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Cochinita pibil from Chaak Kitchen in Tustin.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Your guide to the best Mexican restaurants from The Times’ 101

[It’s here: The Los Angeles Times’ 101 restaurants, dishes, people and ideas that define how we eat in 2020.]

From birria de res to tlayudas, Los Angeles is one of the world’s great bastions of Mexican food culture. These 21 restaurants from the 2020 101 restaurants guide are some of the best examples of Mexican culinary brilliance in Southern California.

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The birria burrito from Burritos La Palma.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Burritos La Palma

El Monte Mexican $
| 2019 | #15
| 2020
It’s difficult to conjure a more perfect food than the birria de res burrito at Burritos La Palma: a sleek goblet of spiced, long-stewed shredded beef melded to a griddle-crisped flour tortilla. It has a perfected-over-time quality that you can trace back to Jerez, Zacatecas, where the Bañuelos Lugo family opened a flour tortilleria in 1980 that has evolved into what Burritos La Palma represents today: a perfect union of buttery flour tortillas and brazenly lush stewed meats. Today Southern California has four locations of its own, purveyers of those exquisite beef birria burritos but also burritos wrapped tightly around smoldering chicken tinga with potatoes, and a spicy chicharrón en salsa verde that achieves a level of profundity that’s rare outside the Mexican home kitchen. The platillo especial, with two beef birria burritos lavished with chile verde and melted cheese, is more thrilling than you expect it to be. Of course, the natural portability of the burrito, rooted in Mexican working-class ingenuity, is suited for our times.
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Enchiladas tres moles at La Casita Mexicana Restaurant.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

La Casita Mexicana

Bell Mexican $$
| 2020
At their landmark Mexican restaurant in Bell, chefs Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu are proud emissaries of traditional Mexican cooking. The menu stretches from the highlands of Jalisco (cueritos, beef shank marinated in a vibrant red chile sauce) to the Yucatán (succulent, citrusy, banana-leaf-wrapped cochinita pibil), spotlighting prized national dishes that demonstrate the cuisine’s breadth and rigor. Many dishes are exceptional in takeout form, including mushroom- and herb-stuffed chile rellenos; chicharrón-filled enchiladas striped with cooling crema; and thin-sliced steak served over grilled nopal. Do order the famously baroque chile en nogada, a stuffed poblano chile bulging with a sweet-savory picadillo hash, drowned in a creamy walnut cream sauce stippled with jewel-red pomegranate seeds. The restaurant’s nutty pipián moles, and a dark mole poblano that hints at the bitterness of burnt chiles, are excellent.
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Cochinita pibil and tamarindo con chile cocktail from Chaak Kitchen in Tustin.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Chaak Kitchen

Tustin Mexican $$
| 2020
At her second Orange County restaurant, Gabbi Patrick surveys and interprets the culinary terrain of the Yucatán Peninsula. Her cochinita pibil, perhaps the region’s most famous dish, is exceptional — pork stained with achiote, smoked over red oak, pulled into hunky strands and stacked into a tower domed with pickled onions. It is the kind of dish you can’t leave alone until it’s gone, even if you’re already full from mixed-seafood ceviche, custardy tamal colado with wild mushroom ragu and a fantastic bowl of brothy clams with green chorizo. The cuisine is part of Patrick’s family heritage but tradition doesn’t hem in her cooking: A bone-in New York strip with fried potatoes and watercress coulis is a universalist statement of pleasure. The bartenders stand ready for some deep conversation on agave spirits. In a stroke of almost psychic foresight, a portion of the space has a retractable roof. A push of a button and boom: instant outdoor dining.
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A special plate of yukon gold potatoes, red beets, arugula, Argentinian chorizo and two runny eggs from The Chori Man.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

The Chori-Man

San Pedro Mexican $
| 2020
In the hills of San Pedro, Humberto “the Chori-Man” Raygoza is a fourth-generation chorizo maker who learned the finer points of sausage making at his family’s butcher shop in Zacatecas, Mexico. There he learned the painstaking labor of grinding down pork shoulder to soft flesh, and the requisite devotion to toasting and pounding fresh whole spices until they are less substance than flavor. In his shop next to Colossus Bakery, he makes red chorizo flavored with guajillo chiles, the roasted peppers impossibly deep and smoky. The moss-green chorizo made in the style of Toluca is very popular; it seethes with roasted poblanos and the sharp perfume of coriander. Rounds of his sausages, freshly vacuum-sealed, are available to go from the shop’s refrigerator. Many customers come to eat; in the back, the tiny kitchen dispenses first-rate burritos and tacos until closing. Don’t miss the chile relleno burrito, a doughy behemoth padded thickly with layers of cheese, sausage and fragrant green chile.
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The chorizo verde (green) and black pastor tacos from Evil Cooks in El Sereno.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Evil Cooks

