Of the many excellent restaurants on this year’s 101 Best Restaurants list, where can you go for exquisite carne asada, mole Oaxaqueño, a steamy bowl of fideo, Zacatecas-style burritos, or maybe a taco tasting menu? Here are the 16 Mexican restaurants on this year’s 101 list — 17 if you count the options at a food court that’s home to two of our favorites.
Taco Maria (3)
At his Costa Mesa restaurant, Carlos Salgado’s cooking is intellectual, syncretic and modernist, bound up in personal history, heritage and years of fine-dining training. You can see these disparate forces at work on the Taco Maria lunch menu, when you can try Salgado’s cooking a la carte; recently there was aguachile made with Hokkaido scallops; wood-fired pork cheek glazed in dark sugar; and ancho-almond mole draped over Jidori chicken. Salgado’s culinary vision is most fully expressed at dinner, when the restaurant switches to a taco-centric, four-course tasting-menu format.
3313 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa, (714) 538-8444, tacomaria.com
Sonoratown is Jennifer Feltham and Teodoro Diaz-Rodriguez’s culinary love letter to San Luis Río Colorado, the Arizona-Sonora border town where Diaz-Rodriguez was weaned on the basic dyad of modern norteño cooking: wheat flour tortillas and mesquite-grilled beef. The menu is basic, economical and utterly satisfying, revolving around carne asada, quesadillas in various configurations and guisados-filled chivichangas.
208 E. 8th St., Los Angeles, (213) 628-3710, sonoratown.com
Burritos La Palma (15)
In Zacatecas, Mexico, the Bañuelos Lugo family name is synonymous with Burritos La Palma’s buttery flour tortillas; birria made from carne de pierna de res (round steak); and first-rate chicharrón en salsa verde. The family’s success has spawned multiple locations around Zacatecas, and today Southern California is blessed with three locations of its own. The restaurant’s platillo especial is a modern-day classic: two beef birria burritos in chile verde pork sauce, sealed with a glossy mantle of baked-in melted cheese. The slim, smallish beef birria burrito is often hailed as a minimalist masterpiece, but its flavors are maximalist at heart.
5120 N. Peck Road, El Monte; 410 N. Bristol St., Santa Ana; 3939 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles (inside Banc of California Stadium); burritoslapalma.net
Broken Spanish (27)
As the restaurant’s name alludes, the key to relishing Ray Garcia’s cooking is to not dwell too much on province or region, or where true-minded Mexican culinary traditions blur with Angeleno modernism. Trust his melding and imagining. Albondigas made with duck meat and blasted with bacon and chipotle push the classic meatball dish to smokier, spicier outer limits. Tamales filled with shredded lamb neck and king oyster mushrooms or with spinach, celeriac, feta, green garlic and pistachio etch new paths through the brain’s pleasure centers.
1050 Flower St., Los Angeles, (213) 749-1460, brokenspanish.com
Chichen Itza & Holbox (36)
At lunchtime, every office worker within a five-mile radius seems to be gathered inside the Mercado La Paloma complex near USC. The most coveted seat inside the busy food court is the chef’s counter at Holbox, the broadly Yucatán-style marisqueria from Gilberto Cetina Jr. The menu teems with fresh, exquisitely prepared seafood: yellowtail-uni ceviche; griddled scallop tacos with chile morita; smoked fish tostadas with an arbol-peanut soy sauce. The mariscos cocktails are excellent; the mixta is a sweet-sour goblet of octopus, wild Mexican shrimp and oysters in a citrus-spiked sauce. Across the room, the Cetina family’s Chichen Itza restaurant continues to make soulful renditions of Yucatecan classics.
La Diosa de los Moles (56)
Rocío Camacho is the undisputed mole whisperer of Los Angeles, a chef who has left her mark on many of Los Angeles’ most inventive Mexican kitchens. She cooks all the dense, complex mother sauces you would expect from a top Mexican kitchen: a complicated, ink-black mole oaxaqueño; a sweet, viscous mole poblano; and a mild and nutty mole verde. The mole fiesta plate showcases many of Camacho’s most distinct moles. On the weekends the restaurant hosts a Mexican brunch to end all Mexican brunches.
8335 Rosecrans Ave., Paramount, (562) 740-8710, ladiosadelosmolesinc.com
Playa Amor (59)
At Playa Amor, chef Thomas Ortega’s beachy, marina-adjacent restaurant in Long Beach, Ortega goes full-bore into his brand of Chicano “pocho” cooking. He makes poutine dolloped with black mole; pasta is tossed in a New Mexico Hatch green chile sauce; and lobster is roasted with clarified butter and served with fresh pico de gallo, Puerto Nuevo-style. For an ode to Southern cooking via Long Beach, try the paprika-spiced Mexican white shrimp served over a bowl of the buttery, house-ground hominy — Ortega’s smart, delicious take on shrimp and grits.
6527 Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach, (562) 430-2667, playaamorlb.com
Mariscos Jalisco (61)
For nearly 20 years Raul Ortega has sold tacos, aguachiles and ceviches out of his Boyle Heights mariscos truck on Olympic Boulevard. Anyone moving to Los Angeles and looking for a defining lunch on their first day should consider a plate of his tacos dorados de camaron. They come two to an order, fried corn tortillas gripping spiced shrimp that peek out and crisp a bit in the hot oil.
