It’s said that if you put it in a tortilla, Los Angeles will eat it. From ubiquitous lonchero trucks to the white-draped tables of alta cocina, wherever the hands of the clock may fall, it’s taco time. In this city of creative dreamers, the taco comes in as many variations as there are stars on the sidewalks, all tasty, fast, and cheap. We’ve compiled a tip-of-the-iceberg list of some of the city’s best.
Tacos Leo, Mid-City
Nothing says LA like a meal eaten standing up next to a truck, and nowhere more so than Tacos Leo, in a parking lot at the noisy urban crossroads of Venice and La Brea. For a buck, sink your teeth into a classic taco al pastor: juicy pork sliced off a spit roast, topped with onions, cilantro, and a hot slice of roasted pineapple, served on a chewy corn tortilla and doused with salsa—your choice, red or green. It’s just the thing for late-night refueling, as evidenced by throngs of partiers here after the dinner hour has long passed.
Order: Tacos al pastor and an orange soda.
Guisados, Boyle Heights
This may be the most popular place in town, a legend in its own time for succulent Mexico City-style guisados, slow-braised stews that saucily shift LA’s traditional meat-on-a-tortilla paradigm. Moles, tingas, and cochinita pibil, the greatest hits of Mexican cuisine, are paired with vibrant salsas and robustly thick tortillas, served at tables or to go from the airy, tiled storefront decked with outsider art. Vegetarian choices transcend the usual afterthought, and include braised squash, mushroom, and beans; the chiles torreados, blistered chiles with onion, are as loved as they are feared.
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Order: Six-taco sampler and an agua de melon (melon juice).
CaCao Mexicatessen, Eagle Rock
This upscale deli made headlines when they debuted a taco with duck confit, its classical garb of matchstick radishes and pink-pickled onion belying the revolution within. Sometime offerings of venison, wine-braised lamb, and flor de jamaica (hibiscus blossom) are equally noteworthy, such taco brilliance you can’t believe no one thought of them before. As Frida Kahlo scowls down from the wall over loteria cards used as table markers, nopales (cactus), huitlacoche (corn truffle), and squash blossom tacos serve as a tasty reminder of the origins of Mexican cuisine, far from the taco truck’s grill.
Order: Carnitas de pato (duck confit) tacos and a homemade horchata.
Tacos Punta Cabras, Santa Monica
The slick new Westside spot manned by foodies in porkpie hats brings together the best of the Californias: Baja flavors and So Cal style. The focus here is seafood, delicately fried and served with a rainbow of original salsas—pineapple habanero, chile morrita—and earnest advice on how to combine them, mixologist-like, into unique taco cocktails. Daily specials involving English peas and sunflower hearts may raise eyebrows, but traditionalists will forgive it all once they taste TPC’s tortillas, made in-house but magically reminiscent of Mexico. (You can buy them by the bag, and probably will). Hip-hop music sets the beat, unless there’s a soccer game on.
Order: Fish tacos and BYOB.
Mariscos Jalisco, Boyle Heights
There’s just one taco on the menu at this East LA mariscos truck, but that’s all you need—Mariscos Jalisco has taken top prizes at LA’s citywide Taco Madness competition for the last two years. The winning combination is an addictive fried shrimp taco, in a crispy corn tortilla topped with slices of rich avocado and smothered in secret-recipe salsa (all we can tell you is, it’s red). Enjoy it street-style on the concrete bank, or take advantage of simple but spotless tables through an unmarked door into the adjacent building. If it all seems too good to be true and you can’t believe your luck, just wait until the strolling guitarist strikes up a tune.
Order: Tacos dorados de camaron and extra napkins.
Photo credits: Leos courtesy of Tacos Leo; Guisados courtesy of Guisados; Mariscos Jalisco courtesy of Marcus Teply; Tacos Punta Cabras courtesy of Valerie Hamilton; CaCao courtesy of CaCao Mexicatessen