Monday, December 2, 2019

Los Angeles Taco Tour

Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties

- Indulging in LA's Taco Scene

There can't be too many people who have more bucket-list food trips than myself. That's bc basically anywhere with this or that is game. But some spots hover near the top. As an example using US destinations alone I have more than ten and that's not bc I haven't been anywhere. Over the years I've been fortunate to knock many out. But plenty remain. One I can count as accomplished is a deep dive into LA's taco scene. I had the chance to take the plunge this past May and I recently went back for a day. So in that time I was able to scope out quite a few of the spots most commonly mentioned when discussing LA's most iconic taco joints. It would take much more than five days to experience all of the amazing tacos that LA has to offer and guys like Javier Cabral, Gustavo Arrellano, and Bill Esparza are living proof. All three Los Angeles based journalists (and the entire LAtaco team past and present) have contributed majorly to showing myself and the rest of the country how deep the Mexican culture is embedded into the city. They all do a wonderful job informing readers on not just the food but also the people, and the history behind it. Thanks to all of them for giving visitors like me easy access to the good stuff. There isnt a city in these States with a better taco culture. Let's roll.

 Taco Stand on the Streets of LA
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Teddy's Red Tacos

First stop up is one of LA's hottest taco trucks. Teddy's sits out in a very industrial part of town. It's truck sits on a new defunct train track. You could easily mistake yourself for being down in Tijuana where the tacos from Teddy's are from. They do TJ style birria de res which means shredded beef sitting in a deep red broth full of both stains and spice. Teddy's wasn't the first taco truck to become a social media sensation but that they are. I don't know the exact story but Teddy's has a large following over on Instagram and has gotten so big they've spawned imitators who use the Teddy's name but have no association with the actual Teddy's Red Tacos. On my visit to the abandoned tracks I was able to squeeze into an illegal space like so many of the other cars parked around the truck. I got the sampler which is a QuesoTaco dipped in the red gravy and stuffed with shredded beef and cheese then cooked to a crisp on a flattop. I also got a cup of beef consomme and a taco. Fire.

Birria Platter at Teddy's Red Tacos
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Mariscos Jalisco

One of my first orders of biz was a spot I’d had on my radar since Bill Esparza's blogging days. I don’t know how long it’s been since Mariscos Jalisco shot onto LA people’s radar but I’ve been anticipating a trip here since whenever that was. Crispy shrimp tacos being what caught my eye. Well I finally made it and am happy to say it was worth the wait. These delicious crispy tacos are a descendant of empanadas which I learned from LATaco editor Javiar Cabral. Makes plenty of sense when you think about it. The filling is shrimp and potatoes as well as some other stuff that helps keep them filled and also low in price. These are a great example of the depth of which LA's taco game goes. Some would say these tacos are as Los Angeles as tacos can get. An OG in LA's taco scene.

Signature Tacos at Mariscos Jalisco
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L.A Birria

Here's another spot that's hot on social media. When I saw a pic of the spider taco at L.A Birria I put them on my must hit list. Birria de Res is their specialty and of course the straight up tacos are popular. But they also have some more unique items and the spider taco is one of them. They have a small griddle setup and on that griddle goes a corn tortilla stuffed with beef birria and enough cheese to where it's coming out of the open end of the tortilla. That cheese gets crisped up and lattice like giving this taco all sorts of flavor / texture. I recently saw they started making Birria Ramen!

Spider Taco at L.A Birria
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Tacos Y Birria La Unica

The Tacos Y Birria La Unica truck in Boyle Heights is one of LA's fastest rising stars. I recently read they opened a second location. The husband and wife team behind this truck spent a long time working on other taco trucks. When they became fully comfortable with the business they decided to open their own truck. Part of the fame is due to an instagram post from Chrissy Teigen who named the goat birria Quesotaco from here her favorite in Los Angeles. I just had to see for myself. Tender goat meat is thrown into a red chile dipped house made tortilla that's crisped up a little on the flattop allowing the cheese inside to meld into the meat. It's definitely a treat. I ate two and wanted another.

