The Final Four is set, and there’s some serious talent vying for the title: We’re talking, of course, about L.A. Taco’s Taco Madness 2015, with Guerrilla Tacos vs. Mexicali Taco & Co. and Marisco Jalisco vs. Carnitas El Momo in battles for the most online votes. You can check L.A. Taco for updates about its championship celebration event (the original April 4 party at Villain’s Tavern has been postponed), but in the meantime, any day in L.A. is a good day for a taco throwdown.
In the spirit of March Madness, we’ve brought back resident taco expert Bill Esparza’s Tacopedia: A Complete Taco Encyclopedia of L.A. Here are 45 reasons why Los Angeles is the taco capital of America. Pick your own winner, and nobody says you have to pick just one.
Cataloging a whole city’s worth of tacos isn’t easy.
Just ask Eater NY critic Robert Sietsema, who recently attempted to organize New York’s taco scene with the rather ridiculous subhead “L.A.’s Got Nuttin’ On Us!” As ambitious as his list was, what followed was a rather strange collection of tacos that don’t really exist in name, redundancies, and general misinformation. (I’ll skip going into detail for brevity’s sake). More concerning, though, was the fact that other New York journalists have been eager to equate the city’s rather modest taco scene with L.A.’s as well, as we saw with Ligaya Mishan’s New York Times piece last year. Maybe they simply don’t realize how vast our city’s taco culture actually is.
That’s why I decided to create L.A.’s first ever taco encyclopedia, or Tacopedia, to serve as a comprehensive guide for the many style of tacos that exist in L.A. Most are regional styles that are officially recognized in Mexico, while others are more modern styles influenced by Mexican-American culture. Either way, they’re all delicious.
Ensenada Fish Tacos
Not only does L.A. have an abundance of Baja-style fish tacos, we also have the best in Ricky’s Fish Tacos, prepared with Baja ingredients by Ensenada native, Ricky Piña. In addition to his superb beer-battered fish tacos he does crunchy shrimp tacos, too, just like every stand in Ensenada.
Hailing from the states of Nayarit and Sinaloa, these tacos are filled with stewed and smoked marlin, then toasted. The best are at Nayarit seafood specialist, Coni’Seafood.
Speaking of Sinaloa, South Gate’s El Perihuete (a small local chain) makes a nice gobernador, named after a governor in Sinaloa who thought that a taco with Pacific shrimp, melted cheese, tomatoes, peppers, and onions was good politics. That gets our vote any day.
Roasted goat tacos served with a rich broth made from the goat’s drippings. Popular in Jalisco, and the state of Zacatecas, which is the region where third generation goat specialist, Birrieria Flor del Rio hails from.
In L.A. you can sample pit-roasted lamb prepared in the style of Mexican states such as Tlaxcala, Guerrero, Puebla, Capulhuac, Edo de Mexico, Oaxaca, Hidalgo, and Texcoco, which is represented by the best barbacoa purveyor in the U.S., Aqui es Texcoco. Our city also has a third generation barbacoa master at Gish Bac, who prepares the region’s signature goat barbacoa from the Mercado de Tlacolula, in Oaxaca. For Guerreran-style beef barbacoa, go to the Tamales Elena truck for a tender beef taco with ridiculously flavorful broth. You can find mouthwatering chicken barbacoa—also from Guerrero—on weekends at El Gallo Bakery.
Carne Asada Tacos
Northern Baja rules here in L.A. Most renown are Mexicali Taco Co.’s grilled steak tacos, wrapped in flour tortillas due to the Sonoran influence in Mexicali. Find them at stands like Tacos Los Poblanos too—these are run by Pueblans, but they represent an army of professional traveling Pueblan taqueros, or taco masters, hailing from Izucar de Matamoros, Puebla who prepare charchoal-grilled Tijuana-style carne asada topped with a covering of creamy avocado on a corn tortilla that’s wrapped in a conical shape, which can be found on streets from L.A. to Cabo.
Tacos al Pastor
Tacos Leo is the benchmark spot in L.A. for Mexico City-style marinated pork tacos that are cut from a vertical spit and plated with sliced pineapple. These taqueros are professionals who have worked in some of Mexico City’s famed al pastor taquerias. We also have adobada, the regional style of al pastor from Baja California, which is served with creamy guacamole instead of pineapple.
