As a documentarian of Latin American food for the past 15 years, I can say this with the utmost confidence: If Southern California is the most important hub for Mexican cuisine in the United States, then Los Angeles is its crown jewel.
Geographical proximity to Mexico, climate differences, and access to ingredients are some of the chief advantages L.A. has over many cities, but it would also be remiss of me not to mention one other factor: diversity.
While statistics regarding its regional representation have been exaggerated grossly over the years, there is still a lot to admire. In addition to a few odd dishes from a handful of states and a modest scene from Michoacan, Colima, and Zacatecas, the majority of L.A.’s Mexican gastronomy hails from Jalisco, Sinaloa, Nayarit, D.F., and Oaxaca.
Those five states, however, give L.A. an unrivaled, broad range of Mexican cuisines from pre-Hispanic southern cooking, to Chilango (from D.F.) street food, to traditional Jalisco specialities.
“These communities have the sheer numbers to ensure that many of our Mexican restaurants have kitchen professionals, artisans, seasoned taqueros.”
These communities have the sheer numbers to ensure that many of our Mexican restaurants have kitchen professionals, artisans, seasoned taqueros, and even franchises of fondas (traditional eateries) from Mexico like Gish Bac, Flor del Rio, or Burritos La Palma. L.A. stalwarts like Leo’s Taco Truck and Los Güichos both hire taqueros from Mexico City with years of experience; we’ve got a carnitas artisan that’s been preparing porcine goodness for 54 years; and we have a third-generation Oaxacan goat-barbacoa vendor. These are just a fraction of the experienced, highly-skilled cooks making our Mexican cuisine here in L.A.
Crucially, L.A.’s only a two-hour drive from Tijuana, which means produce, seafood, and a range of specialty products are picked up each week by Mexican restaurateurs. Flour tortillas from Mexicali; shrimp, fish, and blood clams from the Pacific Coast; quesillo (Oaxacan string cheese) and chapulines (crickets) from Puebla.
And talent pool of Mexican chefs cannot be ignored either: Rocio Camacho (Rocio’s Mexican Kitchen), Jimmy Shaw (Loteria Grill), the father and son team of Gilberto Cetina and Gilberto Cetina Jr. (Chichen Itza), and the Spanish-language television superstar chefs, Ramiro Arvizu and Jaime Martin del Campo (La Casita Mexicana). This is the kind of elevated traditional cooking that’s done best here in Los Angeles.
But really—what else would you expect from the second most populous Mexican city in the world? Here we break down the regional styles of Mexican cuisine available in Los Angeles.
All photos by Bill Esparza
I. Region: North
Target states: Baja California, Coahuila, Zacatecas
Styles and traditions: This is the least represented part of Mexico in the U.S., and while Arizona and Texas have some Sonoran and Nuevo Leonan spots, their restaurants don’t represent those states with strong traditions. This region has the finest products in Mexico, both seafood and beef. Therefore, much of the cooking is minimal in terms of spices—there’s no need for a bunch of powerful herbs when you have steaks from Nuevo Leon or Sonora, chocolate clams in Baja California Sur, or sashimi-grade sea urchin in Baja.
The great carne asada states still are out of reach, but L.A. has the best fish tacos in the U.S. and plenty of flour gorditas. A real northern-style burrito vendor recently arrived, making one of the many flour tortilla varieties found in the north with guisados (stews) like beef birria, deshebrada (shredded beef), and chile colorado (red chili stew). Many delicious northern dishes like carne con chile, caldillo de carne seca (beef jerky stew), machacado con huevo, montados, tortas de la barda (Mexican sandwich with vegetables, cold cuts, and pork rinds stewed in green salsa), and real carne asada haven’t made it to L.A., and neither have the great Mennonite cheeses of Chihuahua. But blood clams and chocolate clams from Baja are popping up all over the finest seafood spots.
Where to get it: The reigning king of Baja fish and shrimp tacos is local food-truck hero and native Ensenadan Ricky Piña of Ricky’s Fish Tacos (1400 N Virgil Ave, 323-906-7290)—no trip to L.A. is complete without a stop here. Birrieria Flor del Rio (3201 E 4th St, 323-268-0319) is the best place for traditional goat birria from Nochistlan, Zacatecas. Also from Zacatecas, the northern burritos at Burritos La Palma (5120 N Peck Rd, 626-350-8286) are what dreams are made of, if your dreams include handmade flour tortillas filled with flavorful stews. The flour gorditas and northern lentil soup at Guiños Homemade Gorditas and Soups have introduced the flavors of Coahuila for the very first time to Los Angeles.
II. Region: North Pacific Coast
Target states: Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco, Colima
Styles and traditions: This is one of the handful of regions that puts L.A. miles ahead of everyone else. We have strong representation here with our local Mexican seafood restaurants sourcing products fresher than you can get at the Water Grill, Trois Mec, or Providence. The beach cuisines of Nayarit and Sinaloa are all over South Central L.A. serving aguachiles (raw shrimp cooked in lime and chili), shrimp ceviche, callo de hacha (pen-shell clams), and cooked shrimp dishes like camarones a la diabla and camarones culichis (jalapeno cream sauce). Pescado zarandeado with imported snook and sea bream is plentiful, and there are Sinaloan fondas serving chilorio (spicy pork stew), white menudo, and enchiladas del suelo.