Quesotaco de Chivo at Tacos Y Birria La Unica
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Ricky's Fish Tacos

How about another stop on the Baja taco trail through LA? It's a tour within the tour. No taco is more associated with Baja than the fish taco. Born in Ensenada and now found all over everywhere from Cabo San Lucas up to Southern California. The fish tacos tale is one that is said to have some Japanese background as there's a diaspora of Japanese people that live(d) in Ensenada. It's pretty obvious in the tempura like batter used to fry the fish filets. Nowadays fish tacos are found all over even in the most obscure parts of the States. But there might be no one doing a better version of the Ensenada Fish Taco than Ricky's Fish Tacos. It brought me back to Baja for sure. Another contender.

Fish Tacos at Ricky's Fish Tacos
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Carnitas El Momo

Ask an LA taco vet about the best carnitas in town and you're likely to be sent here. Quite a few of my friends that live in LA and have been to all these spots consider El Momo a must stop on the LA taco circuit. I missed it that first trip so it became a priority for me when I returned. Located on a residential street with a few tables outside on the sidewalk and a small storage room inside you place your order at the truck where the guys inside are chopping up all the different fried pig parts. Your best bet is to order a few tacos with a little bit of everything. This will get you maximum flavor and texture. I read somewhere that the owner eats them with just pickled carrots and lime which is the preferred way back in his hometown. I've had carnitas in Mexico and the Chicagoland area is full of quality spots but these were as memorable as any I've had the pleasure of eating. They're never bad but I don't recall them ever being this good. I probably wont ever go back to LA and not stop here.

Carnitas Tacos at Carnitas El Momo
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Sonoratown

Of course I had to take a trip to what’s possibly the hottest taco shop in town, and this was before it's appearance on Netflix's 'The Taco Chronicles'. Located in DTLA is this ode to Sonoran cooking via San Luis Rio Colorado. This means char grilled meats stuffed into lard laced flour tortillas with spicy chiltepin salsa and grilled green onions. The signature flavors of Northern Mexico here in Southern California. Like so many others I loved this spot but thought the steak itself was just ok albeit very much like that in Mexico. Make sure to try the chorizo which is made by a local who supplies his family chorizo recipes to different restaurants around town. The chorizo is grilled and then chopped.

Sonoran Tacos at Sonoratown 
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Tacos 1986

On my first visit back in May the folks at Tacos 1986 were looking for a new spot. By the time I returned they had one downtown. It's a bright standing room space like one might find somewhere in Mexico City's Roma neighborhood. You're greeted by a big spit of spinning adobado - the Tijuana term for tacos al pastor. Though aside from the fact tacos adobada dont have pineapple there's not a huge difference. LA loves it's food fads and Tijuana style tacos are one of them right now. Though nothing in LA involving tacos is really a fad as that would require them to eventually go away. Nope they're here to stay. TJ style tacos can best be defined as grilled meats like carne asada and spit roasted meat like adobada served on thick corn tortillas with a big dollop of Avocado Salsa. Love me some Tijuana.

Tacos at Tacos 1986
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Chichen Itza

Merida is at the top of my Mexico hit list. I've had the chance to see the Yucatan from it's amazing little beach towns (and also Cancun). But to truly experience the culinary delights I'd like to get into the center of it all. In the meantime the folks at Chichen Itza have been providing LA with those flavors since Jonathan Gold's golden years. Both the Yucatecan food and the setup of the market where Chichen Itza resides were favorites of the legendary Los Angeles writer. You might be mistaken for being somewhere in Merida when visiting their food stall inside a local market that doubles as a neighborhood hub for both food and culture. There's not many Yucatan restaurants where cochinita pibil isn't the focal point and Chichen Itza puts theirs front and center in a variety of ways. As far as the tacos go they were a contender for my favorite of the trip(s). Perfectly spiced pork was torn up just right and as always pairs perfectly with the Yucatan pickled onions. Served nice and spicy.

Cochinita Pibil Tacos at Chichen Itza
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Mexicali Taco & Co.

Here's a success story from LA's taco truck culture. Mexicali Taco & Co. is a former late night truck turned brick and mortar. You can find them now over around Chinatown. What makes Mexicali tempting to many are their simple tacos and tostadas. Topped with Northern Mexico style grilled meats and such this is a pretty straight forward spot that lets the food do the talking. Perhaps their biggest strength is in the salsa bar which has just enough reliable options as far as pickled vegetables and salsa goes. I got a carne asada on flour and a chorizo tostada. Make sure to get the Gueros (Cantonese-Baja style peppers). Mexicali being a haven for Chinese people in Mexico.

