Best of Essential T, 2014

A year with Sinaloan shrimp tamales and beef-head tacos eaten on hoods of cars is a year to remember

Another year has passed, with another 50 or so bites of Essential T: tacos, tortas, tostadas, tamales, and any other antojitos (little whims), which are the typical street foods found in Mexico and in the second-largest Mexican city in the world, Los Angeles. Because this is L.A., I’ve included tamales from our various Latin American cultures, but you can always count on a strong recommendation from this column — not just any old taco gets on my Essential T.

It was another delicious year, especially from these five outstanding vendors–and exclusive finds here–that are the best of what Essential T in L.A. is all about.

Mariscos El Cristalazo
Escuinapa, Sinaloa native and home cook Ninive Vargas created quite a stir in her backyard restaurant before the health department came knocking on her door. When she opens her first restaurant in 2015, look for attractive, traditional dishes including tamales barbones (shrimp tamales) and textihuil (a seafood mole), or her stylish Cristalazo, a party glass filled with citrus-cooked seafood delicacies like callo de hacha (pen shell clams) that have made her such a hit on Instagram.

No Name Carne Asada Stand
South Central is impressive at night along the 110-flanking boulevards and avenues with hundreds of dim, fuzzy white bulbs that serve as nightlights for hungry diners. Those lights led me to a Tijuana-style carne asada stand serving mesquite-grilled steak on handmade corn tortillas or toasted tortillas topped with onions, cilantro, salsa roja, and a spread of creamy guacamole.

Super Tortas D.F. 
Mexican-style tortas had been poorly represented in L.A., with the exception of our extremely solid torta ahogada scene, until recent finds and additions, especially this South L.A. Mexico City-style torta trailer. The exciting sandwiches at this place cover the classics: Italiana, Suiza, Toluqueña, and the super-loaded torta cubana made by a seasoned torta master from the streets of Mexico’s capital.

Tacos Al Vapor El Canelo
This whole beef head taqueria is the place to be in East L.A. for the local flavor, specifically plates of steamed beef head, lips, nerve, tongue, cheeks, and more devoured on hoods of cars outside the shop.

Tacos Quetzalcoatl
This ambitious hot-dog van converted into one of the best taco spots in L.A., specializing in lamb barbacoa from Chalmita in the State of Mexico paired with delicious lamb consommé from an Igloo beverage cooler. The flavorful lamb is just the appetizer before digging into wild green, homemade chorizo, pork in adobo, and cecina (cured beef) tacos sharpened by fried cheese, gourmet salsas, and condiments made with pricey chile manzano and other fine chiles.