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.
No street food is more essential to L.A.’s identity than the taco. To say it’s as synonymous with the city as is the iconic Hollywood sign is putting it lightly: We live and breathe the taco lifestyle.
In terms of fresh tortillas topped with grilled meats, it’s no surprise that Los Angeles has always been a front-runner, thanks in large part to its proximity to Mexico. For decades, Mexicans dominated this scene by operating both food trucks and stands all throughout the Southland, luring customers to vacant corners and alleyways with the smell of marinated al pastor sliced off the spit. In a city that holds the $3 dollar banh mi sandwich in equal regard as its white table-cloth service, the taco became the ultimate bridge for high and low culture. Tacos not only firmly embedded themselves into booze-fueled nightlife, but they also became the city’s most recognizable global commodity.
The fact that Los Angeles is home to the largest Latino population in the country didn’t hurt the taco’s visibility either. From Koreatown to Santa Monica, loncheras popped up in virtually every neighborhood. The very same could be said for the streets of Compton and other parts of South L.A. While pop-culture spun never-ending images of N.W.A. to portray a predominantly black region, the reality is far more nuanced and complicated.
The landscape took a dramatic turn after the 1992 L.A. Riots as Black Flight took hold of Compton, and Hispanic immigrants moved out of Boyle Heights en masse. By the time of the 2000 Census, Compton was majority Latino. The same Hispanics who filled the newly available affordable housing in Compton brought taco trucks, Mexican grocery stores, and taco stands to backyard parties.
That’s not to say the area was a complete taco vacuum. Donald McLaurin, owner of Mom’s Burger in Compton, says South L.A. had already ventured into this genre prior to the Latino diaspora (the quintessential Compton taco back then: a pile of ground turkey or beef in hard a taco shell, with a generous amount of cheese, chopped tomato, lettuce, and no onion). Having opened in the late ‘40s, House of Dimes, with its ground-beef “Indian taco,” was a black-taco relic by the time of the L.A. Riots. Cliff’s “Texas Style” Burritos, founded by Cliff Williams in 1975, is a similar pioneer. Both their versions “have been there since day one,” says McLaurin.
Karen Mack, founder and director of LA Commons, a cross-culture community building non-profit, says, “In my childhood, it was rare to see anyone who was not African-American in Compton where I grew up. [Now] Latinos comprise 67% in Compton. So these Black businesses that are offering Mexican food items on their menus are smart by focusing on catering to their community. In Compton, Cliff’s is staying in business because customers that reflect the diversity of the area patronize his eatery.”
The noticeable population shift opened the floodgates for organic cross-cultural pollination, encouraging more black restaurant owners to take cues from their new neighbors. As part of a growing trend, tacos were added to barbecue or fried-chicken menus—but with modifications intended primarily for a black clientele. McLaurin’s burger stand now sells turkey tacos 300 feet away from a La Michoacan Meat Market. Even more recently, a rising crew of millenial entrepreneurs and savvy Instagram users has ushered in a new wave of “Black tacos,” with places popping up in Compton, Watts, and adjacent areas of South L.A. in the form of make-shift stands or catering companies. Along with asada and pollo, you’ll see additional proteins like deep-fried turkey, smoked chicken, and brisket. Barbecue sauce and remoulade might replace salsa roja. Cheese is a must.
“In South L.A., there’s definitely more interest in [tacos],” says Daoud Harris, chef and owner of 6th Street Foods catering company. Harris serves farmers market-driven tacos and tomatillo salsas that draw inspiration from traditional Mexican street food. “Taco Tuesdays are major here. If you tell someone you have a taco, their first reaction is, ‘what kind?'”
For Keith Garrett, owner of All Flavor No Grease in Watts, the idea of a taco stand became a viable business proposition after a run-in with the law. He saw possibility. “The taco has a broad appeal,” says Garrett, whose Instagram following exceeds 10,000. “Everyone loves them now.” Garrett enrolled in culinary school, and even picked-up some burrito-rolling tips from a nearby lonchera.
