It’s late at night, time for a quick bite. At this hour, spicy street food is enticing -- never mind the heartburn. Some night owls head to Pink’s for chili dogs, others to Tommy’s for burgers. But lovers of Mexican food head out in search of something else.
We follow a purple-and-red neon sign that reads Bienvenidos to Hugo’s Tacos in East Los Angeles where, on weekends, the crew dishes out food until 4 a.m. There, as at dozens of other modest eateries across the Southland, hungry diners are savoring the simple but perfectly satisfying combination of meat, corn and seasoning that makes up a comfort food we call the cult taco.
Inside a silvery catering truck, cooks pile carnitas, carne asada, barbacoa and other meats onto hot soft tortillas. For the customer requesting con todo (with everything), they spoon on just the right amount of spicy salsa, chopped onion and cilantro to make one tasty bundle. Grilled onions accompany the orders.
After stopping at the condiment table and helping themselves to sliced radishes, limes and a chopped salsa in which bits of nopal cactus mingle with tomato and onion, diners head for the mosaic-topped stone tables and benches of the open-air dining pavilion. Gazing at murals depicting scenes of the state of Jalisco, they settle down to devour their little bits of heaven on a plate.
Cult tacos are not fancy or high-priced. They’re sold from catering trucks, stands, carnicerias, tortillerias and neighborhood cafes. Paper plates and plastic cutlery are routine, table service almost unknown. There are even taco drive-throughs and 24-hour taco places.
A cult taco is simple, just two soft corn tortillas (smaller than the standard 6-inchers). The meat, freshly cooked and well seasoned, is placed on top, and the taco is served open-face. The tortillas should be tender and warm from grilling or steaming. The meat could be carne asada (steak), carnitas (fried pork) or carne al pastor (spit-grilled marinated pork). But it could also be sesos (brains), cabeza (head meat), buche (hog maw), chicharrones (pork cracklings) or tripas (beef small intestine, which one taqueria menu defines as “guts”). Lengua (tongue) is standard. Fish and shrimp show up but rarely.
You may be asked if you want the taco con todo. If so, salsa, onion and cilantro will be added. Salsas should be lively, never murky from refrigeration. Toppings, such as chopped onion and cilantro, must be pristine. Prices are low. The tacos we sampled ranged from 60 cents to $1.75. Most hover around $1.
Some places set out serve-yourself arrangements of red chile salsa, tangy green tomatillo salsa, chopped fresh salsa and, once in a while, avocado salsa. Radishes and lime wedges are essential. Spicy pickled carrots may appear too. Sometimes there is shredded lettuce, but no cheese, olives or sour cream.
Serious tacos are likely to come from simple neighborhood spots that waste no money on frills, so we checked out modest commercial districts, unglamorous side streets and nondescript strip malls to find taquerias where enthusiasts recommended good examples of straight-ahead meat ‘n’ tortilla tacos.
Classics and specialties
At Hugo’s, the selection of fillings is classic -- asada, pastor, lengua. There’s also a less-common choice, chorizo con papas (sausage with potatoes, which is soft as mashed potatoes), as well as the above-mentioned extras: grilled onions and nopal cactus in the chopped fresh salsa. The carne asada is nice, tinged dark brown from grilling and served on steamed tortillas. It’s a popular place, and the outdoor dining area is lively with customers. Tacos are 90 cents.
Hugo’s is open only at night, but next door, at the corner of Third Place and Indiana Street, A Que Tacos is open all day. Here, the carne asada tacos are outstanding: savory meat in larger tortillas than those used by most stands, meaning you get a bigger, meatier taco, and topped with green salsa, cilantro and onion. The taco of sesos was less assertive. Other choices include chicken, tongue and buche. Tacos are $1. This truck has a spacious parking lot and plenty of bright yellow benches where customers can sit in the shade. That’s important when summer sun is beating down on the asphalt.
Taqueria Vista Hermosa makes possibly the tastiest carne al pastor in town -- it’s even better than any I’ve tasted in Mexico. The meat is pork butt, soaked overnight in a complex marinade that includes five kinds of dried chiles, orange juice, vinegar, achiote, garlic and cinnamon, then grilled. The tacos are served on freshly made corn tortillas, cranked out with a small hand roller that owner Raul Morales brought from his native Michoacan.
Vista Hermosa’s tacos ($1.25), which also include a chicken taco made with pollo adobado (chicken marinated with guajillo and pasilla chiles, achiote, orange juice, vinegar and cilantro) are Mexico City-style, modeled on the tacos sold in the Plaza Garibaldi. Morales tops the meat with an avocado slice as well as cilantro and onion and sets a lime wedge and radish slices on the side of the plate. His stand is inside the Mercado La Paloma, a collection of shops and eating places on Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles.
Carnitas Michoacan, at the corner of Soto Street and Whittier Boulevard, just east of the Civic Center, is as funky as taco stands get. A sign outside reports “over 5 zillion sold,” and a dinosaur perches on the roof. There’s room to sit inside, but customers don’t come for the ambience. They come because Carnitas Michoacan stays open 24 hours, even on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The filling of choice is carnitas, juicy pieces of deep-fried pork and a specialty of the Mexican state of Michoacan. Tacos are 75 cents.
Felipe Dorado has been serving Ensenada-style shrimp and fish tacos at the Taqueria Dorado in Whittier for the last three years. Dorado cuts up pollack filets, which he flours and fries golden brown then tops with finely cut cabbage, cilantro, onion, tomato and a creamy homemade dressing. It’s good, fresh, honest food. Fish tacos are $1.25, shrimp (made the same way) $1.75.
Mexican tacos with a bit of soul are found at Sky’s Gourmet Tacos, a tiny cafe with six tables and brick-colored walls on Pico Boulevard west of La Brea Avenue. Owner Sky Burrell produces what the menu calls an “authentic taco” composed of two small corn tortillas topped with carne asada that is grilled, along with onions, in orange and lemon juice, then mixed with cilantro and splashed with either mild green sauce or a red sauce blistering hot from chiles and cayenne pepper. Other tacos on the menu, while tasty, are departures from simple cult tacos, seasoned with Cajun spices and served with cheese.
These six taquerias, some of the best of the many we sampled, are just a few of the scores of cafes, trucks and stands around L.A. that offer fine versions of the cult taco -- enough to keep taco pilgrims busy in all seasons. To find the best, you have to ask around, look into markets and carnicerias and take chances. Some don’t have phones, but you don’t need reservations. One thing’s for sure, for the true believer, cult tacos are worth seeking any hour of the day or night.