El Sereno Mexican $
| 2020
Elvia Huerta and Alex Garcia of the ride-or-die “metal taco” duo named Evil Cooks drive around Los Angeles in a black 1989 Dodge van that looks like the touring wheels of a metal-punk band. They cook in rock T-shirts and bandannas, stamping their fresh-pressed corn tortillas with their sello, or imprint: a smirking, goateed cartoon devil logo that Garcia designed himself. Following their canceled residency at Smorgasburg L.A. this spring, the duo have been cooking under the cover of face masks and a plastic tent they erect every weekend on a quiet street in El Sereno. There they marinate stacks of pork in recado negro chile paste until the flesh turns dark blue on the rotating “goth” trompo, which was inspired in part by a similar “black” al pastor made by Mexican chef Roberto Solis. The spice-rubbed meat, shaved over fresh-pressed corn tortillas, is distinctly earthy and succulent. Lately the Cooks have been making enormous burritos filled with things like chilaquiles and carnitas, and the emerald-green vegan chorizo that Garcia spent all summer perfecting. I’ve grown mildly obsessed with the nopal dish that involves breading and deep-frying a grilled cactus pad until it starts to resemble a pounded-thin chicken fried steak — they call it “nopales a la milanesa.” The menu is always subject to change, but you can count on one or two desserts, including Huerta’s citrus-tinged flan taco made with thin, crepe-like tortillas. Together, Huerta (born and raised in El Sereno) and Garcia (a proud son of Querétaro in central Mexico) cook food that bridges Chicano and Mexican culinary tropes and traditions while also gently rebelling against them with verve, humor and rock music. Theirs is some of the most interesting and exciting cooking in Los Angeles.
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Black mole tlayuda with egg from Guelaguetza.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Guelaguetza

Harvard Heights Mexican $$
| 2019 | #98
| 2020
Moles are the crossword puzzles of Oaxacan cooking. Their complexities tease and challenge our brains; we need them more than ever. Bricia Lopez and her family have created family meals with one of four moles (negro, rojo, coloradito and the stewy variation, fortified with almonds and raisins, known as estofado) and either grilled chicken or pork carnitas. Scroll through the online menu to see other combination and solo meal options, including a platter of seven appetizers (guacamole, taquitos and fried guacamole among them) and herbed chicken soup to feed a crowd. Pickup or delivery.
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Tacos from Guerrilla Tacos.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Guerrilla Tacos

Downtown L.A. Mexican $$
| 2020
If you remember Wes Avila’s singular tacos served from a scrappy Arts District stand nearly a decade ago, you know the chef’s mettle: He knows how to make a situation work. Tacos remain his palette on which to mix modern Angeleno flavors, including favorites like sweet potato with feta, almond salsa and fried corn. Pickup and delivery.
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A taco sampler, and sides of salsas, at the original Guisados in Boyle Heights.
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times)

Guisados

Boyle Heights Mexican $
| 2020
There’s possibly no greater joy than huddling around a taco truck late at night, in close proximity to friends and strangers, eating freshly prepared tacos. This ritual has been greatly diminished by the pandemic. At Guisados, Los Angeles’ stalwart taco micro-chain, thoughtful takeout packaging goes a long way toward sustaining the warmth, texture and instant gratification of eating fresh tacos. The popular taco sampler is contained neatly inside a domed plastic platter, a painter’s palette of braised meats and toppings chosen and prepared for vibrant, delicious juxtaposition: bacon-infused steak picado humming with the bright, cascading heat of green serrano chiles; smoky, luscious mounds of scarlet-red chicken tinga; mole poblano anointed with curdles of queso fresco; and the magnificently soupy chicharrón taco, the melty irresistibly tender cueritos (skins) served in a medium-spicy chile verde sauce that numbs your lips for a few precious seconds before it fizzles out like a comet streaking the darkness.
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Vegetable galettes from Gusto Bread in Long Beach.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Gusto Bread

