu 2100 E Cesar E Chavez Ave. Boyle Heights; 323-264-7201; (See the Listing) The co-winner of L.A.’s favorite taco in 2012, this corner taqueria triumphs with thick, hand-made tortillas serving as sturdy mops to sop up a rotating selection of its titular braised and stewed meats. Chicken tinga, steak picado, chuletas in salsa verde, surprise appearances by duck, and a multi-note mole poblano are fetching down to the tiniest individual details, while the cochinita pibil, with its own adjustable Scoville rating, challenges even the most macho mouths.
What to Order: Taco dorado de camaron 3040 E Olympic Blvd. Boyle Heights; 323-528-6701; (See the Listing) The crunchy fried carapace on this city favorite plays defense for a perfectly encapsulated taco dorado, packed fat with small shrimp, slathered in salsa roja, and shingled in creamy avocado slices for a masterfully engineered minefield of textural pleasures and harmonious tastes. When the hot shell shatters, look out! You will fall in love with a taco.
Two truck locations on Slauson Avenue, east of the 110 Freeway What to Order: Carnitas surtidas Porkier than Pigg, these Mexico City-style carnitas surtidas, made from a patchwork of pig parts slow-cooked in a steel cazo of simmering swine fat, dissolve in a mouth-marauding mass of juicy muscle meat, fatty snapping skin, and gloriously gelatinous bits in between. Pure pork funk from start to finish.
What to Order: Anything from the Mayan taqueria menu 1576 Colorado Blvd. Eagle Rock; 323-478-2791; (See the Listing) Bearing one of the most original new Mexican menus in town, Cacao turned us on to mole fries, venison machaca, and carnitas substituting duck in place of pork. While the specials board yields serious rewards, The “Mayan Taqueria” menu’s tacos with duck chicharrónes offer twists of stiff skin cracklings thoroughly embedded with the decadent flavors of duck fat.
Nights at Venice Blvd. and La Brea What to Order: Head straight for the pastor Paper-thin shavings shiver down from a trompo-stuck amalgam of pork loin the size and shape of a beehive in a lightning-quick series of moves that crescendos when the taquero flips his wrist, surgically slicing off a stub of pineapple from the crown, which lands a few feet below right into your taco. The payoff is a taco tasting like its filled with sheer slices of crisply-bordered ham, loaded with spices and a heavy hit of tropical fruit.
What to Order:Grilled garlic and cumin-rubbed pork loin taco 142 S La Brea Ave. Mid-City; 323-954-9566; (See the Listing) Aggressively spiced tacos with serious personality, this glam, sub-Hollywood taco shop is meticulous in making nuanced salsas and specific specialties like its titular tinga, cochinita pibil, papas bravas and rajas, and the standout you see here of pork loin dry-rubbed with garlic and cumin, binded by melted jack, and slathered in salsa ahogada.
1400 N. Virgil Ave. Silver Lake; 323-906-7290; (See the Listing) What to Order: Baja-style fish, shrimp, and lobster tacos Pure street food ethos: One dedicated artisan sculpting a well-edited selection of standard-bearers amidst limited means. Only three enticing options exist in Ricky Pina’s sidewalk kitchen: fat shrimp and catfish, and on weekends, braids of sweet lobster meat dangled into his family’s batter recipe, foraged through oil into an ideally golden chassis then slid into a single tortilla. We can’t wait for the brick and mortar.
What to Order: Short rib tacos Truck locations vary, while the tacos can also be found at Alibi Room; (See the Listing) The taco that launched a thousand trucks, Roy Choi and Mark Manguera’s’s original articulation of culture and civic pride shines in a balance of char-kissed, caramelized short rib trimmings, set off with a squeeze of lime, sprinkle of cilantro and sesame seeds, with Korean marinated romaine and cabbage, all topped with onion relish and sesame-chili salsa roja, and tasting like they’ve belonged together between two tortillas for eternity.
What to Order: Tacos de chapulines y chicharrones 3014 W Olympic Blvd. Koreatown; 213-427-0608; (See the Listing) Put it into a tortilla and hell yeah, L.A. will eat it. So if you’re dying to try the famous chapulines at Guelaguetza, a taco may provide the easiest entry point. With a texture somewhere between pepitas and crispy tripas, L.A.’s definitive Oaxacan restaurant translates the region’s love of grasshoppers into a crispy, nutty attraction that overrides squeamishness when the bugs bust with their pleasantly citric taste. At least until you pick the legs from your teeth.
What to Order: Tacos de papas 3520 N Figueroa St. Cypress Park; 323-342-0180; (See the Listing) Creaminess cubed, these smooth characters of spiced, smashed spuds topped with cream, avocado, Jack, and cheddar cheese are local legends, their suave characters contrasting with a hard, fried shell that cracks louder than a broken bat at Chavez Ravine.
