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Three great Mexican restaurants in El Sereno

El Sereno is a mostly quiet community, not commonly known by those outside of its immediate vicinity. But the neighborhood has plenty to offer despite its low profile, including a vibrant and diverse collection of Mexican restaurants. There are trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants, kitchens in convenience stores and some truly fabulous unmarked stands, and many of them focus on iconic dishes from Baja to Jalisco, Puebla to Nayarit and beyond.

There are wonders to be found on El Sereno’s winding back avenues, anonymous tables from which taqueros sling palm-sized tortillas full of delicious mesquite-grilled carne asada or buche straight from the comal, but you don’t need to throw yourself on the whims of the streets. There is a large cluster of great and interesting Mexican food on busy Huntington Drive too, distinctive restaurants that operate in daylight and maintain mostly regular hours. Here are three excellent regional Mexican restaurants on Huntington Drive in El Sereno:

El Vaquero

El Vaquero is a narrow storefront on a crowded stretch of Huntington, a long room with about a dozen tables equipped with leather armchairs, and a menu on the wall just above the counter, where you place your order. Its specialty is the Guadalajara-style torta ahogada, a crusty baguette filled with rich carnitas drowned in a fiery red salsa, spicy enough to give you pause, but too delicious to keep you away for long. What you really want, though, is another Guadalajara specialty: the tacos dorados de barbacoa, a double layer of tortillas wrapped around a generous fistful of barbacoa and then fried in oil until the outer layer blisters. They are simultaneously crispy and soft, meaty, smoky and bright from the salsa and lime that you should pour on top, oily and hot in a way that will burn your fingers and probably the roof of your mouth too. 4884 1/2 Huntington Drive, El Sereno, (323) 441-8536, www.elvaquerorestaurante.com.

Los Pinos Market

There’s a giant sign that reads “MEXICAN FOOD” on top of Los Pinos Market, the only indication that it isn’t just another convenience store. It is nestled into an awkward crook just off of Huntington, such that it requires a careful eye and a little daring to make the sharp turn to reach its oddly trapezoidal parking lot. When you walk in the door, things don’t get more promising – next to the entrance is a wall of canned goods and remote control toys, a few fridges of sodas and a scattering of tables. Beyond the jarred salsas and behind the counter, though, there is a kitchen that churns out excellent plates of food, with a number of dishes from central Mexico.

Los Pinos Market specializes in lovely chicharrones and big, hearty cemitas poblanas, sandwiches in the style of Puebla, and there is a particularly outstanding bowl of birria, the richly flavored goat stew that is most associated with Jalisco. The version at Los Pinos is heavily spiced and funky, full of tender goat bits and served with a stack of steaming tortillas and a little gravy boat of spicy habanero salsa. And to accompany your bowl of stew or hearty sandwich, there is a jug of the wonderfully tart and lightly spiced pre-Columbian pineapple drink tepache, fermented in-house. 4822 Huntington Drive, El Sereno, (323) 225-2594. 

Mariscos Los Lechugas

It’s easy to pick out Mariscos Los Lechugas on a sunny day in El Sereno, and not just because the truck is painted with a very strange but happy mural of the owners with their lower halves depicted as sea creatures. Los Lechugas will be the truck with the crowd, people leaning against the wall in anticipation of what may be the finest warm-afternoon lunch around, a giant ceviche tostada.

There are good seafood cocktails and tacos, of course, but it is the tostadas that are truly special, tuna ground Ensenada-style with a generous helping of avocado, or the mixta especial, a massive pile of tuna and shrimp and jaiva (imitation crab) and octopus and more, bright and refreshing and pretty shockingly filling, the solid octopus playing well off of the thin sheets of jaiva. Dress it with a few of the truck's large collection of hot sauces and carry your plate somewhere convenient – maybe to the benches stationed outside the nearby El Sereno public library – and dig in. A $5 lunch never felt so good. Parked most days during daylight hours near 5244 S Huntington Drive, El Sereno, (323) 537-3234.

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