Photograph by Lisa Romerein
“The priest actually gave them permission to be here,” says my dining companion, Bill Esparza, as we pull up alongside Our Lady of Talpa Catholic Church in East L.A. “It’s as if God himself is a fan.” Bill hops out of his Nissan Altima. Wearing a tan velour shirt, dark jeans, and black cowboy boots, he strides up to the rolling cart parked on the sidewalk. Working beneath the glow of three exposed bulbs are two men in black aprons. One cuts strips of al pastor-style pork from a spit crowned with half a pineapple; the other grabs two tortillas that have been dried into a cone shape, places them on the griddle atop a round of bubbling Monterey cheese, then shovels a pile of nicely browned lengua (tongue meat) and al pastor into each. These tacos are called vampiros: crunchy tortilla, gooey, salty cheese, tender bits of meat that burst with flavor, and the sour tang of a spicy salsa verde. The vampiro is a specialty of the Sinaloa state of Mexico; this evening Bill and I are ordering them in Boyle Heights. We bite into the heaping disks. Bill looks up at me with a dazed grin that matches my own. “Aren’t they ridiculous?” he says. “These are the only guys I know that put the cheese right on the griddle—I think that’s what does it.”
Bill is guiding me on an eating tour of ten of his favorite taco spots in Los Angeles. He’s the blogger behind StreetgourmetLA .com, where he offers in-depth profiles of the Mexican food scene in L.A., Tijuana, and Baja. You know all those little wafts of smoke you see coming from impromptu stands in parking lots, U-Haul centers, and deserted alleys? Bill probably knew them first. He is something of a Mexican food shaman, advising everyone from TV stars like Bizarre Foods’ Andrew Zimmern to high-profile chefs like Animal's Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo and Rivera’s John Sedlar. A 15-year Angeleno (he grew up in Stockton), Bill is also a professional saxophonist. When gigs south of the border left him with plenty of downtime—and an appetite—he began to explore the country’s vibrant street food culture.
The taco is the national dish of Mexico, with each region offering its own take on a corn or flour tortilla filled with protein, whether it’s tacos de pescado in Ensenada or tacos arabes in Puebla. It’s also become as timeless a standard in L.A. Yes, the first Taco Bell opened in Downey in 1962, but Angelenos have come a long way from those hard shell/ground meat/processed cheese/shredded lettuce offerings. Now restaurants, stands, and carts all across the city offer their own jazzy variations. Over two days Bill and I will try tacos filled with tripe in East L.A. and beef birria in Lynwood and whitefish in Los Feliz. We even eat leftovers. “It’s called alambre,” Bill explains when I ask about the beautiful, glistening mess that arrives on our table at Antojitos Carmen in Boyle Heights. “It’s basically all the leftover meaty bits chopped up and cooked together with onions and peppers.”
The secret to Bill’s know-how is surface streets—he combs Long Beach Boulevard one day, Pico on another, pulling over every time he sees a new meat-covered spit or a banner advertising authentic carne asada. We’re on our way to Lynwood when he notices a collection of trucks in a self-storage parking lot and makes an unexpected stop. “Do you know what kind of wood you use?” he badgers the young girl at the register. “Is it mesquite?” When the answer is no, he walks back to the car disappointed. “Well, that was a waste of time.” Still, he notes the location in his BlackBerry (a frightening appendage, especially in transit). “It looks like they do barbacoa on weekends. I’ll come back.”
The humble taco might just be the city’s great equalizer. Gathered around a steaming cooktop at the end of some hidden side street, balancing paper plates on our forearms with fiery juices dripping down our wrists, we become one: united in our thrill of discovery and our awestruck appreciation of handheld fatty meat. “It’s street food, but it’s art,” says Bill. “A good taco stand is like a French kitchen line—there’s a system to it. It’s a dying art, though. The guys that do it the right way, the old way—you can taste it.”
Asada or Bust
2510 E. Cesar Chavez Ave., EAST L.A
We slide into one of the diner-style booths to plan the day’s route. I sprinkle a revelatory salsa of seeds and dried chiles onto a fat alambre taco. Good morning, taste buds.
Mariscos Jalisco Truck
Near 3040 E. Olympic Blvd., East L.A.
We share two tacos dorados de camaron: puffy corn tortillas stuffed with shrimp and vegetables, deep fried, and covered with salsa and avocado. The result is weightless.
Mariscos El Paisa
10350 Long Beach Blvd., Lynwood
Squeezed between two cholas and a homeless man, we devour a taco of beef birria (a heady meat stew) and a mulita (like a taco sandwich) with cabeza. The horchata is overkill.
Near 2914 E. 4th St., Boyle Heights
The churchside vampiros rank among the greatest culinary experiences of my life. They hit the tongue everywhere at once and send me reeling. No time to savor—we’re only on number four.
East L.A. Backyard
We follow the hushed cries of “Tacos? Tacos?” to a house where a bustling operation out back is cooking tripe tacos. It proves an old theory: The more covert the food, the better it tastes.
Tacos Cuernavaca Truck
Near Whittier Blvd. and Eastmont Ave., East L.A.
After a protein-packed taco called—no kidding—the Battleship, the cooks hand us mulitas, huaraches, and picaditas. I get them to stop by promising I’ll eat the leftovers for breakfast. I do.
Ricky’s Fish Tacos
Near 1400 N. Virgil Ave., Los Feliz
Day two. Ricky—sporting his signature straw fedora—dips whitefish and shrimp in a light, herb-flecked batter and deep-fries them to supernatural puffiness. One bite and I’m an instant regular.
Flor del Rio
3201 E. 4th St., Boyle Heights
I pour a little of the consommé (made from the juices in which the meat has been bubbling for hours) into a soft yellow tortilla filled with goat birria. Bill dunks his in the cup. I use seven napkins.
La Flor de Yucatán Bakery
1800 S. Hoover St., L.A.
Down by USC, we dig into two Yucatán specialties: papadzul, with hard-boiled eggs and a vibrant green sauce, and cochinita pibil, a pork dish that’s ubiquitous but is rarely done right. Here it’s magnificent.
Cemitas y Clayudas Pal Cabron
2560 E. Gage Ave., Huntington Park
Chalupas are not technically tacos, but I’m nine dishes past caring. Small corn tortillas are fried and covered with red or green sauce and a few strings of Oaxacan cheese. We nurse our stomachs with cool Negra Modelos.
Photographs by Bill Esparza