Long Beach Mexican $$
| 2020
Every Sunday morning on Long Beach’s Retro Row, two doors down from the Page Against the Machine bookstore and a couple of blocks south from Holé Molé’s Ensenada fish tacos, a line forms outside Gusto Bread, the popular bakery that Arturo Enciso and Ana Salatino started as a cottage food operation in 2018. Gusto successfully made the leap this year into a commercial space on 4th Street, specializing in breads and pan dulce made with whole grains and masa madre, the bakery’s natural levain. Behind the window display, there are baskets of huesos, baguettes with thin crusty shells and soft, chewy middles; hefty, lustrous California loaves built from grains grown in-state and milled by Enciso himself; and gorgeously tapered loaves encrusted in sunflower, pumpkin and poppy seeds. Lately, the bakery team has been playing with galettes made with farmers market fruits; in late summer, filled with the nectar sweetness of peaches, the delicate pastries were admirably buttery and sweet. If you are lucky, there will be conchas; trays of the iconic Mexican sweet bread sell out before noon on most weekends. Flavored with cacao and vanilla, with a top layer of sugar-cookie frosting, the round, pillowy bread is earthy and not too sweet, ideal for dipping into your morning cup of coffee.
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Baja California blood clams on the half shell with morita sauce, lime and red onion from Holbox.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Holbox/Chichén Itzá

Historic South-Central Mexican $$
| 2020
The Baja blood clams prepared by Gilberto Cetina Jr. at his destination seafood stand live up to their name: They look mortally wounded, though their flavor, teased out by a few drops of lime juice, tastes only lightly, crisply briny. A place at Holbox’s 10-seat counter evokes the intimacy of a sushi bar, with Cetina passing you yellowtail and uni tostadas and aguachile made from wild-caught Mexican shrimp. While indoor seating at Mercado La Paloma in Historic South-Central remains barred, there is one silver lining to eating instead at the tiled tables outside: It is less awkward to run to the Cetina family’s other Mercado stall, Chichén Itzá, and weave its bistec a la Yucateca and torta de cochinita pibil into the seafood spread.
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Don't Mess with Texas breakfast taco from HomeState.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

HomeState

East Hollywood Mexican $$
| 2020
The Tex-Mex restaurant, with locations in Hollywood, Highland Park and Playa Vista, is an antidote to pandemic gloom, a cheerful, buoyant, woman-powered kitchen dispensing fresh-made breakfast tacos heaped with ingredients like hard-fried bacon, shredded brisket, spicy chorizo and crisp potatoes. It’s no wonder both Austin and San Antonio claim it as their own: The genius of the breakfast taco is its profound flexibility and economy. A very good one is wildly flavorful yet also quotidian, to be downed as quickly as a morning shot of espresso. HomeState has a pretty broad array: The Trinity is a voluptuous confluence of bacon, potatoes, eggs and cheese; chorizo adds zing and spice to the girthy Guadalupe taco; and the Pecos is a sumptuous, beefy meld of scrambled eggs and shredded brisket. Owner Brianna Valdez, a native Texan and lifelong devotee of the breakfast taco genre, runs the swelling micro-chain with a team that includes her sister, Andy. A few years ago, the sisters founded the restaurant’s “band taco” program, which is an off-menu taco developed in collaboration with musical artists, with proceeds going to nonprofit community groups. It’s just one more reason to love HomeState.
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A mixed plate of tacos from Kogi BBQ.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Kogi BBQ

Korean Mexican $$
| 2019 | #100
| 2020
Kogi BBQ was born during the golden age of L.A. food trucks, when the tattooed dude obsessively laboring inside the tiny, hot kitchen could turn out to be the chef guest-hosting your favorite Food Network game show. More than an emblem of L.A.’s cultural cross-pollination, Kogi’s laidback food-truck ethos has helped shape a whole generation of chefs. Closer in spirit to the glories of the venerable L.A. burger stand or taco truck than a high-toned restaurant kitchen, Kogi is perhaps more relevant than ever, reflecting the way many of us eat in 2020 — spicy kimchi folded into an exuberantly cheesy quesadilla, hot dogs spiked with Sriracha — while also presaging the rise of L.A.’s vital pop-up and ghost kitchen scene. The menu still surprises with its extravagance: A meaty burrito stuffed with spicy pork and lavished with glossy, brick-red mole was a standout from a recent specials menu, and a late-night “Pac Man” burger stuffed with chorizo and green chiles tastes gloriously of Los Angeles.
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Empanadas de camaron from Mariscos El Faro.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Mariscos El Faro

