The taquero hero’s journey that led Jorge ‘Joy’ Alvarez-Tostado to create Tacos 1986


A man will change the course of his life for the love of a pretty girl.

At least that’s the way it worked for Jorge Humberto Alvarez-Tostado, also known as “Joy” and the culinary force behind the growing Tacos 1986 empire of Southern California.

“When I was very, very young — in sixth grade, to be exact — I had a girlfriend. Her name was Maria and she said she was going to marry a chef. I was so in love at age 12 that I told my parents, ‘Hey, I’m going to be a chef.’ And I did. I did. I did follow that path.”

VIDEO | 11:27
Making the taco de carne asada ‘el perron’ from Tacos 1986

He didn’t know then that although his relationship with Maria wouldn’t work out, his taquero hero’s journey had begun.


At times he thought his path might lead him to become the head chef at one of the world’s elite fine-dining establishments. Indeed, he did make his way to New York from his home in Tijuana and worked at several acclaimed restaurants, including Jody Williams’ Buvette, and with Ignacio Mattos, who became the opening chef at Isa in Williamsburg not long after Alvarez-Tostado arrived, then founded the Michelin-starred Estela among other places and went on to become Esquire’s 2017 chef of the year. “My sensei,” Alvarez-Tostado says of Mattos.

But before New York there were tacos. Lots of tacos.

“When I was 21 I walked from Tijuana to Tulum,” Alvarez-Tostado says of the nearly 2,700-mile quest. “It took me seven months. And another four to get back.

“My purpose was to try every single taqueria that I could. Backpacking through Mexico was not cheap, but I always had two or three bucks to buy a beer, one of those big ones, and eat two tacos to keep the journey going. Tacos were my prime bite.”

Yet it wasn’t until he’d been cooking in New York restaurants for a few years that Alvarez-Tostado became a true taquero. The San Diego-born architect Christian Pineda, yearning for great street tacos, opened Los Tacos No. 1 in the Chelsea Market with two other taco-loving partners from California. They brought on Alvarez-Tostado to cook on opening day.

“I made my first taco at the Chelsea Market on May 23 — which is my birthday — 2013,” says Alvarez-Tostado. “I remember printing the first ticket and it was a carne asada taco. A guy came up to me, I made him the taco and that was it. ... That day, right then and there in the city of New York, that’s how the idea of being the greatest taquero of all time popped into my head.

“Because nobody wants this title. Everybody wants to be the best pizza maker or the best pasta maker, the best chef or pastry chef. And I’m like, this title is mine for the taking. So I’m taking it.”


If you’ve ever watched Alvarez-Tostado make a taco — a beautiful dance, all lip-smacking air kisses, shadowboxing moves, muscle flexes and hip swaggers in tune to the mood of the crowd and the beat of the taco music in his head — you know that he’s a natural-born taquero.

“I love it,” he says. “I can be a cook, but I can talk to people while I’m cooking — meet people, look them in the eyes, give them a taco and watch the bite go down, then have them tell me, ‘Hey! This taco’s amazing!’”

But it wasn’t a smooth path from Los Tacos No. 1 to Tacos 1986.

He left New York to open a taqueria in Nicaragua and gained some attention for the food he was making at the Beach and Surf Club at Playa Los Perros, part of the Rancho Santana resort.

In Nicaragua, he says, “I met my daughter’s mom, Mariana, and we got married. We have a beautiful daughter now.”

His marriage, however, didn’t last and the breakup hit him hard.

“I wasn’t in a good place,” he says. “I was broke, lost and confused. I was going through a divorce. I was 28 years old and I was back living with my parents in Tijuana. I didn’t know if I wanted to pursue the idea of opening a taqueria.”

A man stands in a kitchen shaving meat from a spit with a large knife.
Chef Jorge Humberto Alvarez-Tostado — a.k.a. Joy — shaves meat from a spit.
(Jessica Q. Chen / Los Angeles Times)

Still, he pulled himself together and made a business plan. “I asked for help from friends, fools and family,” he recalls.


