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Six Months and 664 Tacos, Ranked: Hero Documents More Than 280 Taquerias in Southern California

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]he life of New England native Jay Keyes can be separated into two parts: “life after Tacos El Gordo” and life before Tacos El Gordo. 

The 42-year-old had been living in San Diego after moving from Dedham, Massachusetts to work as an executive for an IT company. Living on the East Coast, Keyes’ go-to taco spot was On The Border, a Texas-based chain that sells fajitas, queso and “border bowls.” But in San Diego is where he had a taste of El Gordo’s adobada—Tijuana-style spiced pork shaved from a trompo and topped with cilantro, onions, and salsa de aguacate. 

READ: The L.A. Taco Guide to the 20 Best Al Pastor and Adobada Tacos in Los Angeles, Mapped

He craved more. Keyes, who counts food writing as one of his hobbies, often made trips to Los Angeles to eat at buzzed-about restaurants such as Providence, Chengdu Taste, and Osteria Mozza. As his appetite for tacos grew, he found inspiration in the work of taco enthusiasts in the area like Jonathan Gold and Bill Esparza.

In the summer of 2019, Keyes embarked on a taco odyssey that took him through dozens of neighborhoods across Southern California—from San Diego to Los Angeles and in-between areas in the Inland Empire and Orange County. By visiting places like Tacos Ensenada in Duarte and Taco Nazo in Bellflower, Keyes realized just how far L.A. stretches.

“I remember driving up to the Birrieria San Marcos truck in North Hills and being surprised I was still within the city limits despite driving forever,” he said.

Tacos El Gordo - Adobada. Photo by Jay Keyes.

Keyes’ self-described “Summer of Tasty Tacos,” which actually began February 2019, ended late September. In those six months, he ate more than 600 tacos and checked off more than 280 taquerias from his list. It’s a list that would make the Bandini of The Great Taco Hunt—arguably L.A.’s first taco blogger—proud.

El Canelo Tacos Al Vapor - Taco de Nervio. Photo by Jay Keyes.

An avid Yelp reviewer since 2011, Keyes wanted to write taco reviews to explore themes related to Mexican food. The double-standard that consumers often expect from certain cuisines from other cultures—Mexican, Vietnamese, Indian, and others—is one of those themes. These cuisines never rising above a “Cheap Eats” category is casual racism at work, Keyes believes. 

Adrian's Taco Trailer - Asada and Shrimp. Photo by Jay Keyes.

“I don’t agree with people who want to put Mexican food in a box and tell me that it always ought to be cheap,” says Keyes. “I think of bruschetta in an Italian restaurant. Most Americans would gladly pay eight bucks for a bruschetta appetizer. We wouldn’t even think twice about it. It’s basically bread with something very similar to pico de gallo on top. And yet, try to charge that amount of money for fresh tortilla chips and salsa, you’re just not gonna be able to get away with it.”

Loreto's Turkey Taco with Soul Gravy. Photo by Jay Keyes.

Keyes also wanted to examine ideas about authenticity in Mexican cuisine. He points to the fried turkey restaurant Loreto’s in Compton, where they stuff corn tortillas with fried turkey, shredded yellow cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and a sauce called “soul gravy.” He says it’s one of the best tacos he had all summer. 

Tacos 1986 - Adobada. Photo by Jay Keyes.
Tacos 1986 -Adobada

“Is it authentic when looked at from the lens of a Mexican style taco? Absolutely not. But is it authentic to Compton? Yeah, absolutely. They’ve been doing that there for three decades,” he said.

Raspados Nayarit - Tacos Tuxpeños. Photo by Jay Keyes.
Raspados Nayarit - Tacos Tuxpeños. Photo by

Keyes’ L.A. taco trips helped him become familiar with the city in ways he didn’t expect.

El Buchon - Tacos Dorados Gobernador. Photo by Jay Keyes.

In typical east coast transplant style, Keyes was an L.A. hater. “My wife and I had a somewhat dismissive opinion of L.A. as a cultural center,” says Keyes. “We assumed that it was a vapid, superficial place devoid of culture and intellectual merit. Before we moved to San Diego, we thought San Diego was a cool, funky place filled with art and progressive ideas. We were shocked to learn that we had it entirely wrong: Los Angeles is what we thought San Diego was, and vice versa.” 

Holbox - Taco de Pulpo. Photo by Jay Keyes.
Holbox's Taco de Pulpo. Photo by Memo Torres for L.A. TACO.

During his taco journey, Keyes ordered more than just the standard tres de asada.

Taco Maria - Arrachera. Photo by Jay Keyes.
A taco at Taco Maria.

He had tacos Tuxpeños at Raspados Nayarit in Lincoln Heights, tacos de nervio and sesos at El Canelo Tacos Al Vapor in East L.A., and tacos de suadero at Tacos Los Güichos in South Los Angeles. 

If a spot was known for a specific taco, he gave it a try. 

After eating hundreds of tacos, Keyes says four stood out above all the others: Carnitas El Momo’s “Aporkalypse” taco, Tacos El Gordo’s adobada, Taco Maria’s arrachera taco and Marisco Jalisco’s taco de camarón

Los Angeles Has Better Tacos Than San Diego

After months of traveling from San Diego to Los Angeles, Keyes believes L.A.’s taco scene is superior. 

Tacos La Carreta - Chorreada. Photo by Jay Keyes.

“L.A. has so much more, just the quantity of the different places, different regions that are represented. The fact that you can go to a place like Holbox and get Yucatecan tacos or Guelagetza or Gish Bac and get a really awesome taco that’s influenced by Oaxaca, you don’t have that in San Diego. We don’t have as many regions of Mexico represented as far as restaurants and taco stands.” 

Although he stopped just short of reviewing 300 taco spots, Keyes says he’s done with  “Summer of Tasty Tacos.” 

He accomplished everything he hoped during the project. Not only did he taste hundreds of tacos, but he also sharpened his writing chops and even lost a significant amount of weight.

Tacos La Güera - Al Pastor. Photo by Jay Keyes.

“I know it’s counterintuitive to think that somebody who’s trying to lose weight is gonna fill up on tacos, but they really are great portion-controlled food,” says Keyes. 

Using intermittent fasting, Keyes says he was only consuming 1,200 to 1,500 calories a day. Despite the more than 600 tacos he ate, he said he lost 60 pounds. 

“(It) was a win for me.”

The Taco Tracker

Keyes archived his journey on the “Taco Tracker,” a detailed spreadsheet that features every taco he tasted. He scored tacos from 10 to 100 and included links to corresponding Yelp reviews. Keyes reviews are researched, descriptive, and include photos. Here are some highlights from Keyes’ “Summer of Tasty Tacos”:


Adrian's Taco Trailer in DTLA: “A short stroll away from Guerrilla Tacos in the Arts District. Adrian's shrimp taco is superb.” 

Tacos Ensenada in Duarte: “My favorite Baja-style fish taco I had in L.A. County. Yes, even better than Ricky's.”

El Taco Loco #3 in Long Beach: “Grimy place with a bad-ass buche taco.”

El Taco Buchon in Commerce: “A more modern taqueria that is absolutely obsessed with salsas. Their Gobernador taco is different but phenomenal.”

Mi Cocina Michoacana (East L.A.) and  Tacos La Estrella (Eagle Rock): “Found them by passing by and going in on a whim. Neither of them get any attention outside of their neighborhoods, but they should.”

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