To pay homage to the city’s most iconic dish, Los Angeles Magazine just released its highly anticipated taco-themed July issue, breaking down the 25 best versions, shedding light on a tortilla revolution, and explaining the perfect flavor of Jarritos to pair with your asada or birria. And who better to drop some serious taquero knowledge than Bill Esparza, renowned taco scholar and founder of the influential food blog Street Gourmet LA.
“The main criteria was to choose the restaurants, trucks, or stands that are the best at what they do,” says Esparza. “These are simply the best 25 in L.A.—I’ll let the taco-intellectuals debate the order.”
We chatted up the roving food scribe to learn more about his selection process, the tricks to spotting good carnitas, and what the future of taco culture in L.A. might look like.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
At number 17 you list beef taquitos from Cielito Lindo. Explain to the layman why something like beef taquitos falls under the taco category?
Because, taquitos are tacos. There are many types of tacos and regional names for tacos in Mexico, as well as the Mexican-American taquito—here in the U.S., the laymen are always having pointless debates on what a taco is and looking for a Webster’s Dictionary definition of a taco. Taquitos are like flautas, but shorter—both are tacos. When in doubt, you can ask Gustavo Arellano, or I’d be glad to help with all your taco inquiries.
What are some under-the-radar spots that made the list that people may not have heard about?
Tacos La Güera in Walnut Park has great brisket, and they are about the only vendors in town advertising suadero (brisket) that are actually giving you brisket—99% are serving cheap carne asada cuts. Burritos La Palma (burritos are the regional name for Northern Mexican tacos that use flour tortillas) are still unknown to many as they are all the way out in El Monte, and I’d say Gish Bac’s goat barbacoa is surprisingly undiscovered.
The future is in the tortillas—you can’t source the finest ingredients in California and then use a three-dozen stack of tattered, stinky, tasteless tortillas.
Which places have your favorite tortillas and salsas?
Taco Maria, Petty Cash, and Broken Spanish Taqueria are the only places west of Cosme (NYC) using traditional Mexican tortillas. Mexican heirloom corn from Masienda is cooked in the nixtamal process, then stone ground into masa and hand-pressed into tortillas. Besides those places I love the tortillas at Flor del Rio, the Tire Shop Taqueria, and Tacos Quetzalcoatl, and those flour tortillas at La Palma are to die for. Tacos Quetzalcoatl has amazing salsas, and so does Guerrilla Taco; the guacamole sauce at Cielito Lindo is legendary—forget green juice, give me a glass of that sauce.
Smoked marlin tacos A photo posted by ravenouscouple (@ravenouscouple) on
What are the most overrated tacos in L.A.?
I think the term overrated is overrated. The tacos that used to be on the tips of the tongues of most here in town—El Taurino, Yucca’s, Taco Zone, etc.—have been left behind by all, as they should be. Everyone here in L.A. is pretty up to date on the best tacos, the essential L.A. tacos. There are a few places that make the top ten lists of other publications that are not in my 25 Best—some of those may be overrated or sentimental favorites? You could say that.
Do you think taco culture has changed in the past 10 years? Are other businesses from Mexico encouraged by the results?
Certainly in terms of the new school of taqueros: Guerrilla Tacos, chef Ricardo Diaz, Broken Spanish, and Taco Maria are changing the game, but the traditional vendors have been around for more than a decade. Writers and eaters were just going to the wrong places and there were silly taco blogs that mostly steered people towards bad tacos. I’m proud of the L.A. writing community in terms of the taco coverage in the past few years—the writers, the bloggers, and the public get it. The tortillas are really getting better, too, thanks to people like chef Carlos Salgado, and in general there’s an overall improvement at all our restaurants. Chef Wes Avila was invited to speak at Paralelo Norte, a Mexican chef’s conference in Monterrey Mexico last year—and now [big-name] visiting chefs from Mexico head to Guerrilla Tacos as soon as their plane lands.
Carlos Salgado is formulating a new type of tortilla. What makes this so important in the grand scheme of things?
