Nostalgia has a habit of tricking the senses—a first time romance with an old high school crush, the rush of emotions seeing your ancestral hometown for the first time, and a taste of one of the culinary institutions of your youth all elicit skewed memories. For me, it’s Dave Wong’s Chinese-American, and the pocholicious bistec ranchero with machine-made flour tortillas at Arroyo’s Café or Mi Ranchito’s, in Stockton where I was born and raised.
While there’s nothing in the U.S. quite like the coarse, thick, dusty flour tortillas found at Mexican-American restaurants in Stockton, my most recent meal at Dave Wong’s will be my last. The orange chicken was dry, the chicken in foil flavorless, and the fried prawns strangely devoid of color. Whether the food had actually changed since I was a kid is still up for debate.
What exactly is it that makes otherwise reasonable people line up for bad food year after year? I hadn’t been to King Taco since the early 2000s, and only a handful of times ever since I moved to L.A. back in ’95. I found it dull and bland from the start, but I recently decided it was time to give it one last try.
After all, Pulitzer prize-winning L.A. Times food critic, Jonathan Gold, is still a King Taco man, recently giving its tacos it a B+ rating and crediting it with setting the tone of taquerias in L.A. More accurately, author of Taco USA and OC Weekly editor, Gustavo Arellano stated that King Taco is the original taco truck vendor and has a mean salsa. But a B+, from the belly of Los Angeles? Only if you’re grading on a bizarre curve or completely blinded by the fog of nostalgia. All the tacos I ate there were plain nasty.
Gold mentioned that King Taco had carnitas first and then everybody had to have them on their menu; what King Taco has are indeed the same assorted meats of the non-regional Mexican-American taco truck and taquerias across the U.S.A. Their carnitas are dry, off-tasting pieces of gristle somehow absent of all pork flavor.
On the spit, the al pastor resembles a cylinder of rusty leather more than it does food, and the dry meat has more of a lightly sweet barbecue sauce profile than an al pastor marinade.
The carne asada isn’t cooked over fire—not that anyone would expect that from King Taco—but shouldn’t it at least taste good? Or taste like anything at all? Dry, everything is so dry, and the bits that aren’t dry are gummy. The blanket of soupy salsa and onions doesn’t even moisten the proteins on any of the tacos.
What you might be enjoying about King Taco is the masking formula of aromatic chopped onions, cilantro and a good salsa roja, which is all you really taste. But these are onion tacos on industrial tortillas with a salsa that somehow manages to avoid complementing the onions.
I have nothing but respect for the accomplishments of one of the most successful and trailblazing Mexican-American businesses in the U.S., but this is Los Angeles, and we are surrounded by the best tacos in the country.