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Now reading A Taco Crawl of Los Angeles

A Taco Crawl of Los Angeles

A mixture of the familiar and unknown.

This is a taco crawl across Los Angeles. It’s better than most crawls, and maybe not as good as others. Tacos have the tendency to elicit animated, if not always reasonable discourse. “Your favorite place sucks, how could you omit x place? This proves you have no knowledge whatsoever about food — THANKS OBAMA” is a tiring refrain in these exchanges. Words like “authentic” and “genuine” get tossed around more than a side salad at Sizzler—a somewhat silly concept in a city where many Mexican families predate California as a United State of America.

I hope this taco crawl is a mixture of familiar and unknown; I’ve included a few alternatives to the media darlings of the LA taco scene and a new place or two to check out. Not that places like Guisados or Coni’Seafood or Kogi aren’t great—they’re brilliant. Go to them. Hell, toss them in midway through this taco crawl; you won’t regret it. You just don’t need me to tell you about them, because you already read Esparza and Gold and are a smart, well-informed consumer.

Below is the crawl game plan. Do it some weekend, or even weekday if you’re one of the 90 percent of Angelenos that has no actual day job. Couple of tips: Have cash, as some places don’t take cards. Above all, pace yourself. Eat one taco per place, maximum two. When you’re eight tacos in, you’ll thank me.

Feel free to begin this crawl at any point but let’s just say, for argument’s sake, you’re moving from west to east.

WEST

Tito’s Tacos

titos

You didn’t very well expect to start with great tacos, did you? We have to ramp this up slowly, like a good mixtape. Tito’s Tacos, founded in 1959, is first and foremost a nostalgia trip. No one is going to tell you Tito’s has tacos that are going to impress a discerning chef. That’s not the point. If you grew up in Culver City, like my mom did, then you’ll forever have a place in your heart for the crisp-shelled beef tacos with lettuce, a mountain of shredded yellow cheese, and some ice-cold red “salsa” which more closely approximates a Slurpee than anything you’d ever want to dip chips into.

And yet, the lines at Tito’s can wrap around the block, proving that taste and flavor are not merely corporeal experiences; they’re memorial as well. That, and they have a pretty good commercial jingle. If you’re looking to save space in your stomach you can skip this one, but you should go if only for the history.

Where: 11222 Washington Place, Culver City, California 90230
What to get: Beef taco with cheese ($2.80). There are no other taco options, other than to get with or without cheese.

Tacos Por Favor

Por Favor

Tacos Por Favor is, for me, a place tinged with memory. This was the first “real” taco I had in LA shortly after moving to LA in 2007. Theretofore, my taco experience had been largely hard shell, “Taco Night” tacos, similar to those at Tito’s. I started working for Google in Santa Monica and was taken by a co-worker to Tacos Por Favor for my first, somewhat revelatory carne asada tacos.

Now I see them for what they are: Solid, workmanlike tacos. A small hill of tender, grilled steak lay on the doubled-up corn tortillas with a diameter slightly smaller than a compact disc. Dressed simply with diced onion, cilantro, fiery red salsa, and a generous squeeze of lime, they were a fantastic introduction for the novitiate into the world of the proper LA taco.

Where: 1408 Olympic Boulevard, Santa Monica, California 90404
What to get: Carne asada or carnitas

EK Valley Restaurant

ek valley

Epy Garcia is the chef behind this colorful, mostly Oaxacan restaurant in Culver City. It’s tough to miss the building from the street: it’s painted bright orange, and there are equally orange umbrellas shading tables on the sidewalk. All the tacos—carnitas, pastor, and salmon—are solid, but the fish—nicely charred grilled salmon, delicate and flaky, enshrouded in warm, soft corn tortillas—stands out in the crowd.

Where: 6121 Washington Boulevard, Culver City, California 90232
What to get: Salmon taco ($3.50)

Guerrilla Tacos

guerilla2

Classically trained chef Wes Avila makes tacos that are unlike any you’ve had before. Some might call them “fancy” tacos, which, to me, is neither here nor there, because they are quite good regardless of what you call them. Try the sweet potato with feta and scallions ($4), the crab with guajillo chili [$12 for an order of three], or spicy wild boar ($5). You won’t pay 20 bucks for a quesadilla most anywhere in LA, but that’s because you won’t find a black truffle quesadilla with fried egg there, either.

Where: They move around every day. Check their website.
What: Sweet potato taco is good, and they usually have it, but the menu changes a lot.

MID

Taqueria Los Anaya

Anaya

West Adams isn’t a neighborhood especially known for its tacos but Los Anaya, a bright, friendly restaurant run by the Anaya brothers, is a worthy addition to this taco agglomeration.