Highland Park Mexican $
| 2020
The Highland Park food truck specializes in Sinaloa-style seafood, raw fish preparations remarkable in their freshness and searing heat. Aguachile tostadas are at the heart of the menu, the plump shrimp, cucumber, wispy purple onion and avocado briefly cured in a voluptuously spicy citrus brine and a dusting of chiltepin (almost every dish gets blasted with the bright, lacerating heat of the wild pepper). Callo de lobina, salt-cured sea bass, tastes wonderful with the smoky, salty, house-made salsa negra. Mazatlán-style shrimp tacos, deep-fried specimens filled with springy shrimp, are half crunch, half suppleness, with tender, creamy middles. Don’t leave without trying shrimp-stuffed empanadas, crispy-edged with a hot molten center.
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Tacos de camarones from Mariscos Jalisco.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Mariscos Jalisco

Boyle Heights Mexican $
| 2019 | #61
| 2020
When I hear any mention of Olympic Boulevard, my mind immediately leaps to the Mariscos Jalisco food truck, the all-white lonchera that has been parked more or less in the same spot on an industrial strip for a decade, and whose tacos dorados de camarón and chile-blistered seafood tostadas are widely considered the best in Los Angeles. Sitting there on the low brick stoop in front of the lonchera, among parents wrangling kids and teenagers laughing loudly, it might be the most visceral two or three bites in the city. The fresh-fried, perfect half-moon taco shatters into salty morsels between your teeth. Somehow the shrimp are impossibly springy, creamier than you remember, and the crisp shell dampened by rough-chopped tomatoes, onions and slivers of ripe avocado. There is more to Mariscos Jalisco than crunchy shrimp tacos, of course — the aguachile is bracingly fresh and spicy, and the Poseidon, an ultra-spicy conflagration of octopus, ceviche and shrimp aguachile, is equally legendary.
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Socalo's pescado a la plancha with a side of rice and beans.
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times)

Socalo

Santa Monica Mexican $$
| 2020
When chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger opened Border Grill more than three decades ago, they nudged forward the conversation about Mexican cooking in America by showcasing the cuisine’s sheer vastness and regionality. Socalo, their newest restaurant in Santa Monica, feels like an elegant and understated distillation of their culinary wanderings across Mexico. You can get chunky, beautifully charred carne asada tacos anointed with slow-burning salsa quemada; a very good and succulent shrimp and steak vampiro coated in griddled cheese; and crunchy chicken dorado tacos that shatter neatly between your teeth. I love the chicken poblano enchiladas awash in spicy crema, and the slow-braised lamb birria achieves depths that are only possible with immense skill and patience. For dessert, there’s an excellent tres leches cake with fresh strawberries. It should be noted that Socalo has one of the most comprehensive and thrilling collections of Mexican wines on the Westside, which is reason enough to stop in.
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The Burrito 2.0 from Sonoratown.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Sonoratown

Downtown L.A. Mexican $
| 2019 | #5
| 2020
Named after one of the first established Mexican neighborhoods in Los Angeles — the “lost barrio” of Sonoratown that once stood near L.A.’s present-day Chinatown — Jennifer Feltham and Teodoro Diaz-Rodriguez Jr.’s influential downtown taquería has helped spread the gospel of mesquite grilled steak and finely honed flour tortillas far and wide. The restaurant has been a vital takeout staple throughout 2020, bundling carne asada, grilled chicken and the house chorizo by the pound with the restaurant’s famed flour tortillas, which are still made using soft Sonoran wheat flour produced in Diaz-Rodriguez’s hometown of San Luis Río Colorado, Sonora. There is succor to be found in a take-home tray of the char-tinged, finely chopped beef, gloriously accessorized with all the requisite trimmings, including shredded cabbage, earthy-sweet grilled green onions and the taqueria’s silken guacamole salsa. For a single bite that reminds you why the cooking at Sonoratown is essential, consider the Burrito 2.0, a sumptuously meaty parcel of chunky guacamole, Monterey jack cheese, pinto beans and your choice of meat. It is arguably the most perfect lunch in downtown Los Angeles.
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Pescadillas from Taco Maria.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Taco Maria