Chef Carlos Salgado is actually doing the old kind of tortilla—just a real traditional tortilla, made from nixtamal, using non-GMO heirloom Mexican corn. It’s everything. We need to encourage all Mexican taquerias and restaurants to use better tortillas—there are traditional Mexican vendors and well-known restaurants in town associating themselves with Gruma products: Guerrero tortillas, the store-bought brands. Salgado speaks with an American accent when he speaks Spanish, but he’s leading the charge here in L.A. in saving Mexican culinary heritage through the tortilla. We need everyone aboard, getting tortillas from our good tortillerias—the ones that are doing nixtamal, or a blend of nixtamal and Maseca at least. Store-bought tortillas need to go. The future is in the tortillas—you can’t source the finest ingredients in California and then use a three-dozen stack of tattered, stinky, tasteless tortillas.
What do you look for in a good…
In birria the consommé or broth must have the right flavor profile and depth that comes from traditional cooking in an oven, or a large pot used like a Dutch oven. I’m also looking for a birrieria run by someone from Jalisco, Nochistlán, Aguascalientes, or Michoacan, where the birria is religion.
Damn, in L.A., let’s start by not lying to me—I’m looking for actual brisket. If that can happen, anything else is possible.
Carnitas are pork parts cooked in a confit-style. If it’s not cooked that way by a skilled artisan I’m not very interested. I’m looking for a vato who only does carnitas. These days, I’m just looking for El Momo—that’s the only place I get my carnitas in L.A., unless I want exotic cuts like ears, uterus, kidneys, hearts, etc. There are a handful of other places I’d go for those cuts.
A skilled taquero who keeps a well-manicured trompo and good pork flavor. Many of our vendors, even the good ones, rely on their marinade because they aren’t using flavorful pork. The top three vendors in L.A.—Leo, Tamix, and Los Güichos have expert taqueros, although they all use crappy tortillas. Screw it, I’m going to start bringing my own!
Again, this is a craft—my guy Enrique at the Mercado Olympic makes excellent chorizo, and El Momo’s son makes good chorizo, too. Mexican sausage makers are hard to come by in L.A.
Aaron Franklin was the first pitmaster to recently win a James Beard Award. Do you think the taquero is next?
Tacos are also a great Mexican-American tradition, so, yes.
You talk about Wes Avila, Eddie Ruiz, and Carlos Salgado as being at the top of their game. What are some examples of people getting creative with tacos where it hasn’t worked?
Ha! At every chef-driven taqueria in your city [New York], my friend. Those aren’t tacos.
And now, the 25 best tacos in Los Angeles, according to Los Angeles Magazine…
1. Daily Special Tacos at Tacos Punta Cabras
2. Lamb barbacoa taco from Aqui es Texcoco
3. Smoked marlin taco from Coni’seafood
4. Beef birría burrito from Burritos La Palma
5. Brisket taco from Tacos la Guera
6. Sea urchin chile guero taco from Chile Guero
7. Tacos arabes from Los Pirginales Tacos Arabes de Puebla
8. Clam and lardo taco from B.S. Taqueria
9. Goat birría taco from Flor del Rio
10. Squid taco from Taco María
11. Fish taco from Ricky’s Fish Tacos
12. Octopus taco from Petty Cash Taquería
13. Tacos dorados from Mariscos Jalisco
14. Carne asada taco from Tire Shop Taquería
15. Chorizo “cachetada” from Mexicali Taco & Co.
16. Oxtail and foie gras taco from Guerrilla Tacos
17. Beef taquitos from Cielito Lindo
18. Cochinita pibil taco from Chichén Itzá
19. Shrimp Taco from Bizarra Capital
20. Al pastor taco from Tacos Leo
This is how we #buche There are no better #carnitas than @carnitaselmomoacosta from #CA to #NY #porkheaven #pork #puerco #pig #BoyleHeights #LosAngeles #OnlyInLA #APorkalypse A photo posted by Tony & Chuy (@primerataza) on
21. Relleno negro taco from La Flor de Yucatán
22. Carnitas taco from Carnitas El Momo
23. Goat barbacoa taco from Gish Bac
24. Cecina taco from Tacos Cuernavaca
25. Omega-2 taco from Tacos Quetzalocoatl