On a recent visit, I took down an ambitious (and quite beautiful) plate of five tacos, the best of which was probably the chicken mole ($2), a healthy portion of flavorful meat topped with a slightly sweet, marginally bitter mole sauce. The tortillas at Los Anaya are handmade and thicker than normal, but they are wonderfully moist; none of that dried-out-parchment effect that can sometimes afflict machine-made tortillas. The tender chicken and subtly chocolatey mole is complemented wonderfully by a potent red salsa served on the taco.

Where: 4651 West Adams Boulevard, Los Angeles, California 90016
What to get: Chicken mole, carne asada tacos

Leo’s Taco Truck

Leos

Los Angeles, Vice will tell you, is famous for its “el pastor” tacos—but its al pastor tacos happen to be equally good, too! The primary ingredient is pork cooked on a vertical spit, like a shawarma, and rubbed with guajillo pepper to provide its signature tawny red color. The technique came to Mexico from the Middle East, when immigrants from present-day Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt came to Mexico around the turn of the century.

Leo’s is a bulwark of LA tacos despite its inglorious location in the parking lot of a gas station on the corner of Venice and La Brea. It’s not so much the fights breaking out in the lot and lack of parking that make this a less-than-optimal place to hit during a daytime crawl. The real reason is that even though Tacos Leo opens at 9 a.m., the good stuff usually doesn’t come out until after dark. The huge pork spit (on which a pineapple is perched), fired by what looks like a couple of giant space heaters, has almost always been there when I’ve visited Leo’s late at night. Other times, the pork comes pre-spit cooked and chunked in small bits—still tasty, but you might want to save Leo’s for an after hours run.

Where: 1515 South La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90019
What to get: ?

EAST

Yuca’s

yucas

Yuca’s, a tiny street stand on Hillhurst Avenue in Los Feliz, won the James Beard Foundation’s “America’s Classics” award in 2005. The name, for the record, is a reference to the Yucatán Peninsula, not the starchy edible root, yucca. For that reason, their cochinita pibil, or Yucatán-style pork, is particularly good. Wrapped in a banana leaf and slowly roasted, the pork has a slightly citrus-y taste imparted from its marinade and usually a slight reddish color.

Equally good is the asada, generous chunks of grilled steak served with pico de gallo. The tacos at Yuca’s are slightly bigger than the norm, which is reflected in the price ($4 and $3.50, respectively, for the asada and pork tacos). Another thing to note: many claim that their burgers, with salty, crusty, grilled edges, are actually the best thing on the menu. Something to remember for next week, when you go on your burger crawl.

Where: 2056 Hillhurst Avenue, Los Angeles, California 90027
What to get: Cochinta pibil, carne asada

Ricky’s Fish Taco

Rickys

Ricky’s is a truck, but during the day you can usually find it in a gated carport on Virgil Avenue. At night, it takes to the street.

Ricky’s Ensenada-style fried catfish tacos are among the best in town, as are the shrimp tacos. The fish is crisply coated in a light and magically greaseless jacket of batter; the fish within is remarkably tender. I like to get order the combo, with gets me two tacos, one with each of the sea-meats topped with crunchy cabbage and pico de gallo. Make sure to dress these bad boys with the wide selection of available salsas, available in the small nook right below the order window.

Where: 1400 North Virgil Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90027
What to get: The Ricky Special

Taqueria El Atacor Restaurant

atacor

There are a couple of Atacors in the neighborhood—my go-to is usually Atacor #11, close to Footsies bar. It was closed for remodeling (or something) when I stopped by however, which led me to the other, equally good Atacor Restaurant a half mile up Figueroa.

Get the potato tacos, or tacos de papas: creamy, airy, whipped potatoes held by a fried tortilla, pinched closed like a clamshell. They’re smothered in crema and salsa verde, topped off with some grated cheese, and served with radishes, and fresh limes. If you happen to be out eating tacos late at night to repair yourself after a evening of drinking, these are the tacos you are looking for: the heavy starchiness of the fried potato imbues these tacos with the best alcohol-absorbing properties of tacos and french fries, all in one glorious package.

Where: 3520 North Figueroa Street, Los Angeles, California 90065
What to get: Potato taco ($1.40)

Tacos Tamix

tamix3

There are several Tamixes in LA and they’re all pretty good. As at Leo’s, pastor is king here. Delicate slices of slightly charred reddish pork are sliced from the ever-rotating spit and layered onto tortillas with a little chunk of pineapple. For as much as I like Tamix’s fantastic pastor, I must warn you: don’t get the chicken. It will make you never eat chicken again.