While Roy Choi and his fusion Korean tacos aren’t on the radar of most of these businesses, something is definitely brewing in Compton and adjacent areas of South L.A. Harris trained in D.C. kitchens, only to return to his neighborhood and serve tacos. “My original goal wasn’t to serve them, but people kept asking.” Meanwhile, Jermelle Henderson of Taco Mell Catering partnered with an artist management group as a step forward in opening his own brick and mortar. Tacos, it seems, are worthy of an investment.
From fried-chicken joints serving breakfast-sausage tacos, to mobile griddles bringing cheese-laced tortillas to the streets, take a tour of the places that are putting the Compton taco in the spotlight.
Address and phone: N/A
Thanks to a recent partnership with BDDB (Big B Da Bully) Management founder Byron Diaz, Jermelle “Taco Mell” Henderson is slowly becoming the go-to taco man of L.A.’s rising generation of rap stars. Diaz heard about Henderson—who had been selling tacos in Compton a few years prior—through a mutual friend. “I had always managed artists, but never anything food related,” says Diaz. He soon enlisted Henderson to cater video shoots, YG’s platinum single after-party, and a host of other events for his roster of clients, including Ty Dolla Sign, Nipsey Hussle, and DJ Mustard. Aligning himself with the music industry has helped Henderson’s business blossom into an in-demand catering operation. Using a mobile grill, Henderson makes steak, chicken, shrimp, and turkey tacos; Diaz adds his own banana pudding, cookies, coffee cakes, and from-scratch Kool Aid. For now, you can ocassionally catch the taco operation when it pops up at the Heavenly Scoop ice cream parlor, but be on the lookout for a permanent location in the near future.
All Flavor No Grease
A video posted by Keith Garrett #AFNG (@allflavornogrease) on
Address and phone: 728 E 108th St, Watts (323-318-0409)
A few years ago, Keith Garrett was a street pharmaceutical rep recently out of jail (he was arrested for possession and intent to distribute). Thinking there was “no 401K plan in this game,” Garrett, a self-proclaimed man of God, prayed for guidance and a way out. After a few days, he took some food stamps, bought candies, and began selling them in his yard. The idea of a taco stand started as a joke when a pal ribbed him about turning his candy stand into a taco shop. Garrett pondered the suggestion, and “All Flavor No Grease” was born shortly thereafter—a mobile griddle with the standard canopy and plastic chair set-up. The key to taco glory at AFNG is the “papa green” sauce, and the big seller is the triple threat three-meat tacos. Just as the business concept was born of a friendly suggestion, AFNG’s Instagram success (10K+ followers) was inspired by another friend’s advice: “90% of my customers come because of Instagram.” At only 28, Garrett, born and raised in Watts, has big dreams even while he’s finishing his culinary degree at L.A. Southwest College. He hopes to take his “Positivity, God, and Food” message to the Southland in the form of a taco truck.
Address and phone: 9342 Alondra St, Bellflower (562-920-5200)
Kenny Hamilton is from a Mississippi BBQ family. His latest venture, Hambone’s BBQ, opened in 2011, and has become one of the most successful brands in the area. Catering to a local population that’s more than 50% Latino, Hamilton offers tacos in five trims—smoked brisket, smoked chicken, pulled pork, smoked ground turkey, and beef. From the very beginning, the brisket taco has been the runaway best-seller. The drink pairing of choice at Hambone’s is the “swamp water,” and the combination of tacos, spicy remoulade, and sweet tea is the perfect marriage of Southern and South of the Border cooking. Hambone’s runs $0.99 taco Tuesday specials, which regularly sees sales of more than 3,000 tacos. Hamilton explains: “They’re cheap to make, and everyone loves Taco Tuesdays. Even the King Taco guys came around last week ‘cause they said I was taking all their business.” (Photo: Facebook)
Address and phone: 1908 E 110th St, Watts (323-566-3549)
Owner Eric Cleveland’s family took over Lee’s Market in 1972, and it has since become a fried-chicken legend in Watts. While the majority diners head straight for the ridiculously affordable golden bird, Lee’s also offers a line of tacos and taco salads. The ground-turkey tacos have caught on with folks looking for a healthier alternative than a pile of deep-fried chicken, but the thought of taking a big box of taco salad to-go remains an attractive irony. (Photo: Yelp)