Note to NYC: Tacos Arabes must use pan arabe (pita bread style tortilla), which you will only find at places like Los Originales Tacos Arabes de Puebla. Puebla’s famous taco comes with marinated pork cut from a vertical spit, chipotle sauce, and the pan arabe, which the Villegas family sources from Puebla. No pan arabe. No taco arabe.
A specialty of Puebla (not Morelos), these are fully loaded tacos de guisado layered with a variety of toppings. Cemitas Poblanas Mi Magdalena makes a two-handed taco with cactus, cured beef, Oaxacan cheese and vegetables that resemble the ones found in Atlixco, Puebla.
Tacos Acorazados (battleship tacos)
These are the ultimate regional taco de guisados from Cuernavaca Morelos consisting of a massive tortilla layered with rice, milanesa, cactus, vegetables, and cheese. It’s the star menu item at Alebrije’s Grill Taco Truck in Orange County.
Tacos al Vapor (steamed tacos)
Most of our Central Mexican tacos al vapor spots like Tacos Al Vapor El Canelo feature all cuts of beef head like cheeks, lips, brains, eyes, nerve, and more—these are also known as tacos de cabeza, or head. You’ll also find tacos de cabeza made with pig head at Oaxaca on Wheels from San Pedro Huiztepec, Oaxaca. This is all one style–each cut doesn’t get it’s own category–Mexican rules, dude!
Tacos de Canasta (basket tacos)
Another form of steamed tacos, which are naturally steamed in a basket, are the speciality at Vernon’s El Atoron from Jalisco. These tacos are defined by the way they are traditionally prepared, using sparse fillings like beans, chicharron, and potatoes with chorizo which sweat rich flavors into the corn tortilla.
Tacos de Guisado (stew tacos)
Regional stews, braises, and just about anything else (both vegetarian and meat) are served on a corn tortilla in this broad category found all over Mexico, especially Mexico City. Find them in abundance at Loteria Grill—I recommend the mushroom with epazote. Guisados, which now has three locations in L.A., is equally famous for their stew tacos.
Tacos de Carnitas
In Los Angeles you can find true regional versions of carnitas from Mexico City (at Tacos Los Güichos) and from Michoacan, but we also happen to have a 53-year carnitas artisan, Romulo Acosta from Guanajuato, trained in Mexico and making carnitas at his family run Carnitas El Momo truck, that are as good as finest in Mexico.
Tacos de Fritanga (fried tacos)
A fixture of the L.A.’s late night taco culture these taco stands feature a stainless steel disc with a convex center slowlying frying hog’s maw, tripe, brisket, longaniza sausage, and more, in lard and the meat’s own fat. They are seared in the center prior to serving to give them a bit of crispiness. The stands also have steam tables to cook more delicate cuts like tongue and brains. Fritanga tacos are big in D.F. and Jalisco, among other states, but like one of my favorite spots on Florence and Avalon, the L.A. vendors are mostly from Jalisco.
Named for the white flour tortilla, this is a delicious plate of al pastor and cheese melted into a flour tortilla. I like Tacos Cuernavaca, which also does a nice taco acorazado and is an all-around top regional Mexican food truck in L.A.
Taco de Alambre
These are Mexican hash tacos, literally wire tacos, which can be found at many Oaxacan restaurants like Sabores Oaxaqueños. You order a plate of tortillas for fixing your own tacos using a sauteé of Oaxacan cuts like tasajo (cured beef), cecina (pork in adobo), or chorizo mixed with Oaxacan cheese, peppers, onions, and if you want, some bacon. Try the 3 different alambres at Tacos Cuernavaca.
Tacos de Chilorio
Spicy pork tacos. You can get a true taste of Sinaloa at El Sinaloense with an order of chilorio, a family-style serving of spiced pork hash that is spooned into flour tortillas with some frijoles puercos to form DIY tacos.