Costa Mesa Mexican $$
| 2020
In takeout mode, Carlos Salgado has directed his innovationist energies into Cortez the Killer, a compact but lavish burger built of three thin Wagyu beef patties robed with caramelized onions, blue cheese and date ketchup on a brioche bun. Veal jus comes on the side for baptizing the beast. Is he still selling tacos? A couple — most memorably a chewy-crisp grilled variation of pescadillas fashioned from blue corn masa, filled with sturgeon and served with a smoky, peanut-riddled salsa morita. The dinnertime tasting menus at his indoor-outdoor Costa Mesa dining room have always been communions of soul and intellect — so quell yearnings with his carryout family-style meals. Beef barbacoa or pork braised in roasted green chile may anchor the feast, and there is always the stack of Salgado’s tortillas smelling of sweet, sun-warmed fields.
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Sweet tamales wrapped in corn husks, left, and tamales wrapped in banana leafs, right, from Tamales Elena Y Antojitos.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Tamales Elena y Antojitos

Bell Gardens Mexican $
| 2020
Maria Elena Lorenzo and her husband, Juan Irra, have been fixtures in the Watts community for three decades, selling Lorenzo’s sustaining tamales to students and neighbors, first from carts and then from a food truck they continue to operate. Six months ago, the couple fulfilled a dream nearly 30 years in the making: They opened a freestanding restaurant in Bell Gardens with their daughters, Nayeli Irra, Judepth Irra, Heidi Irra, Maria Irra and Teresa Irra, all of whom have cooked in marquee restaurants around L.A. Their menu illuminates the Afro-Mexican cuisine of Costa Chica, part of the southern coastal state of Guerrero. Try the Guerrero-style tamale — thin layers of masa steamed in banana leaves filled with pork in red salsa or chicken in green salsa. Delve further by ordering dusky-sweet mole costeño, lengua in plantain sauce, aporreadillo (a Guerrerense pairing of salted, crisped beef with eggs) and, most gloriously, pozole verde, whose flavors bound in every possible direction.
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Squash blossom quesadilla at Valle in Venice.
(Pascal Shirley)

Valle

Venice Mexican $$$
| 2020
Venice’s Gjelina Group closed its Japanese restaurant MTN in March. By May it had reenvisioned the space as a pop-up called Valle; the neighborhood took to it so fervently that the placeholder idea became permanent. The talent in evidence from Pedro Aquino and Juan Hernandez, two longtime chefs for the company, makes it clear that their starring platforms were overdue. They call upon their Oaxacan roots for delicate squash-blossom-filled quesadillas, tlayudas con cecina (pork collar marinated in ruddy chile), lamb barbacoa and a vegan take on mole amarillo. Eating pork belly tacos set over freshly made, inky-blue corn tortillas basically equates to a therapy session. The partially open-air dining room qualifies enough as “outside” to allow seating for customers, and a multilevel back patio regularly fills to a distanced capacity.
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The combo plate with a side of chicken tacos, bottom left, and vegan grape leaf tamales from X'tiosu Kitchen.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

X’tiosu Kitchen

Boyle Heights Mexican Lebanese $
| 2019 | #87
| 2020
At their Boyle Heights restaurant, brothers Felipe and Ignacio Santiago merge the flavors of their native Oaxaca with classic Lebanese mezze to brilliant effect. “Oaxacan” hummus made with whipped black beans and a dusting of cayenne pepper is earthy and rich. Their take on tabbouleh salad cleverly swaps out bulgur in favor of nopales tossed with chopped onions, tomatoes and extravagant quantities of fresh parsley. The adaptation is so elegant, bright and refreshing, you wonder why you haven’t been eating it all your life. Falafel is bolstered by lavish quantities of garlic and cilantro, but the dish to try is the chicken shawarma taco: spice-rubbed, spit-roasted chicken shaved over a corn tortilla, anointed generously with the house-made “arabesque salsa,” a creamy blend of extra-garlicky tahini and salsa verde. The taco, in turn creamy and savory, succeeds by the steady accretion of flavors, its garlicky richness snapped into balance by the bright, vinegary smack of fuchsia-pink pickled turnips, a staple of the Lebanese table that is right at home at X’tiosu Kitchen.
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