Welcome to L.A. Week on First We Feast. As part of our continuing initiative to devote more coverage to Los Angeles, we’ll be running special features all week to explore the city’s ever-evolving food scene—from its most vaunted chefs, to its gritty underbelly.
Tacos are to Los Angeles what pizza is to New York, cheesesteak is to Philadelphia, and pho is to Vietnam. Every Angeleno worth her weight in masa knows the go-to trucks for al pastor pork sabered from the trompo into warm and pliant tortillas, and each is privy to the fedora’d taquero who fries Ensenada-style fish tacos to order in a parking lot in Silverlake.
What makes L.A. tacos so great? The city is graced with recipes brought north by its more than one million Mexican-born residents and their ancestors—iconic dishes like cochinita pibil from the Yucatán and birria from Guadalajara. L.A. isn’t Baja, D.F., Jalisco, or Oaxaca; it’s all of these places rolled into one glorious city brimming with stewed meat, grilled carne asada, spit-roasted pork, tortillas hecho a mano, and scorching salsa.
Without further ado, we bring you 10 essential tacos in Los Angeles.
Everything at Guerilla Tacos
When you’re searching for tortillas filled with seared foie gras and braised oxtail, look no further than chef Wes Avila’s blue Guerilla truck, which pops up Wednesday through Sunday at lunchtime only. “They’re not fancy, I just like to use good shit,” says Avila of his tacos, which were written up last week in the L.A. Times. The former Le Comptoir sous chef (and Alain Ducasse protégé) uses fresh tortillas from La Princesita in East L.A. to showcase only the best ingredients, including farmers-market vegetables, Cook Pigs Ranch pork belly, Santa Barbara sea urchin, and sushi-grade yellowtail. Avila is not a man who is ready to rest on his laurels, which is why you’ll find something novel and exciting each time you visit; most recently, we devoured a braised lamb-shank taco with candied kumquats, toasted pistachios, and Castlevaltrano olives. How many items you order depends on your feasting abilities—but at around $4-$10 a pop, we suggest you order the lot (tacos, tostadas, quesadillas, everything).
Cochinita Pibil at La Flor de Yucatan
This tiny Yucatecan bakery-cum-taquería first began making cochinita pibil 40 years ago. At first, the achiote-marinated, slow-roasted pork was only available through La Flor’s catering business; soon enough, people started showing up to the bakery demanding the stuff. Thanks to those early pioneers, you can now order the traditional Mayan dish at La Flor de Yucatan any day of the week.
For the cochinita, second-generation owner Marc Burgess marinates pork shoulder, butt, and loin in a mixture of achiote paste and sour orange juice. He then roasts the marinated pork in a banana leaf for 11 hours until it is falling apart, subtly smoky, and intensely flavorful. Order the cochinita pibil by the pound to stash in your fridge, or as a taco, garnished simply with vibrant pickled red onions and fresh cilantro. And don’t even think of leaving without ordering the ojaldra, a flaky and buttery pastry as big as a pizza, stuffed with ham and cheese and dusted with sugar.
La Flor de Yucatan
1800 South Hoover St
Fish Taco at Ricky’s Fish Tacos
Ricky Piña dons a fedora while frying up light and crisp Ensenada-style fish tacos in a parking lot. Why? Because he is the man. Mr. Piña uses catfish, which he delicately dips in a batter seasoned with mustard and oregano and fries just long enough that the flesh is flaky and the exterior crisp. He tops his creation with salsa fresca and shredded cabbage, but it is your duty to further garnish your taco with the sour cream–based mint sauce and smoky chipotle salsa in the squeeze bottles on the counter. Mere thoughts of these legendary fish tacos can make former Angelenos weep with longing and desire. Piña’s hours are a bit haphazard, so check his twitter to find out when he’s fryin’.
Ricky’s Fish Tacos
1400 N Virgil Ave, Silverlake
Taco Sampler at Guisados
The Spanish word guisado refers to a braise or stew. Armando De La Torre and his father opened their aptly named Boyle Heights taquería a little over four years ago, and it’s there that they serve traditional meat and vegetable guisados on thick, warm, freshly made corn tortillas. The ever-popular taco sampler comes with six mini tortillas filled with different guisados listed on the chalkboard menu. When your sampler arrives, you might find shredded chicken in a rich and subtly sweet mole poblano sauce sprinkled with pumpkin seeds; cochinita pibil topped with scorchingly hot habanero salsa; orchicharrónes (fried pig skin) stewed to gelatinous perfection in a chile sauce. The chorizo, another standout, comes from Armando’s uncle’s tortillería next door, where he processes corn into nixtamal (corn kernels treated with lime) to grind into masa for tortillas. No wonder the Guisado’s tortillas taste so damn fresh.