Burritas de Machaca
Made with dried, shredded beef in a burrito (yes, real traditional Mexican burritos are in the taco family). Find it them at Gumacus, a Sinaloan cenaduria in South Gate has several preparations of machaca like machaca and eggs, or served with delicious flour tortillas and vegetables for making tacos.
Comprised of grilled and roasted meats, melted cheese, and pico de gallo or other condiments sandwiched in between two corn tortillas. Find them at one of the several El Flamin’ Taco truck locations, or try a regional version from Michoacan called chavindecas at Birrieria Apatzingan. New Yorkers might call this a Mexican pizza.
Two words: Roy Choi. Los Angeles is the undisputed birthplace of the Korean taco, and while it has inspired many imitators, the Kogi truck remains the Mecca for Korean taco lovers worldwide.
North African Tacos
No, we’re not going to stack the deck with every international truck in town that makes a taco, but what chef Farid Zadi is doing with his Revolucionario L.A. Food concept warrants its own category–North African stews and braises are a natural on a tortilla. After all, shakshouka is North Africa’s huevos rancheros.
Panuchos and Salbutes
Chichen Itza, which features the tri-state cuisine of the Yucatan peninsula (they even have a cookbook) has achieved a true mix of tradition with modern refinement that few Mexican restaurants in the U.S. can claim. Their panuchos (bean-stuffed tortillas with turkey and vegetables), and salbutes (soft tortillas with turkey and vegetables) are served with the tender-braised turkey. On Sundays you can get tacos de lechon, or suckling pig, a popular item in the Yucatan as well as my family’s home state of Aguascalientes.
Tacos de Tripa de Leche
A northern delicacy of caramelized chitterlings soaked in milk, boiled, and crisped on a flat top grill is found most commonly at taquerias in Sonora, Coahuila, Sinaloa, but can pop-up most anywhere in Mexico. At Gallardo’s Tacos you can ask for it to be cooked tender or extra crispy, bien doradito, for a special taste to please late night taco connoisseurs.
Eagle Rock’s Cacao Mexicatessen is a taco lover’s playground, with creative weekly specials like their Tijuana-style quesataco, originally created by contemporary taqueria, Tacos Salceados. Grated cheese is melted on a griddle and rolled over to form a pocket to insert the ingredients, then the whole thing is placed atop a tortilla.
Tacos de Cochinita Pibil
Made with marinated pork cooked in banana leaves, you’ll find these at Yucatecan restaurants across L.A., including two which are the best in the U.S. We also have chef Rocio Camacho, who makes great dishes from all over the south of Mexico at Rocio’s Moles de los Dioses. Her cochinita pibil tacos are addictive and dripping with a rich, complex recaudo rojo (achiote marinade).
Flute-length fried rolled tortillas filled with meat. There are many places for this favorite Mexican antojito in L.A., but the forthcoming Flautas by Mexican celebrity chefs, Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu (La Casita Mexicana, Mexicano) will specialize in the comfort food classic from their home state of Jalisco.
Vampiros (a.k.a. volcanes, lorenzas)
A toasted tortilla topped with meat, melted cheese, and condiments. These crispy tacos are a favorite late night snack in Sinaloa, and Tacos Los Tomateros—named after Culiacan, Sinaloa’s baseball team—serves vampiros that are 100% Sinaloense.
Small lard-fried tortillas with salsa, vegetables, and scraps of meat. Chalupas are popular in Puebla and Oaxaca, and always a great order at Guelaguetza, which uses quality tortillas to enjoy with either a tart green or fruity red salsa.
Tacos de Mixiote
These are tender tacos are made with meat steamed in parchment paper wraps. In L.A., you can get southern lamb barbacoa in restaurants, street stands, trucks, and even backyards, and many times you’ll find bundle of mixiotes filled with lamb or even rabbit. Chef Roberto Berrelleza isn’t from the south but he comes from a time when the grand ladies of Mexican cuisine like chef Patricia Quintana took traditions like mixiotes and served them on white tablecloths. Berrelleza’s Babita in San Gabriel still executes a fine lamb shank mixiote for making tacos.
A friendly word for insect tacos. Any one of our countless Oaxacan restaurants has fried crickets, called chapulines, or crickets a la mexicana to plate your own tacos. Las 7 Regiones de Oaxaca in Pico Union–our Best Mole Negro Oaxaqueño winner in 2013–serves them plump and crunchy, but maybe it’s not for date night.