From Jalisco there’s goat birria, tortas ahogadas (sandwich rolled in fiery salsa), shrimp tacos, tacos de canasta, tacos dorados (fried shell tacos), and flautas, tacos de fritanga, and there are even places to get Colima-style fish ceviche and pescado a la talla (whole barbecued fish). From Escuinapa Sinaloa, we’ve got shrimp tamales, tixithuil (shrimp mole), and it’s as easy finding pirate DVDs at a tianguis (open air market) to come across pen-shell clams, which are among the best seafood products in Mexico.
Where to get it: The Cosio’s family recipes and superior seafood products make Coni’Seafood (3544 W Imperial Hwy, 310-672-2339) a top Nayarit-style seafood restaurant for pristine aguachiles verdes, shrimp ceviches, cooked dishes like camarones a la diabla, and pescado zarandeado from the grill. From the nearby state of Sinaloa, Mariscos El Cristalazo (1665 N Hacienda Blvd, 626-918-086) delivers the very specific cuisine of Escuinapa like shrimp tamales and tixtihuil. The world-famous Mariscos Jalisco (3040 E Olympic Blvd, 323-528-6701) truck serves amazing shrimp tacos and ceviches from owner Raul Ortega’s home town of San Juan de Los Lagos. Huntington Park’s Tortas Ahogadas Guadalajara (6042 Santa Fe Ave, 323-587-3115) serves the best tortas ahogadas in L.A., and also showcases a full menu of Jaliscan beef barbacoa tacos, carne en su jugo, and pig-foot tostadas.
III. Region: The Bajio
Target states: Michoacán, Guanajuato
Styles and traditions: While Michoacan is best known for its carnitas, the moles, atoles antojitos, and pre-Hispanic foods are just as delicious. The absence of San Luis Potosi cuisine and Queretaro (there’s one place in the OC, but it’s not quite the real deal) cuisine is a huge loss, but one man, Romulo “Momo” Acosta, makes up for it with his Salamanca, Guanajuato-style carnitas. Romulo, “El Momo” Acosta is a national treasure—a 54-year artisanal carnitas master—and should be mentioned every time there’s an article on Mexican cuisine in the U.S. Michoacan cuisine has picked up here, and in addition to carnitas, you can get dishes like morisqueta, aporreadillo, mole, corundas (pure corn tamales), goat birria, and chavindecas (taco sandwich).
Where to get it: The one and only Carnitas El Momo (6015 S Avalon, 323-627-8540) is the top spot for carnitas in L.A. Hold the onions and cilantro, though—all you need are a couple of pickled jalapeños on top, and just wait a moment for the brine to trickle-down between sweet, sticky layers of pork confit. Carnitas Don Cuco (10979 Glenoaks Blvd, 818-714-5624) has a weekend special plate, morisqueta, which is a pile of rice beans topped with a rich, pork rib stew. Newcomer Las Michoacanas has brought rare delights from the tierra caliente like Michoacan-style mole with corundas.
IV. Region: The South Pacific Coast
Target states: Oaxaca
Styles and traditions: Oaxacan cuisine is one of the most world-renowned traditions from Mexico, and Los Angeles absolutely dominates this category. Take, for example, the nickname Oaxacalifornia, a huge Oaxacan population centered in Koreatown and West L.A. From the Valles Centrales region of Oaxaca you can celebrate many of the principal moles: rojo, negro, amarillo, verde, coloradito, and estofado. During our annual Feria de Los Moles, you can sample others like mancha manteles, pipianes, and chichilo.
Where to get it: If you want to get a taste of the Sunday market in Tlacolula, Oaxaca, just head to Gish Bac (4163 W Washington Blvd, 323-737-5050) for a plate of goat barbacoa enchiladas from third-generation barbacoa master, Maria Ramos. For all things mole, Las 7 Regiones de Oaxaca (2648 W Pico Blvd, 213-385-7458) is a favorite for their mole negro, mole amarillo, and mole coloradito. Guelaguetza (3014 W Olympic Blvd, 213-427-0608), a James Beard America’s Classics award winner, is the best place for Oaxacan cuisine on a date. With a handful of Oaxacan restaurants, cafes, and markets, Expresión Oaxaca is one of the big players in Oaxacalifornia, known for its Oaxacan-style tacos and antojitos.
V. Region: The South
Target states: Yucatan
Styles and traditions: Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula comes with hellfire that’s released from tiny orange grenades known as habanero peppers. This is where some of Mexico’s most iconic dishes originate, and there’s a high place reserved in Mexican gastronomy for this cuisine.
