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L.A. Taco Guides

Four New Mexican Restaurants to Try When You’re Out in Santa Monica

2:34 PM PDT on April 11, 2022

Ever since the demise of the original Tacos Punta Cabras, Santa Monicans have been pining to see a new shot in the arm of its Mexican food scene.

Unlike their neighbors in Sawtelle and Venice, who enjoy an increasing presence of good trucks and street stands, "Bay City" can feel bereft of original and worthy Mexican cooking, even managing to fall short of the bleached, weathier cliffs of Pacific Palisades, with its stellar Gracias Señor truck and convoys of loncheras feeding mega-mansion construction crews.

Fortunately, a flowering of worthy new concepts has hit Downtown Santa Monica and its surroundings in the past year, providing a smattering of solid new solid tacos and one fantastic roost where mole, mocha, and memelitas flow all-day.

Together, forever, we’re going to check them out right now.

Yagul Café

Yagul Café is owned by the amazing, gracious family behind Mar Vista’s Quiadaiyn, our favorite far Westside Oaxacan restaurant. A small, bright café dedicated to great coffee and fresh squeezed juices on Wilshire Boulevard, it’s also one of a few, rare Downtown Santa Monica restaurants offering homestyle Oaxacan wonders, with all the horchata con nieve y tuna, enchiladas con mole Coloradito, epazote-spiked quesadillas, and lime-buttered chapulines that might suggest. Café Yagul, named for the former Zapotec city-state turned national monument, may be one of Santa Monica’s most versatile spots, too. Where you can start or punctuate your day on a dirty chai or cappuccino with a bagel or acai bowl, just as easily as you can do so with a plate of enfrijoladas, chilaquiles al campo, or salso al huevo aside a dirty horchata, atole blanco, or Oaxacan hot chocolate. Santa Monica has historically been one of the biggest hubs of OaxaCalifornia, after all.

530 Wilshire Blvd, Ste 107, Santa Monica, CA 90401

La Purépecha

Once we’d finally made it to La Purépecha, we realized we’d taken too long to pay a visit to this year-old eatery. The food and friendly service exceeded our expectations of what a Santa Monica taquería can offer, with the best handmade corn tortilla we’ve had here since the reign of Punta Cabras and significantly better street-style tacos than its local competition. The tortilla is thick, soft, ragged-edged, and deeply corny, and tacos have a notably righteous meat-to-tortilla ratio. One can order them as taconazos, too, which find a jacket of melted cheese spackled to the inside of your tortilla.

Though the asada was a little dry on the one occasion we tried it, shortly improved by a generous rail of salsa roja, we continue to revel in its carnitas, adobada, and pollo asado, the juicy meats standing out from the whole, unobscured by a notable load of cilantro and cebolla. Our favorite, however, remains the grilled, flaky fish taco, which lingers on the mind. While the menu also includes other options, such as ceviche, camarones al mojo de ajo, steak chilaquiles, and machaca plates, the best time to try the tacos arrives on Tuesdays, when prices drop to $1.99 per taco. 725 Broadway, Santa Monica CA 90401

Jonah’s Kitchen

Jonah’s Kitchen is an upscale restaurant at 25th and Wilshire with Tulum vibes and the social media models, moneyed influencers, and occasional famous friend to prove it. There were things we didn’t enthusiastically care for here, personally, such as the counter service, blaring dance beats, and aforementioned mobs. But there were just as many things we loved, including an emphatically attractive space, backroom tiki bar, and most fortunately, the food. The titular Jonah here is Cali’s own Jonah Johnson, a chef with extensive experience cooking for a celebrity clientele, who takes a lot of inspiration from Latin America. Jonah’s Kitchen’s ultimate power is the cooking, which is focused on both wood-grilled and low-and-slow smoked meats.

While we’re yet to try the Argentine ribs, churrasco-style pichana, or smoked-then-gochujang-grilled chicken, this culinary point-of-view results in stellar tacos served on thin, housemade corn tortillas. Inside those, you’ll find such delectable morsels as a juicy 14-hour smoked brisket, cut by the salinity of a queso fresco and the rounded acidity of pickled onion; sweet, slightly spicy shrimp slicked in gochujang; a cochinta pibil in a taco dorado; and a killer lunchroom-style carne molido taco, bearing Wagyu beef picadillo topped with lettuce in a crispy tortilla, a messy beauty that come across like a gourmet version of Tito’s. There’s an Impossible Meat version of that for the plant-based, too.

The tacos here were all bomb, extending to a trio of seared sashimi-grade albacore tacos with yuzu juice, fried scallions, and serrano slices inside a wanton shell. At $7 a taco (and $18 for the albacore) they’re far from cheap, though the quality and work within go quite a way in justifying these prices.

2518 Wilshire Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90403

Papi’s Tacos & Churros

Papi’s Tacos & Churros is a phoenix sprung from the ashes of its previous location on Jefferson, which was shuttered by fire damage almost a year ago today.  The new Westside address is undeniably charming for such a slim space, with immersive paintings on its brick walls placing you in a casita’s courtyard peering out onto some beautiful city of colonial Mexico, and a large mural depicting a cascade of consomé flooding the silhouetted streets of downtown Santa Monica. The restaurant specializes in “red” tacos dorados, quesatacos, mulitas, and bowls of birria de res, and also offers smoky pollo asado, vegan-friendly jackfruit, birria de res ramen, and churros on its short menu, putting a taste of Tijuana’s biggest national craze into the reach of Pier-packing tourists and locals alike. The double tortilla-ed tacos are medium-sized two biters, with the menu making for one of the most overall affordable restaurants in town. There are definitely birria de res trucks and churro destinations whose food we like a little more and find a little more artful in L.A., but there are no complaints about Papi’s. Especially when blanketed in the sea breeze of an overcast coastal evening, your only retreat a plate of hot tacos and a comforting cup of consomé handed over by the warm staff.

313 Wilshire Blvd Santa Monica, CA 90401

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