Like so many people, I had grown to take King Taco for granted, as a stop on an Eastside taco tour that also included the tacos arabes at Elvirita’s, the chicken neck tacos at Santa Rita, the carnitas tacos at Antojitos Denise’s, and the crunchy shrimp tacos at Mariscos Jalisco. And after a while, as more and more tacos started to crowd onto the itinerary, I began to leave King Taco alone.
King Taco may have been what jump-started the craze for tacos al pastor in Los Angeles, and its emergence in the late 1960s may have marked the point where the local taco culture began to move from the Mexican-American hard-shell taco toward the Central Mexican insistence on fresh tortillas, grilled meats and incendiary salsas. But King Taco has grown into a biggish chain, with a giant taco mall out on East Third Street and outlets in Old Town Pasadena and the Auto Club Speedway. Your mom probably likes King Taco. Most self-respecting gastronauts long ago moved on to other outlets for suadero, buche and tripas.
But I was moved by the recent death of King Taco founder Raul Martínez Sr. more than I had expected to be. I may have been more of an El Taurino man back in the day, but I admired the King Taco flagship for its consistency, especially when the time crept toward 2 a.m. And you have to acknowledge the history. Many people, including the estimable Gustavo Arellano, credit Martinez with the invention of the taco truck, which as far as I’m concerned puts him up there with Edison and the Wright brothers.
Where does one pay his or her respects to such a man? At the original King Taco, of course, a smallish stand in Cypress Park that manages to draw crowds even at 4 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon. I got my usual brace of tacos al pastor moistened with the house’s vivid red salsa. And while the marinated pork was scooped out of a bin instead of carved from a rotating trompa, and the tortillas warming on the flattop came from a package, the salsa was hot, the flavors were bright and clean, and the tortillas were crisp; the very model of a delicious late-afternoon snack. To have this, the essential Los Angeles taco, as one’s legacy is not a bad thing. I raised a paper cup of horchata in Martinez’s honor.
King Taco, 1118 Cypress Ave., Los Angeles., (323) 223-2595.