Loreto’s Fried Turkey
Address and phone: 983 W Compton Blvd, Compton (310-537-7612)
There is only one place in Los Angeles to get a deep-fried turkey taco, and it’s at Loreto’s. Thanksgiving sees long queues for Loreto’s 15-pound whole turkey deep fried in peanut oil, but turkey lovers can enjoy moist turkey-stuffed burritos and tacos all year round. There are several versions of tacos here, which have remained on the menu for 13 years: turkey taco, turkey taco with “soul”, and the breakfast turkey taco. The Compton-only creation features chopped (not ground) deep-fried turkey, with eggs, potatoes, cheese, cilantro, onion, and a little “soul”—which, according to Joe Loreto, is a type of gravy. Tacos are $2, available from 8:30am until 11:00am, and tastes of Thanksgiving leftovers gone wild. (Photo: Yelp)
Address and phone: 2510 W Slauson Ave, Hyde Park (323-292-9777)
Karen Whitman’s South L.A. institution started out as a burger stand in 1964. Twenty-five years ago, she started making chicken sausages—available as both patty and link—that have since become some of the most well-respected breakfast sausages in all of Southland. Due to the change in neighborhood dynamics, Whitman started putting them on tortillas during the ’90s. The $5 taco is the most expensive single item at Mama’s—and maybe the most expensive taco in all of South L.A. However, it makes its impact felt immediately upon first bite: Think of a chopped Southern breakfast patty stuffed into large wheat tortillas, topped with shredded cheese and lettuce. Now pair the taco with a Corona, because Mama’s—now a bodega with a full kitchen—also has an on-site beer and wine license. Finish off the meal with Whitman’s very own tea cakes for the complete Southern-Mexican mash-up.
Address and phone: 336 W Alondra Blvd, Compton (310-632-6622)
Mom’s Burger is a Compton classic that celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. The family-run burger stand was opened by Joyce McLaurin in 1975 and serves arguably the best burger in Compton, named the “Chronic.” The full name of Mom’s is now Mom’s Burger and Tacos. There are veggie, turkey, and ground-beef tacos, somewhat reminiscent of the Ortega tacos your mom made back in the 1990s. It may be Rick Bayless’ worst nightmare, but there’s something oddly therapeutic about sitting by an old drive-thru burger shack, in the middle of Compton, watching a car cruise by, Otis Redding blasting, and eating a taco paired with fruit punch. As a fellow diner confirmed, “Why tacos? ‘Cause turkey tacos are the shit.” (Photo courtesy Tony Chen)
Address and phone: (562-719-4044)
It’s been a tough road to taco domination for Autumn Collins, who started selling hard shell tacos two years ago at the annual MLK parade in Long Beach. After the MLK day pop-up success, she set up shop at the local gas station, but was given shade by a fellow Latina who showed up with a taco cart next to her. Eventually her competitor quit, but the health department “suddenly” showed up shortly thereafter to hassle her over permits. She was first introduced to the concept of taco catering after seeing her neighbors hire taco carts for backyard birthday parties. While shopping in Downtown L.A., she saw a griddle stand and instinctually bought one. These days, Collins is Servsafe-approved and her “Sharrific Tacos” carries a proper city license. She caters on weekends while working on her upcoming catering truck. Shrimp and salmon tacos are on the menu, as well as quesadillas. (Photo: Facebook)
Sixth Street Food
Address and phone: 1448 W 106th St (240-286-0597)
Sixth Street Food started on 106th Street and Normandie in Watts just a year ago and now caters Downtown businesses and events like Taste of Soul. It’s run by cousins Rod Steele and Daoud Harris, who both worked together on the line at Waffle House and IHOP as teens before heading to D.C. to work in a multitude of kitchens (Hillstone, Bistro Provence, Fox Restaurant Concept, Range). After returning to their hometown of Los Angeles, they realized the taco stand was a stepping stone to kickstart their catering gig. Aside from Guerrilla Tacos, SSF has some of the nicest street plating. “I cook traditional tacos,” says Harris, who does his prep work in a South L.A. commissary kitchen. That means fresh cilantro, radishes, and other pickled veggies that you normally see in plastic tubs; salsas are made from chiles and tomatillos; and farmers market portobellos, zucchini, and peppers sit beautifully atop four-and-a-half inch corn tortillas. (Photo: Facebook)