Taco, Tostada, Gueros at Mexicali Taco & Co.
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Tacos Los Poblanos #1 Estilo Tijuana

I got a chance to check out a few favorites of a fellow taco fiend I know from Chicago. He's from LA originally and living back there now so it was cool getting to do a little tour through his city after meeting for tacos a few times in mine. We met up in the evening and thus hit up a few popular nighttime stands. The first of which was Tacos Los Poblanos #1 Estilo Tijuana. Yes the term authentic is overplayed but this was the winner for setup most like that you'd find in Mexico. They have a well oiled machine in that it was packed the night we went but everything moved fast. Some flame grilled carne asada on thick tortillas made to order are what most people are ordering here. They're made in the traditional TJ style. The sleeper item is the chorizo vulcan which is kind of like a tostada sandwich. When in line you'll notice big logs of chorizo sitting among the flames from the grill. They chop it down to order and it's full of smokey goodness. One of my favorite stops on tour.

Street Food in LA
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Tacos Los Guichos

Chicago has some really nice spots for tacos al pastor, but the options in LA seem to dwarf those in Chicago by a mile. Most of them are trucks that come out at night and show off a glowing spit of spinning red meat to cars passing by. The taco truck culture in LA is heavily fueled by a handful of tacos al pastor specialists. I'd say a majority of those I talked to named Los Guichos as their favorite tacos al pastor in LA. Note: None of them named Leo's which is well known but also may have outgrown what it takes to make notch tacos al pastor. Los Guichos got their name in the mentions with their DF style carnitas but their tacos al pastor attract tons of loyal Angelenos. They have a Mexico City setup in their large trompo with a flame so powerful it cooks the meat in mere seconds. The experienced taquero slices it up so thin that four to five layers of meat stay in one piece. It's the sign of perfection in al pastor and to many as important as the seasoning which here is naturally colored and maximized in terms of flavor from the wonderful char each slice of al pastor is given.

Tacos al Pastor from Tacos Los Guichos
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Los Originales Tacos Árabes de Puebla

One of my most anticipated spots was this food truck always found in the same spot in Boyle Heights most nights. The story of Tacos Árabes aka Arab Tacos is one of my favorites as far as fusion foods created from the combination of two cultures living amongst each other goes. Tacos Árabes can be traced back to Puebla and a spot called La Oriental. It was founded by Lebanese immigrants who came to Mexico in search of a better life. The Lebanese like shawarma so of course they made that while in Puebla. But eventually they started catering to the locals and basically created tacos arabes in doing so. Tacos al Pastor came soon after. There's a few differences in the two the first of which is the seasoning used. Tacos Árabes have a lighter taste. The pork meat is typically seasoned with garlic, oregano, onion, thyme, and cumin depending on the recipe. The other difference is tacos arabe are served in pan árabe which is basically a thick pita. The preferred salsa is a spicy chipotle that pairs perfectly with the seasoned pork and pita. Another contender for favorite taco of the tour. I really wanted to go back and bring my wife with me but that didn't happen.

Taco Árabe at Los Originales Tacos Árabes de Puebla
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Tacos Cuernavaca

Not far from the last stop is Tacos Cuernavaca. I asked for some of the more unique tacos in town and this truck came recommended. You're not going find any dollar tacos here and that's bc they have a much more ambitious menu than the usual dollar taco setup. The ingredients here are a step above that you'd find in most of the other trucks. One of the most interesting tacos on the menu are the Tacos de Camaron con Tocino y Queso. Those are shrimp tacos stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon. Holy smokes were these things something else. The size of them alone was more like they were extra large stuffed jalapenos or something to the likes. One bite in and they explode with melted cheese and bold flavors from the bacon and special sauce they top each piece with. Phenomenal.

Tacos de Camaron con Tocino y Queso at Tacos Cuernavaca
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Tacos Tamix

Here's another truck that will get mentions when LA's best tacos al pastor are being talked about. Tacos Tamix runs a fleet of trucks as they're veterans of LA's taco truck scene. The owner is from Oaxaca and he employs a powerful marinade that punches with flavor. I think we had intended to each get two but we ended up ordering more. I read that the alambres with Queso Oaxaca were also a popular menu item. Seeing as how that's one of my favorites I probably should've got a plate.