L.A. only has four restaurants from this region, all from the state of Yucatan, and that’s all we need to enjoy a variety of tamales, salbutes (turkey tacos), cochinita pibil (pit-roasted pork in achiote and banana leaves), poc chuc (pork in adobo), pulpo en su tinta (octopus in ink), and much more. Some of these restaurants go to great lengths to make their own recaudos (achiote paste), sourcing their own agricole oranges (just drive around L.A. and you can pick them off neighborhood yards in exchange for a few bucks) and chaya leaves for various dishes. Recuados make up the base for the cuisine of the Yucatan peninsula, and these recipes and techniques are passed from generation to generation.
Where to get it: Chichen Itza (3655 S Grand Ave, 213-741-1075) is a Mayan temple to the cooking of the Yucatan peninsula. The huevos motuleños, panuchos, and papadzules are to die for, as is the weekend special, mondongo a la andaluza, a regional menudo. Chichen Itza is simply one of the best Mexican restaurants in the U.S. Since 1971, La Flor de Yucatan Bakery (1800 S Hoover St, 213-748-6090) has been the place to go for its daily specials like frijol con puerco, chirmole, and lomitos (pork loin), and on the weekends you can sample regional tamales like the giant mukbil-pollo. You can get a playful version of pulpo en su tinta plated like a happy face, at Mariscos Yucatan. And El Faisan y El Venado in Highland Park is another solid fonda offering dishes like brazo de reina (hard-boiled egg, chaya herb, pumpkin seed tamal), escabeche oriental, and excellent kibis.
VI. Region: Central Mexico
Target states: Puebla, Morelos, Hidalgo, Distrito Federal (Federal District / Mexico City)
Styles and traditions: In terms of Mexican street food, Los Angeles is in a class by itself. L.A. has antojitos like Babyface has gold records: quesadillas, gorditas, and sopes galore, and huaraches filled with huitlacoche, squash blossoms, tinga, mushrooms, blood sausage, and other traditional stews. Whittier Boulevard has more than a dozen cemitas poblanas, as well as many places to explore the moles and pipianes of Puebla. Evenings in Los Angeles mean that pork in adobo is flying off of vertical spits at one of the busiest al pastor spectacles north of the Bajio. Other Mexico City-style tacos include tacos de guisado and carnitas, and from Morelos and Chalmita we have tacos de cecina, quelites (foraged greens), and adobo. And where else can you get solid pit-roasted lamb barbacoa?
Where to get it: Los Güichos works in double time when it comes to Chilango street food, with amazing carnitas and exotic pork cuts like snout, ear, and heart on weekend mornings, then switching up in the evenings to one of the top al pastor vendors. You could spend every weekend at the Mercado Olympic and not get tired of antojitos, artisanal Tolucan chorizo, chicharrones to-go barbacoa, tacos de guisado, filetes de pescado, and even pulque (fermented agave sap). Mad Max, the man behind Tacos Quetzalcoatl, makes good barbacoa, but his tacos of adobo, quelites (called the Omega-2), cecina, and chicharron prensado (pressed pork in adobo) are life-changing. (He also has the best condiment bar in town.)
*VII. Bonus: Alta California
*Target area: Los Angeles, CA (only exists in Southern California)
Styles and rituals: Something amazing is happening in L.A. At a time when we’ve suffered through decades of TV chef-driven restaurants serving uninteresting versions of enchiladas, Mexican-American chefs in L.A have done something new. Rather than go to Mexico for a week and open a restaurant, they’ve drawn from their Mexican-American roots and experience in California’s top kitchens to embrace a spectrum of local products and cultures, forming what is called Alta California cuisine.
New traditions have developed: chili-braised meats topped with fried eggs, Yucatan-inspired squid-ink tacos with peanuts and raw purslane, sea-urchin tortas, wild-boar enchiladas, mole-verde fries. These restaurants are chef-driven, and they represent part of the most important movement happening in Modern Mexican cuisine in the U.S. After years of frustration with lukewarm traditional restaurants, Alta California cuisine has pumped new life into Modern Mexican in the U.S., and it’s only here in L.A.
Where to get it: Chef Wes Avila’s Guerrilla Tacos (826 E 3rd St) has redefined the taco with his brand of pocho (Mexican-American) fine dining at a food truck, where you can find tacos with foie gras and celery root. A man on a mission, chef Carlos Salgado is out to save the tortilla one artisanal Mexican corn kernel at a time. His very serious Modern Mexican restaurant, Taco Maria (3313 Hyland Ave, 714-538-8444) is a place where you can taste a sophisticated aguachile and a hearty mollete with a spread of huitlacoche butter. Brand new and making a big splash already is Broken Spanish (1050 S Flower St, 213-749-1460) by chef Ray Garcia, where oven-bag mixiotes, beet tortas, and inspired takes on classics like a chile relleno stuffed with kale and potatoes covered in a soubise are shaping the future of Alta California cuisine. Drawing from a more pan-Latin approach, chef Eduardo Ruiz of Corazon y Miel (6626 Atlantic Ave, 323-560-1776) jumps from Peruvian ceviches and Salvadoran sandwiches to Mexican chilaquiles with layers of flavors and touches that defy all conventions.