What to Order: Machaca and cochinita pibil 2056 Hillhurst Ave. Los Feliz; 323-662-1214; (See the Listing) Only five tacos grace the menu at this iconic Los Feliz taco shack, which started life as a family operation with the youngest hawking homemade tacos to commuters on the side of the road. 36 years later, Yuca’s stands as a James Beard-winning legend that manages a daily throng. The shredded, citrus-tinged cochinita pibil is the standout among its buttery brethren.
What to Order: Great place to indulge in spare parts, pork shoulder, snouts, feet, beef lengua, and chicharrones 3300 E. Cesar E Chavez Ave. Boyle Heights; 323-261-4084) A certain type of taco comes out of the carniceria; a beast less concerned with exacting composition than it is with a sheer overload of messy meats and spare parts. Over four decades old, this Boyle Heights mainstay delivers in a display case teeming with barely identifiable offal and beautifully browned flesh; pig cheeks here, plump lengua, and sheets of tripe there, all contrasted with the gentle pitter patter of hands shaping thick tortillas aside big bubbling pots.
What to Order: Taco with cheese 11222 Washington Pl. Culver City; 310-391-5780; (See the Listing) Specializing in the ubiquitous U.S. taco of school room cafeterias, gringo family dinners, and corporate lunchrooms, this perpetually slammed, 53 year-old Culver City stand offers up little but this legendary hard-shell taco stuffed with ground beef, cheddar cheese, and lettuce. Haters continue to hate, oblivious to the fact that the ground beef here is still juicier than most of the bistek fronting like it’s asada around town.
What to Order: Pastor, asada, and chicken Ave. 56 and York Blvd. Highland Park, in the El Super parking lot Some of the very best street tacos in L.A. are acquired at illusive tables setting up in the shadows of evening, often lacking names and the ambition to be discovered by anyone but the avenue. El Pelon has risen from obscurity into a Highland Park paragon, sought out for its hand-cut, high-grade meats yielding a slight note of the parilla, as well as spit-shaved pastor, and tiny flour tortillas cranked out on the spot.
What to Order: Tacos de canasta (basket tacos) Weekends at Olympic Blvd. and Central Ave. Stumble onto this sidewalk sprawl of vendors and get lost in a Mecca of Mexican street eats, flowing over with huaraches, elote, hand-made chorizo, aguas frescas, mulitas, tacos, and barbacoa carved on site. These steamed half moons stuffed with smooth spreads of meats and vegetables, known as tacos de canasta, are pre-made for market, their time spent idling on each other in the basket turning them flavor-saturated, slightly flimsy, and dank with oil, a little like the Mexican answer to dumplings.
5385 Whittier Blvd. East L.A.; 323-887-1980 What to Order: Fish and shrimp tacos This East L.A. original still possesses the most flavor-packed Baja-style fish and shrimp taco, with crisp halibut bearing a whisper of buttermilk, aided in its crisp crest by ribbons of cabbage, and cooled with a pinch of limon and the perfect matrimony of salsa and crema. Taken with one of the restaurant’s dusted pickled peppers and something cold to drink, it transmits Baja bliss to the barrio.
What to Order:Asada with panile, Jorjas vegan taco, red mole, and carnitas 130 Bruno St. Chinatown; 213-617-0380; (See the Listing) Tacos you can feel great about, for a multitude of reasons, this non-profit “Jobs Not Jails” cooperative serves some of the freshest Mex in town, flipping the script by sourcing from its own urban farm for a heart-healthier take on asada matched with a peanut-habanero salsa, vegan tacos laid with sauteed hibiscus flower, carnitas with apple-tomatillo slaw, and chicken heavy with achiote and cooled by tamarind slices and a jicama slaw.
What to Order: Tacos de asada, pastor, and tripas E. Olympic Blvd. and Herbert Ave. East L.A. This neighborhood taco truck vaults above the standards of its ilk by hand-making its tortillas on-board, offering an extensive spread of salsas on its flank, and better-than-average meats and fish, grilled al carbon. We prefer the steaky asada, lush pastor, and crackly, chewy, nearly candied tripas.
What to Order: Pork tacos 516 S Western Ave. Koreatown; 213-480-8438 Beating quietly in the heart of Koreatown for 23 years, this one-man Mexican mini-diner elevates L.A.’s ubiquitous cast of pork butt carnitas, slow-cooked for hours in their own fat then pan-fried to order, offering the crispiest of edges and a titanic profusion of porcine flavor.