Where: 1510 South Santa Fe Avenue, Los Angeles, California 90021
What to get: Pastor

B.S. Taqueria

bs taqueria

2015 was a good year for Ray Garcia. In addition to being named Esquire’s chef of the year, his two restaurants, Broken Spanish and B.S. Taqueria, were busy gathering critical acclaim in addition to being just, well, busy. B.S. Taqueria is the less fancy of the two: a small, casual place where you can order a beer and a few tacos at the bar.

The potato and chorizo tacos ($9 for an order of two) are unbelievably tasty: steak fry-like wedges of well-seasoned potato mixed with perfectly greasy chorizo, lightly sprinkled with cotija cheese. The base of the taco is a blue corn tortilla, on which another layer of melted cheese is laid. “I gained ten pounds eating those things when I first started working here,” the bartender told me. Not hard to believe. I would also like to eat ten pounds of those tacos.

Where: 514 West 7th Street, Los Angeles, California 90014
What to get: Potato and chorizo taco

Taqueria La Naranja

naranja

This is a very fun, casual place to grab a couple of grease-bomb tacos in Lincoln Heights. The way this place works is right where you walk in there’s a huge grandote comal (big-ass pan), being tended to by the taquero. There, five or six different types and cuts of meat are all cooking in grease. Some little cebollitas (spring onions) are also frying away. People are lined up waiting for tacos while a guy in the corner is playing Los Tigres del Norte covers on a Casio keyboard.

Order your tacos (One dollar each. Lengua is the best, imo, but asada and pastor are pretty good, too) and make sure you get the taquero to toss some cebollitas on the plate. They’re a mouthful of tender, fat caramelization.

Where: 2333 Daly Street, Los Angeles, California 90031
What to get: Lengua, asada, pastor

La Azteca Tortilleria

azteca

Here’s something for you vegetarians out there: veggie tacos do exist and, while most of them are absolutely no good, you can occasionally find some that are worth your time. La Azteca Tortilleria has maybe unnecessarily pigeonholed itself into a very niche category—tortilla makers—because, while the tortillas are homemade and quite good, La Azteca does so much more.

They’re known, first and foremost, for an ungodly delicious and unhealthy chile relleno burrito. This isn’t a burrito crawl, though, so we won’t get into details; suffice to say the CRB is worth your time and attention. When I got to the counter and placed my order, a cactus and egg taco and a cactus and pico taco, the guy almost sneered at me. I asked him which one was better and he said, “I don’t know, man. I don’t like that stuff.”

His loss—the nopales had the flavor of a mild pepper and a pleasing texture; ever-so-slightly slimy like a piece of fresh okra.

Where: 4538 East Cesar E Chavez Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90022
What to get: Cactus and egg, cactus and pico

Los Lagos Mariscos

los lagos

I was looking for a place to duck into during a rainstorm in East LA and I literally stumbled into Los Lagos, slipping on the slightly wet floor. I’m happy I did, because I was treated to one of the better shrimp tacos I’d had in a long time. I ordered a trio of shrimp tacos: dorado (a hard-shelled fried pocket), estilo Ensenada (breaded shrimp with slaw and a creamy mayonnaise-based sauce) and tacos “al gobernador” (governor’s tacos).

The al gobernador was the winner: juicy, grilled shrimp layered on a tortilla with a thin layer of melted cheese. The taco is covered in a piquant, onion-y tomato sauce and covered with avocado slices. While I was making taco small talk waiting for the storm to pass the owner of the restaurant, Martin Chavez, told to me that the taco originated in Tijuana, made expressly to honor a former governor of the state.

Where: 4310 East Cesar E Chavez Avenue, Los Angeles, California 90022
What to get: Shrimp tacos “al gobernador”

King Taco

king taco

People are gonna hate on this selection, but the ire is misplaced. Decrying the popularity of King Taco is a bit like saying Burger King is unworthy of his crown. The popular chain, which began in a converted ice cream truck in 1974, now has over twenty locations throughout the Southland. It is fast food, make no mistake. But it’s not like other fast food Mexican chains. If Taco Bell and Del Taco are bad Americanized Mexican, and Chipotle is hipster-fied Mexican that fools you into thinking you’re being healthy and socially responsible, then King Taco is like bad “authentic” Mexican.

The tacos are served on small corn tortillas, laid flat and doubled up, with your choice of meat and dressed with the requisite chopped onion and cilantro. They’ve also got hot champurrado, a thick corn-based beverage that sticks to your ribs.

The tacos themselves? Not bad at all. The suadero, with a smooth, almost creamy texture, is actually quite good. But again, this place is worth visiting once just to see what East-siders go for when they want something fast, easy, and reasonably approximating actual Mexican tacos.

Where: 4504 East 3rd Street, Los Angeles, California 90022
What to get: Asada, buche ($1.49 each)