Taco al Pastor at Tacos Tamix
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HomeState

If there's one state that can rival the taco culture of California it's got to be Texas. I've been saying for a couple years now that Texas is the new California. That's for a variety of reasons including the wonderful taco cultures that both states share. HomeState is an ode to the modern Texas style taqueria. This means breakfast tacos and queso are on the menu. With my wife being a Texan we made sure to check the HomeState out. We stopped in for an early brunch and enjoyed both the tacos and chips with queso. It's owned by a girl from Texas and they make the flour tortillas on site.

Breakfast Tacos with Chips and Queso from HomeState
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 Amacita

Speaking of which here's another ode to life in the Lone Star State. Amacita is Chef Josef Centeno's toast to his native land. The San Antonio born chef now has two Tex-Mex type spots in LA with Bar Ama downtown having come first. Amacita sits on a busy strip in Culver City. We sat outside on the deck and enjoyed happy hour food and drink on what was the hottest day of the year in LA. I've still never had puffy tacos in their San Antonio birthplace but the version served at Amacita got me excited for that day. Puffy tacos are made by frying fresh masa for a short period until they puff up.

Puffy Taco at Amacita
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Tito's Tacos

While LA has pretty much every style of regional Mexican tacos, some can't imagine it without their beloved Tito's Tacos. The longtime Culver City favorite has been dishing up American style hard shell tacos and burritos since 1959. They do the classic LA walk up window service (you can dine inside after you get your food) and it's busy throughout the day. I stopped in for one before picking my wife up from LAX airport so this is a good option for those flying in or out of LAX and want to experience a Los Angeles classic. It's not cheap as one taco is like $5-$6 but they do come with chips and salsa. What did I think? I will always have an appreciation for a classic crispy taco and Tito's is exactly that.

Crispy Taco at Tito's Tacos
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Cielito Lindo

In my upcoming 'Eating BIG in Los Angeles' report I visit a handful of iconic LA restaurants. The spots that have generations of fans and feel like they've been around forever. One of those is Cielito Lindo on historic Olvera street. They've been serving their signature flautas since 1934. Yes flautas are tacos too. They just so happen to be rolled up and often times topped with stuff like the warm avocado salsa used here. These beef taquitos are a classic LA dish in that they've been an LA resident longer than most everyone that lives in the city of four million people. In fact Cielito Lindo can be credited with starting the tacos trend towards dominance in the United States goes. This little stand was selling taquitos long before any of the others featured on here (or anywhere) got going.

Beef Taquitos at Cielito Lindo
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Al & Bea's

Here's another iconic LA establishment. The type that makes me love this city. The setup at Al & Bea's is a classic as far as the old school Mexican restaurant in a warm town goes. It's kind of inside where you walk up to a window to place your order. You can eat at one of the few tables inside or at one of the few tables outside. It seemed like lots of locals take them to go. Them being their classic bean and cheese burritos with your choice of sauce. They've been serving these since 1966 and I didn't have to have more than one bite to understand why. This is everything people love about Taco Bell except it's actually made with quality and care. It's comfort food for sure and in the case of Al & Bea's it's comfort food for Angelenos who crave creamy refried beans paired with melted cheese inside warm and toasty flour tortillas. Yes people minimalist burritos can be tacos too. Great stop.

Bean and Cheese Burrito at Al & Bea's
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Bonus Stop!

Mitla Cafe (San Bernardino)

My Roadfood bucketlist is down one after a pitstop on the way to Palm Springs (report coming). As a big time crispy taco connoisseur Mitla Cafe on Route 66 in San Bernardino is somewhat of a Mecca. One of America’s oldest Mexican restaurants (Desde 1937) they served as the inspiration for Glen Bell of Taco Bell fame. Of course the imitator can never match the original as these are made from freshly fried shells and in the case of the ground beef it’s one big log like a kafta kebab or cevapi. That I wasn't expecting as it was different but still delicious. You can check out this cool article featuring @gustavo_arellano - the man who put Mitla on my radar. Follow him for all the details on the rich history of Mexican food in Southern California and the rest of America. Long live the Mitla Cafe.

Crispy Tacos at Mitla Cafe
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See ya next time @chibbqking

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