Overshadowed by the holy trinity of taco, burrito, and quesadilla, the torta has long been the stepchild of street-corner Mexican fare, a mere sandwich—too bready, too mayonnaise-y to gain a large following. At this pan-Latin sandwich shop, the torta is treated to a gourmet makeover: From the slow-roasted pork and Spanish cod to the wood-fired rolls and daily aguas frescas, everything is fresh and homemade. » 1944 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park, 323-278-3536.
El Huarache Azteca
The cemita, a classic Puebla sandwich, has gained popularity thanks to an armored division of carnitas-slinging trucks. But there is no such evangelizing corps for the huarache, an elongated strip of masa without any particular provenance. El Huarache Azteca makes the dish a high point. A team of aproned ladies pulls the dough into shape like Mozza line cooks and considers fillings like hog’s maw, tongue, and beans and cheese with the seriousness of sushi chefs. » 5225 York Blvd., Highland Park, 323-478-9572.
Yes, some barnyard creatures were harmed in the making of an El Parián taco: cow, pig, goat. The carne asada, chopped coarsely and folded into a freshly pressed tortilla, is enough to make this place a required visit. But the rich, murky birria, available in a taco or stew, is more than Mexican food—it’s a love potion. » 1528 W. Pico Blvd., L.A., 213-386-7361.
On weekend mornings the line outside El Tepeyac is long. Inside, generations gather around the Formica tables and launch into the oversize burritos that are the restaurant’s chief draw. In the machaca version, the meat is soft from long stewing. The carnitas rendition is saturated with a country musk. Filled with layers of rice and beans, all represent a form of belt-loosening grandeur. » 812 N. Evergreen Ave., East L.A., 323-267-8668.
La Casita Mexicana
Inside this sunburst of color, chef duo Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu put an ambitious spin on Mexican home cooking. Warm chips are drizzled with various smoky moles. The kitchen makes a stellar version of the Puebla classic chiles en nogada; part sweet and part savory, the rich walnut sauce is sharpened with pomegranate seeds. Fried rice pudding is the ultimate dessert. » 4030 Gage Ave., Bell, 323-773-1898.
La Morenita Oaxaqueña
The clientele consists of uprooted Oaxacans, mole fiends, and ravenous Chowhounds at this little cube of lime green paint in the corner of a strip mall. The menu is festooned with goodies (tlayudas, a form of indigenous pizza that substitutes mozzarella cheese with chèvre, is noteworthy), but it’s the enmoladas—tortillas drenched in a dark, fiery sauce—that achieve the epitome of modest excellence. » 3550 W. 3rd St., Koreatown, 213-365-9201.
Monte Alban is named for the Zapotec ruins on the mountains above Oaxaca’s capital city. There are plenty of folksy touches here—the uniforms are muy tipico, the murals colorful—but the cooking has focus and schmaltz isn’t offered instead of quality. In the taco de barbacoa, stewed, fall-apart goat meat is lent a little zing with fresh herbs. A lingering and complex mole negro makes simple salmon a must-have dish. » 11927 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. 310-444-7736.
It’s no wonder this is a Koreatown standby. The family-operated cubbyhole typifies the fresh-off-the-griddle Mexican cooking that sustains much of L.A. Truck drivers and late-night clubbers occupy the counter seats, from which one can see shrimp fajitas sizzling, a broiler crowded with browning golden chiles, and drink coolers full of homemade horchata and jamaica tea—the taste of hibiscus coming through. » 516 S. Western Ave., Koreatown, 213-480-8438.
The best fish tacos are eaten standing up, on a Baja California boardwalk, next to the sputtering tub of oil that produced them. A close second is the East L.A. flagship of this mini empire, which churns out expertly fried mounds of fish and shrimp, dressed with lettuce, red onion, and a squirt of cream. A $5.49 combo gets you a taco of each. » 5385 Whittier Blvd., East L.A., 323-887-1980. Also in Glendora, Long Beach, Lynwood, Santa Ana, and Whittier.
Nobody will mistake the tacos at this Culver City institution for authentic Mexican food: hard shell, orange cheese, iceberg lettuce, and a single meat—of the stewed and shredded variety. But a Tito’s taco is the optimal melding of fried, filled, crunchy, and tangy. No pesky questions about chile or cilantro. Just unadulterated comfort at $2.10 a pop. Cash only. » 11222 Washington Pl., Culver City, 310-391-5780.