Tacos de Relleno Negro
One of our veteran Mexican bakeries which offers a wide selection of provincial tamales on weekends, Flor de Yucatan Bakery also serves authentic cochinita pibil, and a delicious relleno negro, a Yucatecan dish of turkey simmered in a recaudo negro, a dark marinade from the Yucatan Peninsula.
Tacos can be enjoyed in our Kosher corridor at Mexikosher, with Mexico City chef Katsuji Tanabe serving rabbi-approved tacos such as brisket and duck carnitas with spicy harissa salsa. Just don’t plan on any kosher tacos on Saturdays!
Golden-fried tacos. Start with the classic potato taco, fried with a sealed tortilla, from Tortas Ahogadas Ameca, which highlights the cuisine of Ameca, Jalisco and then head down to Boyle Heights for the award-winning shrimp taco dorado, drowned in salsa at Mariscos Jalisco, whose coveted taco has been copied by more than a dozen other L.A. trucks and restaurants.
Whittier is the place for a taste of Tex-Mex at Arturo’s Puffy Tacos for their fried, puffed tortillas topped with picadillo or carne guisada, lettuce, and shredded yellow cheese. You can also get an off-menu puffy taco from one of L.A.’s best chefs, Josef Centeno at Bar Amá.
Excellent Texas-Style breakfast tacos from a real Texan, Briana Valdez, are the specialty at Home State with delectable items likeneches, a filling taste of scrambled eggs, beans, and cheese.
The crunchy taco? You’ll find these across the country, but the zealous followers of local legends Tito’s Tacos and Henry’s Tacos known that Los Angeles is the original home of this Americanized favorite.
Soul Food Tacos
Most famously available at Sky’s Gourmet Tacos, this style combines flavors of African-American soul food—fillings like ground turkey, yam and rice, or even crawfish, covered with tangy Caribbean-style hot sauce and shredded yellow cheese—and stuffs them between two grilled corn tortillas. Visit Original Bill’s Taco House in South Central, and you can get gravy on your tacos, too.
Rolled, fried tacos filled with meat (similar to flautas). In 1934, the U.S. taco craze began at El Cielito Lindo on historic Olvera Street. It was that runny, avocado sauce created by Aurora Guerrero perhaps, but soon after Cielito Lindo opened taquitos spread across L.A. and across the country.
Tacos a la Plancha
You’ve had these before–a half-dozen or so different selections of proteins (carnitas, al pastor, carnitas, pollo, buche, lengua, etc.) all cooked on a flat top grill–most of the time–then topped with onions, cilantro, salsas, and maybe some pico de gallo. You line up behind hipsters and chipsters in Highland or Echo Park for these after hours. It’s the type of domesticized taco you’ll find on almost every block in parts of L.A., provided you show up a the correct hour.
Gourmet outfits like Soho Taco and Mondo Taco have raised the level of the street taco, using handmade tortillas and fresh local ingredients to create Mexican-American tacos. At his roving taco stand Soho Taco chef Gabe Zambrano grills marinated shrimp just enough to provide the perfect snap when you bite into the taco, then dress it with chipotle crema, and yes, some mango salsa.
For chef-driven tacos, check out the modern taqueros of Alta California cuisine. Chefs like Wes Avila (Guerilla Tacos), Ray Garcia (FIG), the family at Cacao Mexicatessen, Josh Gil and Daniel Snukal (Tacos Puntas Cabras), Ricardo Diaz (Colonia Taco Lounge), and Carlos Salgado (Taco Maria) grew up eating and making Mexican cuisine with their families and combined that experience with professional chef training—formally and informally—to create tacos that features an abundance of local ingredients which evoke both the flavors of California and Mexico. Chef David Chang recently said that Avila will “change the way people look at Mexican cuisine”, and chef Guillermo Berestain of Pangea, the first modern Mexican cuisine restaurant in Mexico, will feature Guerrilla Tacos at his culinary event this October.
In other words, there has never been a better time to be a taco lover in L.A.