Jonathan Gold recommends: 13 great tacos in Southern California
Tacos - can we ever have enough tacos in our lives? I didn’t think so. Because when the taco is right, the birds start to sing and the stars shine more brightly and you have the impression that everything is right with the world, which is a lot of happiness for a buck and a quarter, a buck-fifty tops. A perfect taco is a gift to the universe.
What Apache’s serves reflects neither Mexico City street food nor the revered carne asada traditions of northern Mexico, but 10,000 barbecues in Eastside parks and backyards, the ones where the meat is always carne, the drinks are always cold, and somebody’s Uncle Rudy is always manning the grill. If you peer over the counter at Apache’s, what you see are steaks sizzling on the grill, probably flap meat (although I’ve never asked), without much in the way of marinade. When you get your tacos, each is wrapped in a slip of white paper, and the tortillas are filled to bursting with chopped bits of that same steak, charred and bubbling, more than slightly chewy and leaner than you might expect.
1843 E. 1st St., Los Angeles, (323) 262-9787.
There are few pleasures more reliable in Los Angeles than the lamb barbacoa at My Taco in Highland Park: a delicate, spicy tangle of long-cooked meat crisped on hot metal, blackened at the edges, caramelized to a sweet, subtle gaminess. This barbacoa is customarily ordered by the plate or by the really big plate – you tear off pieces with a tortilla and moisten them with the hot goat consomme that comes in a foam cup on the side. But sometimes, a half-pound of lamb isn’t in your plans. At such times, there is the taco de barbacoa: an ounce or two of meat, a couple of fresh tortillas, period. If you want to add chopped onion and cilantro, maybe a few drops of mild yahualica salsa, it’s up to you.
6300 York Blvd., Highland Park, (323) 256-2698.
Sergio’s is unambitious but really good, which is to say that you will find the full component of organ meats, drowned burritos if you’re not into the taco thing, carne asada that is not the specialist kind and menudo even when it doesn’t happen to be Sunday. So you get a few tacos de carnitas – just regular carnitas – and a lot of smoky red salsa, and you buzzsaw through them within a few seconds of them hitting the table, and then you lean back. The horchata is sweet and cold. You are happy.
308 S. Vail Ave., Montebello, (323) 888-9159.
Johnny Lee 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. Another reason: The specialty of the house seems to be Japanese beer.
123 Lincoln Ave., Monterey Park, (626) 872-0353
Although the truck is probably best known for its juicy lengua, stewed beef tongue, tonight is special: Get the chorizo, loosely packed griddle-crisped sausage. Crunchy-skinned, a little spicy, spiked with those unidentifiable chewy bits that are really best left unexamined, Arturo’s chorizo tacos are what you want to be eating halfway through the night.
400 S. Fair Oaks, Pasadena.
You glance over at the taco section of the menu board, and note that your choice is: Taco. J&S is not where you end up when you’re in the mood for buche, trompas, cueritos or other advanced entries in the taco lexicon. So you order a couple, and they’re kind of good in their way – shredded lettuce, shredded cheese and diced tomatoes that were probably not the ripest ones in the supermarket, but also a ladleful of creamy taqueria guacamole and a thin, crisp shell that clearly came straight out of the fryer. Is there meat? Yes, in the form of a few chewy strands that slow you down a little as you chomp, and you probably wouldn’t notice if cost-cutting chefs decided to leave it out altogether.
887 N. Garfield Ave., Montebello, (323) 728-3853.
El Pariente is famous in the Highland Park area for its Jalisco-style birria, goat soup, which is an especially potent palliative on the other end of a hard Saturday night. Goat or menudo; it’s up to you. You will wait in line at the truck, parked in the lot of Serrano’s Tires, and you will be rewarded with a stout foam cup of goat in consomé, ready to be dosed with chopped onion, thin hot sauce, radish, whatever your trembling hands require. The tortillas are soft and homemade, unlikely to shock the system. And on those days when soup requires too much commitment, when Chivas has lost and your sorrow is just too great, you can get your goat meat tucked into tacos instead.
York Boulevard at Nolden Street, Highland Park.
Tacos DF, decorated with splendid murals, including a reworking of the Last Supper with classic Mexican movie stars in place of the disciples, is also the only place in town I have run across tacos made with chicharrón prensado, a gooey, porky, slithery meat with overtones of head cheese, scarlet and chunky in appearance and as dense as molten lead. Chicharrón prensado is usually described as pressed pigskin, and there are certainly bits here matching that description, but it is clearly more than that – escaped scraps of carnitas meat, perhaps, or cartilage stewed into submission, or fat that didn’t quite render the first time around, but is now ready for its closeup.
3342 Tweedy Blvd., South Gate, (323) 564-3221.
The tacos de longaniza are a couple of honest tortillas, a sprinkling of diced onion and generous handfuls of crumbly, well-browned pork sausage, undoubtedly made from the same pigs as the carnitas, that are well-flavored with cumin, salt and spice. Splash on a bit of the thick, green salsa, grab a bottle of Manzana Lift, and you are in your own, equally delicious taco universe.
5305 N. Figueroa Street, Highland Park, (323) 478-8383.
If you have only experienced ears in Asian restaurants, the orejas at Los Güichos may come as a surprise -- the ears have been snipped into strips like lengths of old reel-to-reel tape, soft and melting, where you might expect them to be crunchy, and with the deep, developed porky taste of the very best carnitas. 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.
The tacos de papas at El Atacor #11 are different beasts entirely: thin corn tortillas folded around bland spoonfuls of mashed spuds and fried to an indelicate, shattering crunch. The barely seasoned potatoes exist basically as a smooth, unctuous substance that oozes out of the tacos with the deliberate grace of molten lava. The glorious stink of hot grease and toasted corn subsumes any subtle, earthy hint of potato, and tacos de papas evaporate so quickly that you are thankful they are available 10 to an order, slicked with cream and thin taquería guacamole, piled together in a foam takeout container like so many lunch-truck taquitos.
2622 N. Figueroa Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 441-8477. Papas taco also available at El Atacor No. 8, 86506 Whittier Blvd., East L.A., (323) 832-9263.
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 both 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.
If you’ve been to Mexicali Taco & Co., either the old taco table down on Beaudry or the tidy new storefront on Figueroa where it flows into the Pasadena Freeway, 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 sprinkle them with pickled onions, moisten them with fluid taqueria guacamole and a spoonful of habanero salsa, and you’re good to go; there’s nothing quite like them in Los Angeles. Who wouldn’t want a well-executed Mexicali-style taco? 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, rather larger flour tortillas folded over chorizo, chicken or carne asada, maybe all three, 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, MexicaliTaco.com.
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