2100 E Cesar Chavez Ave, Boyle Heights
Alternate locations: 1261 W Sunset Blvd, Echo Park, (213) 250-7600), TK
Birria at El Parian
In a city teeming with birria, the goat stew that is a specialty of Guadalajara, El Parian’s version shines. The restaurant is lively, with a colorful map of Mexico painted on one wall and women hand-pressing masa into thick tortillas by the entrance. The birria taco comes with a hefty portion of the sweet and perfectly gamey goat, a happy balance of crisp roasted morsels and savory stewed bits. The “orden de birria” is that same meat in a rich goat consommé perfumed with chiles and cilantro, which Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold once called the single best Mexican dish he’d ever eaten in Los Angeles (that’s a BIG statement, but it is fire). While you’re there, think about adding a carne asada taco to your order—it’s packed with juicy steak and garnished with flecks of cilantro and diced tomato.
1528 W Pico Boulevard
Carnitas at Los Cinco Puntos
There’s a lot of noteworthy carnitas in Los Angeles. The Tacos Los Guichos truck, parked in a car wash just East of the 110 Freeway, is a serious contender. So is Metro Balderas, the Highland Park restaurant serving up eight different carnitas variations. But Los Cinco Puntos is the O.G. carnitas spot. Owners Vincent and Connie Sotelo, who opened the East L.A. taquería in 1967, cook carnitas in the style of Michoacán; that is, they slowly cook chunks of pork butt in lard in a copper cazo (large vat) until the outsides are crispy and the insides juicy and flavorful. This, friends, is pork as art. Ordered “con todo,” the carnitas taco will come with nopales, guacamole, and salsa on homemade tortillas, hand formed and grilled in front of you on an enormous flat-top grill. Don’t resist natural urges; order a dozen tortillas to take home. Then eat them all in the car.
Los Cinco Puntos
3300 E Cesar Chavez Blvd, East Los Angeles
Tacos Al Pastor at Tacos Leo
Al pastor: slabs of pork marinated in chiles and spices, spit-roasted with pineapple until charred and crazy delicious, then sliced like shawarma to be used in a taco. As you approach the Tacos Leo truck, parked in a gas station on the corner of Venice Boulevard, you will see a man standing in front of a rotating spit stacked high with dripping al pastor. You will watch as he carves off thin shavings of the pork into a well-oiled tortilla, masterfully slicing off a sliver of roasted pineapple from the top of the spit for garnish. This is where you come for $1 tacos al pastor. ’Nuff said.
Corner of Venice Blvd and La Brea Blvd, Mid-City
Carne Asada, Al Pastor, and Longaniza at El Matador
The El Matador taco truck is Efrain Martinez’s gift to Los Angeles’ late-night revelers. After a couple Mary Pickfords and a Hemingway Daiquiri at red-hot rum bar La Descarga, stumble across the street to this standout lonchera. Hunger and inebriation may make decisions difficult. A wise order would go something like this: al pastor, carne asada, and longaniza (spicy pork sausage) with at least five containers of the knockout, super spicy salsa roja on the side. Once, when a customer inquired what they put in their salsa roja, the taquero replied, “mis huevos” (or, “my balls”). Efrain, now 68 years old, and his wife personally cook and deliver everything to the truck each day, from the tender carne asada to the smoky-sweet al pastor. No bother that the al pastor isn’t spit-grilled—it’s still some of the city’s best.
1174 N. Western Ave, Hollywood
Shrimp Dorado Taco at Mariscos 4 Vientes
Driving down Olympic Boulevard near Soto Street, you will see two similar looking seafood trucks: Mariscos Jalisco and Mariscos 4 Vientes. They will both be surrounded by a sizeable swarm of people, and they both serve seemingly identical shrimp dorado tacos: crispy hard-shell tacos filled with warm and creamy diced shrimp, smothered in gazpacho-like tomato salsa, and topped with slices of refreshing avocado. By no means does Mariscos Jalisco’s version disappoint (it’s amazing), but there is a reason Mariscos 4 Vientes usually has the bigger line.
Mariscos 4 Vientes
3000 E Olympic Blvd, East L.A.
Barbacoa de Borrego at My Taco
This brightly lit Highland Park haunt is decorated with colorful Mexican tchotchkes. You may be tempted to order the carne asada fries at My Taco, a mountain of thick-cut fries covered in melted cheese, grilled steak, guacamole, and sour cream. But the house specialty barbacoa de borrego, or long-stewed lamb crisped on a hot griddle, is what this strip mall taqueríadoes best. My Taco owners Jorge and Maria Garduno come from Mexicali, the capital of Baja, where the dish can be found on every street corner. Their version is made from lamb neck, marinated then boiled with cumin andpasilla chiles. Order a cup of the consommé de chivo (goat broth) to sip between bites of your barbacoa de borrego taco, as well as the vinegary chile de arbol salsa called yahualica.
6300 York Blvd