What to Order:The twelve-taco strong Probaditas sampler 6333 W 3rd St. Mid-City; 323-930-2211; (See the Listing) Not only did chef Jimmy Shaw recreate the vitality of his native D.F. street food with a menu of authentic antojitos and sand dollar-sized tacos, he did it at the mall, eventually leading to a small empire no Northern chain directed at a big audience could hope to replicate. Specializing in tacos housing heady tingas, moles, and pibil, Shaw’s milk-marinated carnitas even have out-of-state chefs talking.
What to Order: Tacos with cecina, milanesa beef, quesillo, and chorizo Lincoln Blvd. and Rose Ave. Venice Westside L.A. is speckled with Oaxacans on wheels, offering the state’s tlayudas, cecina, chorizo, tazajo, and memelas to local families, late-shifters, and beach bums. This well-known Venice lonchera turns out some of the area’s best streetside Mexican, with breaded beef in lightly fried tacos milanesas and tacos inlaid with tangles of quesillo, that salty string-cheese crucial to Oaxaca.
What to Order:Tacos al Pastor Hoover and 20th St. South L.A. Perfect pastor from a budding empire of trucks, seeping tropical fruit flavors into trompo-skewered pork. The cuts here are shorter and thicker than Leo’s, providing a juicy bite steadying slivers of fat with soft, spice-riddled swine and a generous wedge of pineapple from off of the summit.
What to Order: Tacos de asada and tacos de birria 1528 West Pico Blvd. Pico-Union; 213-386-7361; (See the Listing) Before MexiCali raised the local asada bar, El Parian stoked the city with these titanic tacos, bursting at the seams with sterling steak that shames all the grey matter offered elsewhere. And seeing as this is central L.A.’s consumate birria dealer, don’t even think about missing these birria tacos overflowing with chivo and just asking for a bath of goat consommé. All of the glorious pastoral, musky, expansive flavors of birria, with none of the bones.
What to Order: Alambre 2510 E Cesar E Chavez Ave. Boyle Heights; 323-264-1451; (See the Listing) An impressive illustration of street food getting off the streets following LAPD oppression on Breed Street, this Boyle Heights storefront offers an incredible assortment of snacks and a long list of meats. It’s best to arrange your own tacos here in the lauded tacos de alambre, that D.F. street-standard of still-sizzling meats mixed with bacon, sautéed onions and peppers, and tangled up in ropes of cheese, served alongside a basket of soft, warm tortillas.
What to Order: Tacos de chorizo y suadero Soto St. and Alcazar St. East L.A. The trompo-impaled pastor and pan-fried meats at this excellent East L.A. taco table were first introduced to us by Starry Kitchen restaurateur Nguyen Tran, turning us into quick fans of the tacos fritangas double-stuffed with suadero and chorizo, cooked together in a traditional charola and topped with a fierce chile de arbol that counters the chill of a night on the corner. Photo: Erwin Recinos
What to Order: Borrego de oro and longaniza 6300 York Blvd,. Highland Park; 323-256-2698; (See the Listing) Though we don’t recall this standing in for hipster central, My Taco still serves one of the town’s most concentrated expressions of lamb’s funky flavor in its borrego de oro, a pulpy, shredded mass staging an offensive of liquidy lamb essence. Like the spicy, luscious longaniza, a noticeable char provides the perfect foil to the big buttery notes found within.
What to Order: Cochinita pibil 1800 South Hoover St. Pico-Union; 213-748-6090; (See the Listing) Just the site of these bright pink-purple pickled onions over the Yucatan’s signature special of slow-cooked, citrus-marinated pork at this stronghold of Yucateco and Mayan cuisine is enough to make us brighten in anticipation of its juicy flood of pork flavor, which gets set on fire by even a small squiggle of the restaurant and bakery’s blistering habanero salsa.
What to Order: Weekened brunch tacos with lengua, quesillo and rajas, and poblano and mushroom 101 Wilshire Blvd. Santa Monica; 310-319-3111; (See the Listing) Locally-raised, locavore chef Ray Garcia earns critical accolades for his lengua, not necessarily the first thought when one conjures a signature dish at a hotel restaurant. Fig offers a taste of his white-wine braised beef tongue in taco form, among a spectrum of other beautiful specimens, during Garcia’s weekend brunch, providing a tender-to-the-touch cut matched to the tangy taste of tomatillo.
What to Order: Tacos al gobernador 3544 ½ W. Imperial Hwy., Inglewood; 310-672-2339) Among the artfully arranged, chef-tailored, and simply delicious seafood imported from Sinaloa and Nayarit are these simple stunners that hit the table hot, crackly, and bursting with garlicky, fire-toasted shrimp in a charred tortilla that is glued together by onions and melted cheese. Freshness screams from some of the most transporting tacos we’ve tasted.