“And they all said, ‘No.’

“After failing over and over again, you know, there was a point where I was like, I guess this is it. I’m knocked out.”

Then another dreamer entered the picture.

Victor Delgado was born in San Diego but spent many of his formative childhood years in Tijuana.

Alvarez-Tostado says he and Delgado probably rode bikes on the same streets in Tijuana and attended many of the same quinceañeras.

Delgado was living in Los Angeles and had worked with Micah Wexler and Michael Kassar at the nightclub Voyeur and the well-reviewed Mezze in the former Sona space on La Cienega. He loved L.A.’s food scene but, despite the wealth of taco stands and taco trucks here, he was missing the Tijuana-style carne asada tacos he’d grown up eating, which at the time were available in only a few parts of the city outside his neighborhood. These are often distinguished by flame-grilled meat topped with onions and cilantro, salsa plus a smear of smashed avocado, not the thinner guacamole or sometimes avocado-less green sauce made from calabacitas that a number of taquerias set out on the side.

“Victor came in and he decided to take a chance,” says Alvarez-Tostado, who at first wasn’t sure he should make the move to Los Angeles. “But he believed that I had the the knowledge to execute the concept, At least the food.”

After checking out the taco scene and batting around names — Tacos 1991, Tacos 1980, Tacos 1987 — they decided Los Angeles was ready for Tacos 1986, which happens to be Delgado’s birth year. “It’s a beautiful name,” says Alvarez-Tostado, “Nineteen-eighty-sixxxxxx ...

“We started off in a taco stand on the corner of Highland and Lexington in Hollywood. Our first order was to a guy named Bryson. Three quesadillas, chicken, with no onion. I believe we still have that ticket.”


Just two months after the stand launched, Times critic Bill Addison wrote about Tacos 1986, calling Alvarez-Tostado “the Freddie Mercury of taqueros,” adding he “bangs out tacos in flashes of uncanny muscle memory, all while working the crowd with control and charisma.”

A residency at Smorgasburg L.A. and bricks-and-mortar restaurants followed. Nearly five years later Tacos 1986 has six taco shop locations and more on the way.

“I believe this concept can be in Japan, Hawaii, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Brazil,” Alvarez-Tostado says. “I believe that a taco can go anywhere.”

Beyond the classic carne asada taco, Tacos 1986 serves adobada tacos and, in a concession to L.A. tastes, chicken as well as mushrooms, plus mulitas, vampiros, quesadillas and burritos.

One of the most popular items is the off-menu taco perrón in the style of the Rosarito Beach original from El Yaqui Taco Shop. It’s a flour tortilla lined with a handful of Monterey Jack cheese toasted directly on the plancha, carne asada, salsa, onions, guacamole and a spoonful of pinto beans.

“It’s kind of the ‘animal style’ of our restaurant,” says Alvarez-Tostado, referring to In-N-Out’s not-so-secret mustard-enhanced burger when he comes to the Times Test Kitchen to demonstrate the taco perrón recipe. (It includes a marinade made with four kinds of toasted chiles and juice squeezed from fresh oranges on beef chuck roll.)


“For me,” Alvarez-Tostado says as he turns over a piece of sizzling meat on one of the paper’s outdoor grills, “this is a dream every day. The beautiful city of Los Angeles trusted me with this taco responsibility and it’s been a joy ride.”

JORGE ‘JOY’ ALVAREZ-TOSTADO and the Tacos 1986 crew will serve tacos at all three sessions of Food Bowl’s Night Market Sept. 22-24 at the Paramount Studios backlot in Hollywood. Get tickets at

President Joe Biden carries a white bag that says Tacos 1986 as people look on smiling.
President Joe Biden, center, stopped at Tacos 1986 in Westwood with mayoral candidate Karen Bass and L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis on Oct. 13, 2022.
(Eli Stokols / Los Angeles Times)

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