At street stands that sell Tijuana-style tacos de adobada, the eye-catching centerpiece is usually a trompo — a vertical rotisserie stacked with marinated pork. In the case of 2-month-old Tacos 1986, the object of attention is the person manning the trompo: chef Jorge Alvarez-Tostado, whose nickname is “El Joy,” or often simply “Joy.” A kinetic blur of energy with slicked-back hair and a bushy mustache, he’s the Freddie Mercury of taqueros.
He belts ticket orders, tends the trompo and bangs out tacos in flashes of uncanny muscle memory, all while working the crowd with control and charisma. He mugs and blows kisses for Instagrammers. He delivers plates, remembering who in the throng of bodies ordered what. In his nanoseconds of free time, he might ask customers waiting in line if they want adobada. “Con todo?” he asks. Saying yes gets you the works atop a made-to-order corn tortilla: charred meat, chopped onion, cilantro, a slick of tomato salsa and a smear of guacamole, loosely rolled and wrapped in a thin sheet of paper. “Here you go, champ,” he says as he hands it off. The taco has vanished before you even pay for it.
Alvarez-Tostado’s frontman charms are bringing quick and early fame to Tacos 1986, but don’t let his magnetism steer you solely to the adobada. My favorite taco filling — the one that eventually might be included among the essentials of the Los Angeles taco lexicon — is the hongos, or mushrooms. They’re as glossy and coiled as snails, leaving inky trails across a tortilla. They aren’t slimy at all, though, and they’ve soaked up spicy depths.
Alvarez-Tostado sautés the hongos in salsa macha, an oil-based salsa humming with five different chiles and sesame seeds. The mushrooms shine on a standard taco, but their silken texture stands out even better atop a taco vampiro (an open-faced griddled taco akin to a tostada), or Alvarez-Tostado’s version of a quesadilla — a crisped corn tortilla, dressed con todo and welded to a mass of white cheese melted on the griddle. Drizzle it with more salsa macha from the condiments bar before the first bite sends the thing shattering into a messy, delightful muddle.
Hongos hardly factor in Tijuana’s taco culture, where Alvarez-Tostado grew up. They concede to L.A. tastes. Alvarez-Tostado devised the option at the request of Victor Delgado, the mind behind Tacos 1986. (The name references his birth year.) Delgado plays the worried manager to Alvarez-Tostado’s lead performer; he calls him Joy mostly in a tone of baffled admiration. The two have known each other since childhood.
Delgado originally wanted to open a storefront but couldn’t find funding; he admired how Los Tacos No. 1 opened as a stall in Manhattan’s Chelsea Market in 2013, selling the straightforward style of guac-smeared, grilled meat tacos he’s always loved. Alvarez-Tostado worked at Los Tacos No. 1 a while back. At first, he only agreed to be a consultant for Delgado, but he signed on to help run the stand full-time after he saw how people reacted to his food and his swagger.
Initially, they set up their red and white stand in the parking lot outside the Confection Co-op in Hollywood in November. Crowds assembled; digital word started to spread. A dispute with the building’s landlord in December forced them to find a new home. Now they operate nightly in front of a defunct Caffe Bene coffee shop on the corner of South Western Avenue and 6th Street in Koreatown. The pillar of fire surging from the trompo acts as a beacon.
They also pop up on Sundays at Smorgasburg in Row DTLA; the lines for Tacos 1986 often wind around other stands, and in the frenzy Alvarez-Tostado is practically bouncing in full rock-god mode.
Beyond adobada and hongos, Tacos 1986 lists two other meat options: pollo asada and carne asada. The grilled chicken is standard stuff, a tabula rasa upon which to scribble red and green salsas. Thick cuts of beef chuck better absorb the mesquite wood over which they’re grilled: Served con todo, this will be the taco that Baja purists compare against L.A. stalwarts like the excellent Tire Shop Taqueria in South Park.
Carne asada is also the meat of choice in the perrón, an easy-to-love, off-the-menu homage to Delgado’s favorite taco at El Yaqui in beachside Rosarito just south of Tijuana: flour tortilla, pinto beans, melted cheese, the classic final flourish of guac.
The perrón doubles as a compromise for customers looking for something that channels a burrito; Delgado doesn’t want to serve them. Neither do he nor Alvarez-Tostado take much interest in offering meats such as cabeza or lengua or tripas. They like their menu simple. At the beginning they included a thin chunk of warmed pineapple with their tacos de adobada, an addition that’s particularly popular in Mexico City variations and at local institutions like Leo’s Tacos Truck. They quickly abandoned the idea; the hint of sweetness in the adobada marinade comes from strawberry.
There’s a hint of sweetness to this operation in general. I’ve grown fond of swinging by the Koreatown outpost to witness the clientele’s ebb. Mobs of bros in black hoodies segue to multigenerational Latino families, followed perhaps by an after-work group still in business clothes. With their smartphones trained on Alvarez-Tostado, and some solid tacos in hand, everyone understands exactly why they’ve come: for a few moments of Joy.
A new taco stand distinguishes itself by its charismatic chef-frontman, Jorge “El Joy” Alvarez-Tostado, and with a concise menu that includes excellent hongos (mushrooms).
611 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles, tacos1986.com
Tacos $3; tacos; quesadillas $4; vampiros $5; mulitas $4.25
Credit cards accepted. No alcohol. No restrooms. Street parking.
Mushroom taco, adobada vampiro-style, perrón with carne asada