What to Order: Carnitas made from eight individual pig parts. Novices can start with the pork ribs; Pros pass go for pig uterus, ears, chuletas, and snout. 5305 N. Figueroa St. Highland Park; 323-478-8383; (See the Listing) With nary a pig tattoo in sight, this Highland Park upstart offers a snout-to-tail dream in a range of eight customizable carnitas varieties every weekend, prepared using individual pig parts slow-cooked in lard for hours then offered in cuts like pig uterus, pig skin, and fatty pig snout carnitas.
What to Order: Tacos de adobado 3700 N Figueroa St. Cypress Park; 323-221-0474; (See the Listing) A neighborhood favorite, La Abeja is worth a visit to get your hands on its reliably comforting, standout plates of mouthwatering machaca and smoky, piquant pork adobado, both of which come in taco form, too, for a small price.
What to Order: Shrimp, crawfish, turkey, and lobster tacos 5408 W Pico Blvd. Mid-City; 323-932-6253; (See the Listing) 20 years before the food truck boom spread rampant taco frankenfusion to all corners of L.A., Sky’s was integrating Mexican and Cajun cooking in its tiny Pico abode. Not the cheapest, and far from the fastest taco in town, we still head straight to the crawfish tacos, which come across like a spicy gumbo wrapped tight in fried tortillas.
1801 W Sunset Blvd. Echo Park; 213-413-3232; (See the Listing) What to Order: Pho tacos Chasing the fortunes of Kogi, pop food trucks twisted the cultural roots of their owners into tacos bearing far-reaching flavors from India, China, Ireland, Japan, and Israel, just to name a few. Many were forgettable, but this Echo Park brick-and-mortar is vastly more triumphant in bringing ribbons of pho-saturated beef between two tortillas, recreating the Vietnamese staple through a wet wad of cinnamon-spiced, shredded beef with a pinch of cilantro and lime, and streaked with house-made salsa roja.
What to Order: Have fun experimenting with 25 very different takes on tacos 844 Hermosa Ave. Hermosa Beach; 310-318-2939; (See the Listing) Mexican food, in one form or another, generally enjoys a high pedestal in any surf town. This burger and beer-pounding Hermosa Beach gastro-pub features an ethnologically astute and truly tasty army of tacos that riff on international staples like Greek gyros, Hawaiian pork and pineapple, Thai chicken, and Japanese unagi on a menu that’s 25-tacos strong. Despite their eccentricities, everything is spot on, right down to the roughly hewn tortillas.
4326 W Sunset Blvd. Silver Lake; 323-664-1011; (See the Listing) What to Order: Ground beef and pickle tacos This Silver Lake staple is a hotbed of taco originality, with fillings like octopus asada, pork belly tinga, Coca-Cola braised carnitas, and even soyrizo. But none have driven demand quite like this hot, fried shell stuffed with ground beef and potatoes, and cooled by a frill of pickles in chef Robert Luna’s ode to the “hamburgers” his mom would make when the family ran out of buns.
What to Order: Tacos dorados with chicken, potato,or beef, tacos al carbon with cabesa or lengua 4502 Inglewood Blvd. Culver City; 310-915-0426; 11462 Gateway Blvd. West L.A.; 310-481-0804 (See the Listing) Like bread to the sandwich and the bun to the burger, a good taco hinges as much on what goes around it as what goes inside it. Westside L.A. doesn’t get to enjoy a lot of taquerias that make their own tortillas, but the two locations of this punnily titled taco shop step it up with tortillas hecho a mano and meats grilled al carbon.
2306 W 11th St. Koreatown; 213-738-9197; (See the Listing) What to Order: Though you shouldn’t miss the bull-fighting decor and neighborhood love on the inside, the better vibe is at the truck out back. We don’t always share the neighborhood’s allegiant enthusiasm for the meats coming from this sentimental KTown favorite owned by King Taco. But the vibe in the back parking lot rings all the right bells of a true taco truck experience and the hot red salsa would taste good on pretty much anything, even this asada.
What to Order: Wagyu beef taco 903 N. La Cienega Blvd. West Hollywood; 310-657-5711; (See the Listing) The Beverly Hills-based chef who mastered the merger of Peruvian and Japanese cuisines also offers an opulate interpretation of Mexican tacos, stuffing wonton taco shells with tuna, lobster, and crab. This indulgent version is flooded with grilled, fatty Wagyu beef and is gone in two (pricey) bites, leaving your mouth with a luxurious coat of oil that lingers much longer.
What to Order: Charred tuna wonton tacos 395 Santa Monica Pl. Santa Monica; 310-899-1000; (See the Listing) Not our first stop in Taco Town, Richard Sandoval’s mall-bound Mexican and Asian concept still nails it with this blissful bite of charred ahi in a light wonton shell, smeared with guacamole and mango salsa and teetering on a line of sushi rice.
Tortilla Triumphs: 40 Knockout L.A. Tacos