As far as taco capitals north of the border, it’s hard to beat Los Angeles. Often called the largest Mexican city outside of Mexico, the city is home to an intimidating array of tacos styles served in fast-casual spots, full-service restaurants, makeshift corner setups and food trucks.
Faced with compiling a survey of those options for a two-and-a-half day LA taco trip the first week of February proved difficult but fun. The list was revised from 25 stops to 40 and then down to approximately 20. It could have been 70! Four businesses that were on the itinerary from the start were Leo’s Taco Truck, Tacos La Guera, Los Originales Tacos Arabes de Puebla and Mariscos Jalisco.
Leo’s Taco Truck
A pass by the lot where Leo’s Taco Truck is stationed for service is all the proof you need to know why Los Angeles is a taco mecca. Industrial spotlights illuminate the crowd of taco hungry attracted by the giant trompo situated outside the lonchera, with another inside the rig. Customers line up to order their dollar tacos al pastor just fine, but they move like blobs inside a lava lamp while they wait for the names to be called to pick up their selections.
This first stop in LA has been lauded by just about everyone, and, for the most part, it lives up to the hype. The marinated pork sliced straight from the spit was crisped in spots by the vertical burners’ blasting flames, and it had smoky touches boosted by salsa de chile de arbol from the condiment bar near the front of the truck.
But there was one issue I had with them: the tortillas. The corn discs were commodity jobs straight from a market shelf. I wasn’t surprised, though. Surrounded by the amorphous mass in the truck’s parking lot, it’s clear the bagged tortillas are necessary to keep up with the volume sold for the price point. Thankfully, the tacos as a whole don’t suffer for it.
1515 S. La Brea Ave.
Los Angeles, CA, 90019
Tacos La Guera
Commodity corn tortillas were also the foundation of choice at Tacos La Guera, a corner setup under collapsible canopies. At one end is the trompo, a young man quickly slicing the spinning meat into a tortilla. At the other end an older man accepts payment behind a table covered with vessels of garnishes and salsa. Between their posts, meat sizzles and braises and is chopped for serving in the decent tortillas to a clientele that waves and bends to accommodate new walk-ups.
The wait isn’t long before I received my order of tacos al pastor and tacos de cabeza that I topped with cilantro and onions and a singeing salsa. The pastor, which on the spit was whipped with flames, had a restrained seasoning and was overall mild. Meanwhile, the cabeza was a mix of fatty beef cheek and firmer meat that bore more salt than the pastor.
W. Pico Blvd. at S. Hobart Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA, 90006
Los Originales Tacos Arabes de Puebla
If tacos arabes are sold in Dallas, I have yet to find them after years of searching. In LA, they are most famously found at the Los Originales Tacos Arabes de Puebla truck stationed in an industrial sector of the city.
Arabes are the first of the trompo taco styles in Mexico, created by Lebanese immigrants in Puebla, Mexico, in approximately the 1930s, as an adaption of schwarma. Instead of lamb, tacos arabes are filled with pork, and a pita-like flour tortilla, not a corn tortilla, is the base. If the meat, juicy and warm and lightly seasoned, was taken off a trompo, the spit was hidden from plain sight.
At Los Originales Tacos Arabes—opened weekend nights—the signature item comes in two options: regular and especial. Both are huge. The former selection is served with meat topped with a thick chipotle barbecue desperate to be smoky and dominated with a vinegar-slamming sweetness. I recommend going for the especial, which adds queso blanco and sliced avocado to meat. It’s the better of the tacos, balancing the sharp sauce with creamy fat and saltiness.
3600 E. Olympic Blvd
Los Angeles, CA, 90023
The award-winning seafood lonchera based out of Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights neighborhood was one of the three taco spots most recommended by friends when I told them I was planning a trip to LA. (The other two were Leo’s and Guerrilla Tacos. More on the latter in a future review.)
The signature taco, the taco dorado de camarones—shrimp cradled inside a deep-fried corn tortilla served with a gauzy tomato salsa, chopped onion and avocado slices—did not disappoint. Eating an order of these tacos is a messy endeavor but, in much the same way a child revels in his LEGO war zone of a room, it’s a joyful one. Add splashes of Tapatio salsa picante and the joy turns into ecstasy.
3040 E. Olympic Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA, 90023