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Pigs ears and vampiros: Jonathan Gold finds 7 good tacos with a surprise inside

Can’t you just cruise down to the corner of Venice and La Brea, order a couple of tacos al pastor from the Leo’s truck, and be happy as a well-stuffed clam? (I’ll have mine con piña, por favor.) After a week in the godless confines of New York or Boston, aren’t the chicken tacos at King Taco good enough to make a grown man break down into tears? Well, yes. But there are many kinds of tacos in Los Angeles, and they taste many different ways. Here are a few of the good ones you’re not going to see on the drive-through menu at Chano’s.

Petty Cash. In most cities, the idea of a renowned French chef moonlighting as a taquero would seem deeply weird. In Los Angeles, it’s just what chefs do. So if you were looking for duck leg with turnips, you should probably go to Republique, but if it’s poached duck gizzard tacos you’re after, you’re better off here. As at Guerrilla Tacos, the carnitas are made with sustainably raised Cook Pig Ranch pork, which is what all the cool kids are using at the moment. Or hell, ask for the taco made with toasted crickets. 7360 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 933-5300,

Spirit House. Johnny Lee, the chef who is also behind the excellent Thai street food stall Sticky Rice in the Grand Central Market, is secretly kind of an advocate for modernist cuisine, especially at this sleek bar oddly located in a Monterey Park hotel catering to the Chinese package-tour trade. What this means in practice is that he cooks kurobuta pork shoulder sous-vide to get the firm yet melting texture that he likes, and he pats his tortillas to order. They’re pretty good, those chashu tacos. You’ll like them. And nobody’s saying you can’t get the tako fries too, even though they are kind of a pain to make. The specialty of the house seems to be Japanese beer. 123 Lincoln Ave., Monterey Park, (626) 872-0353

PHOTOS: Where to find alternative taco in L.A.

Los Güichos. If you have experienced pig’s ears only in Asian restaurants or swank French bistros, the orejas tacos here may come as a surprise. The ears have been snipped into strips that look a bit like lengths of old reel-to-reel tape. The texture is soft and melting, where you might expect them to be crunchy. And the meat has the deep, developed porky taste of the very best carnitas, which is really saying something here, because Los Güichos’ carnitas is among the very best in town. Splash a bit of brightly flavored tomatillo salsa on the tacos, and you're good to go. Parked on the southwestern corner of Slauson Avenue and Olive Street in Los Angeles, a short block east of the Harbor Freeway.

Mexicali Taco & Co. If you've been to the tidy storefront near Dodger Stadium, you know about their namesake Mexicali tacos: sizzling nubbins of chopped carne asada -- flame-grilled! -- packed into fat flour tortillas they bring up from Baja a couple of times a week. You can even get a vegan one if that's your thing. But like everybody else who visits Mexicali Taco & Co., I am obsessed with the vampiros, somewhat larger flour tortillas folded over chorizo, chicken or carne asada, maybe all three at once, as well as a squirt or two of garlic sauce and what can technically be described as a boatload of gooey, stretchy melted Mexican cheese. 702 N. Figueroa Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 613-0416,

Bizarra Capital. Nothing is quite as it seems at Ricardo Diaz’s Whittier gastropub, where the guacamole falls apart like pixels on a video screen, the aguachile sears the tongue, and everybody waits for huazontle to come back into season although even the mention of the bitter vegetable has been known to make small children sob into their horchata. So do not be surprised when the duck taco turns out to be more of a crunchy duck chalupa, its salsa smells like oranges and chocolate, and the duck itself approximates something of a Mexican confit. After your third Paloma, you won’t be able to tell the difference anyway. 12706 Philadelphia St., Whittier; (562) 945-2426.

MORE: Guerrilla Tacos is as good as it gets

La Carreta. Tripas are not actual tripe but the very top of a calf's small intestine; slender tubes still filled with half-digested milk. If you do not fancy offal, tripas is not a meat likely to convert you -- they are strong-tasting, those things, and just rubbery enough to remind you of what you are eating. The tripas at La Carreta are grand. Almost everywhere else, tripas are boiled; here they are boiled and fried, which gives them pleasant elasticity and a resounding crunch -- it's the taco to have when you're having only one. 1471 E. Vernon Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 232-7133.

La Flor de Yucatán. Here's the drill: You walk into the bakery, you order a pound or two of cochinita pibil to go, and it is a hot day, so you also pick up a sweating bottle of orange Fanta. The cochinita pibil, a meltingly soft, clove-scented dish of pork roasted in banana leaves that is the famous dish not only of this bakery but of the Yucatán itself, may take a few minutes to prepare, but you know it will be worth it: with a handful of red-stained onions, which the takeout counter provides with each order, you are going to have the best dinner on your block. Would you rather just have a taco? The Yucatán is really more about the panucho, and you should probably have ordered a couple of those to munch on as a matter of course, but the woman behind the counter will find a way to make you one. Do not neglect a squirt or two of the lethally hot house-made habanero salsa. 1800 S. Hoover St., Los Angeles, (213) 748-6090,


PHOTOS: Where to find alternative taco

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