Essential T: Beef Head Tacos at Tacos El Vapor El Canelo

East L.A.’s beef head specialist has got a lot of nerve—tacos, that is

The streets of fast-gentrifying Boyle Heights and adjacent East L.A. are pretty calm these days in terms of street food—trucks and stands are scattered about and so is the customer base. It’s been years since these neighborhoods fed mobs of taco and antojito aficionados, so I did a double take and immediately whipped a U-turn last Tuesday night when I saw a long line winding out of a strip mall taqueria in East L.A. What could be causing such a scene on a Tuesday night that had spilled out into the parking lot? Turns out it was tacos al vapor, or steamed tacos made from the whole head of a steer.     

Tacos al Vapor El Canelo is one of two beef head specialists in Los Angeles—the other being Tacos El Negro in South Gate—that offer exotic cuts for the adventurous street food diner. A glistening, foggy glass display case keeps the steamed meat moist before serving cuts like head, cheeks, lips, tongue, brains, and nerves, which are very rare.

The nerves are a little firmer than tendons, but have the same transparency that gives them that gummy bear quality (if only you could get gummy bears in beef flavor, which would actually make more sense than cherry or orange, when you really think about it). The nerve tacos have great texture and a mild taste of oiled beef that’s great on a corn tortilla with a salsa from the salsa bar to the right of the counter. When you hear the residents of East L.A. shouting Canelo (El Canelo is also the name of a famous boxer) when there’s no fight on TV, you can bet it’s for El Canelo’s beef head tacos has them cheering. Tacos Al Vapor El Canelo, 6168 Whittier Bl., East L.A., 562-467-3000/562-781-8008