At Máquina Taco, the tacos are rarely adorned with more than chopped cilantro and white onions, and the occasional flourish of salsa or shredded purple cabbage.
“I don’t believe in overdoing, over-stacking, over-flavoring or over-saucing a taco,” owner and taco chef Greg Lukasiewicz told me recently. “I love the taco truck tradition of just three or four ingredients.”
The toppings may be minimal but the taco menu is not. There are 20 tacos on offer at the small north Pasadena restaurant, including ground lamb tacos jolted with fresh mint; shredded and crisped duck slathered in sweet hoisin sauce; and a chicken-bacon-jalapeño taco that reads like a riff on a club sandwich.
A serial restaurateur, Lukasiewicz, by his count, has opened 15 restaurants in 35 years. His pantheon of closed restaurants includes fine-dining Cal-French spots (Devon Restaurant in Monrovia; Restaurant Halie in Pasadena) as well as fried fish shacks (Pasadena’s Fish Mama).
In 2008, Lukasiewicz founded Bull Taco, a now-defunct north San Diego County taqueria that ballooned into a mini-chain and eventually dissolved under the weight of legal disputes; the last location closed in 2018. (The restaurant has earned a spot in local history as the place where Lukasiewicz — an ’80s-era punk rocker and visual artist who enjoys pranks and rule-breaking — fooled art lovers around the world by painting a realistic-looking Banksy mural on the side of the restaurant.)
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Located on a freshly gentrified strip of Lake Avenue, Máquina Taco is a spartan space with cerulean blue walls, shiny concrete floors and plywood fixtures that Lukasiewicz built himself.
It’s a utilitarian space with no traditional barrier separating the kitchen from the dining room, and the DIY aesthetic of a friendly neighborhood clubhouse. The water station is a traffic cone-orange, heavy-duty beverage cooler of the construction-site variety; napkins are industrial-strength paper towels, suitable for hazmat spills. To drink, there are homemade agua frescas and bottled Mexican soda.
You order at the foot of the kitchen where someone, often Lukasiewicz’s amiable 80-year-old father, Richard, takes your order on a notepad. Next door, in the restaurant’s annex space, a vivid hot rod-inspired mural emblazoned with fluorescent-toned flowers enlivens the otherwise minimalist space.
The restaurant uses the dusky blue corn tortillas made by Kernel of Truth Organics, sturdy, pliant vehicles for generously portioned tacos. There is an excellent rib-eye and lobster taco, the fleshy shellfish scattered over a layer of charred steak chopped so finely recently that it resembled dark gravel. Pork belly is basted with a dark, sweet mole, then laid over sopa de arroz. The fluffy rice soaks up the pork drippings and excess sauce admirably. Octopus fajita tacos are plump, marshmallow-soft knobs tossed with peppers and onions. Tacos filled with springy, garlicky shrimp are exemplary, swabbed in a creamy butter sauce that drips neatly onto a cushion of shredded greens.
Chapulines tacos are some of the best I’ve bumped into around the city: pure crunch, salt and citrusy spice, the fried grasshoppers served over a thin line of chopped cabbage that amplifies their brittle pleasures. Cabeza is melty and rich but also brutishly unctuous on a recent visit. Oxtails and lengua are velvet-soft, a deeply earthy pairing that will resonate with lovers of both ingredients.
Vegan options are plentiful, but many I’ve tried are too wan to recommend — cauliflower is overly mushy, a mushroom taco is meaty but otherwise undistinguished. The jackfruit taco, a recent special, exudes a pleasant, chewy fruitiness; with the restaurant’s wonderful homemade habanero salsa, it sings.
The “triparrón” taco is a consistently thrilling blend of thinly sliced, crisped-up tripe tossed with crouton-like chicharrones. The contours of salt and fat seem endless, the richness only lightly mediated by guacamole salsa. The angels briefly sing.
Almost everything on the menu can be turned into a burrito or a bowl, but don’t overlook the shrimp ceviche, a chunky, clean, mild salad boosted by ultra-fresh pico de gallo.
Burritos are splendidly massive things brimming with guisados and cushioned against a not overly oppressive quantity of rice. Try the breakfast burrito, engineered so that every bite yields the right amount of egg, bacon, cheese and extra-crispy tater tots. Lukasiewicz deconstructed dozens of breakfast burritos around the city to arrive at his recipe. (“A burrito has to be made like a sushi roll,” Lukasiewicz said. “You should be able to eat a burrito with one hand while you’re driving.”)
Other chefs in Los Angeles have experimented with expanded and uncommon taco and burrito repertoires. Lukasiewicz, naturally restless and obsessed with testing the limits of his own imagination, occupies an unconventional niche in the city’s taco life that is worthy of attention, especially if you ascribe to the philosophy that the world never has enough tacos.
Location: 1274 N. Lake Ave., Suite 1, Pasadena, (626) 365-1893, maquinataco.com
Details: Credit cards accepted. No bar. Lot and street parking. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices: Tacos $3-$9; ceviche $8-$9; burritos and bowls $7-$19
Recommended dishes: Pork belly mole taco, “triparrón” taco, lobster and rib-eye taco, octopus fajita taco, garlic shrimp taco