3040 E. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 528-6701, mariscos-jalisco.cafes-world.com
Chaak Kitchen (64)
At her sleek Old Town Tustin restaurant, chef Gabbi Patrick pays homage to her family’s Yucatecan heritage with time-intensive interpretations of the region’s revered dishes. Banana-leaf-wrapped cochinita pibil, smoked over red oak for 11 hours, is intensely succulent. Her pavo en recado negro — braised turkey rubbed in a blackened chile paste — celebrates the dish’s natural earthiness and pungency. A take on tamal colado, masa strained into a pudding-like cake, is dessert-like in its decadence.
215 El Camino Real, Tustin, (657) 699-3019, chaakkitchen.com
Carnitas El Momo (65)
Anyone who lives in Los Angeles and partakes of pig should know the splendor of El Momo’s carnitas mixta taco at least once. The Acosta family sometimes brand their creation — a combination of maciza (chopped pork shoulder), cuerito (slivers of pork skin) and buche (tender, wishbone-shaped slices of pork stomach) — as the “Aporkalypse.” It tastes far more like a blessing than a catastrophe.
2411 Fairmount St., Los Angeles, (323) 627-8540, instagram.com/carnitaselmomo
Is Guisados taking over Los Angeles? The De La Torre family’s acclaimed Eastside taquería now has seven locations, stretching from the O.G. Boyle Heights address all the way to Beverly Hills. Their tool of domination is guisos caseros, home-style Mexican braises that take hours to cook and mere seconds to devour. There are 15 guisos on the menu, including an intensely smoky tinga de pollo; a bacon-infused, griddled flank steak; a marvelously soupy chicharrón in chile verde; and cochinita pibil underscored by the fury of habanero chiles.
2100 E. Cesar E. Chavez Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 264-7201; 1261 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 250-7600; 541 S. Spring St. No. 101, Los Angeles, (213) 627-7656; 8935 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 777-0310; 312 N. San Fernando Blvd., Burbank, (818) 238-9806; 3500 Wilshire Blvd. No. 205, (213) 674-7343; 120 S. Linden Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 271-8114; guisados.co
El Coraloense (80)
El Coraloense is a small, laid-back mariscos joint tucked into a Bell Gardens strip mall with some of the cheekiest, most over-the-top Mexican mariscos in the city. The heart of the menu is the kitchen’s baroque ceviches. The Changeonada is a hillock of lime-sluiced shrimp smattered with candied bits of mango and chile-dusted peanuts; the Rompe Catres is a citrus-ratcheted spectacle of plump shrimp and baby octopus. The aguachile revels in the twin pillars of the Nayarit-Sinaloan kitchen: acid and heat.
6600 Florence Ave., Bell Gardens, (562) 776-8800, instagram.com/elcoraloense
Colonia Publica (83)
In Uptown Whittier, on the aptly named Greenleaf Avenue, Colonia Publica is the great Chicano public house of Southeast L.A., a destination for Baja-made craft beer, michelada Sundays and the most down-home Mexican dish of them all: sopita de fideo. Five years after chef Ricardo Diaz debuted Colonia, the idea of a restaurant dedicated almost entirely to vermicelli-in-broth still feels revolutionary.
6717 Greenleaf Ave., Whittier, (562) 693-2621, instagram.com/coloniapublica
X’tiosu Kitchen (87)
Oaxacan-born brothers Felipe and Ignacio Santiago spent years working in local Lebanese kitchens, and they bring that experience to their baby-blue storefront in Boyle Heights, where they cook Oaxacan-inflected, Lebanese-inspired dishes. The menu at X’tiosu (pronounced “sh-tee-oh-sue,” it means “thank you” in Zapotec) yields various marvels: ruddy, delicately spiced house-made chorizo kebabs; black bean hummus punched up with cayenne pepper; crisp falafel that eschews chickpeas and fava beans in favor of black beans, garlic and cilantro. The high point of the mezze offerings is the herb-intensive nopales tabbouleh salad, which swaps out bulgur in favor of cactus.
923 Forest Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 526-8844, xtiosu-kitchen.business.site
La Casita Mexicana (95)
When chefs Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu opened La Casita Mexicana in Bell two decades ago, the restaurant helped shift the conversation about Mexican cooking in Los Angeles beyond tacos and combo platters and into haute cuisine territory. This is where a generation of Angelenos sampled the breadth of regional Mexican cooking: chile rellenos stuffed with mushrooms, nopales and epazote; enchiladas bathed in crema de flor de calabaza; white dinner plates drizzled with dense, 40-something-ingredient moles.
4030 E. Gage Ave., Bell, (323) 773-1898, casitamex.com
Guelaguetza is the spiritual home of Oaxacan cooking in Los Angeles, a restaurant that preaches the gospel of mole. On any given weekend, its cavernous Koreatown dining room is a welter of live music, futbolwatch parties and michelada-soaked Mexican brunches. Start with an order of the chapulines, fried grasshoppers crisped in olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. Or try one of the restaurant’s terrific, pizza-sized tlayudas, gilded with toppings like chorizo, scrambled eggs, epazote leaves and queso fresco. The essential order is the festival de moles, a sampler furnished with a smoke-tinged coloradito variety; the fiery rojo mole; the bold estofado; and the most enigmatic mole of them all, the mole negro.
3014 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 427-0608, ilovemole.com