We've long admired the food writing and reviews of "The Offalo," an Angeleño who loves food and especially cuts of meat that others may be unfamiliar with. We asked him if he would be interested in exploring the offal side of our city's taco scene, and he jumped directly into the job, as you can read below. We hope this guide will help the uninitiated be bold and try some delicious tacos they ordinarily wouldn't have ordered, while also guiding those who do walk on the offal side some suggestions for where to get their fix....
Offal. The word itself doesn’t sound that great. Depending on how you pronounce it, it could come suspiciously close to “awful”. However, as “awful” meant “awesome” once upon a time, “offal” wasn’t a four-letter word with Americans until recent decades (see “Liver & Onions” in many an old-fashioned diner menu). But with factory farms bringing affordable beef steaks and chicken breasts to the masses, the need, and thus the demand, for organ meats has declined in the last half century-plus.
However, like the maligned boiled-grey Brussels sprouts of yore reborn as one of the past decade’s hottest vegetables, offal is making a comeback of sorts. High end restaurants around the country are highlighting dishes made with pig ears and tails, beef and lamb hearts, and housemade terrines of headcheese. And roasted bone marrow might be just as ubiquitous as roasted Brussels sprouts these days.
Of course, offal has never really left the tables and taste buds of immigrant communities. In Los Angeles, offal can be found more easily than Dunkin’ Donuts coffee in New England. Just look for the nearest stand, truck, or trailer slinging tacos!
On most taco menus around town, the more ubiquitous al pastor (spit-roasted marinated pork), carne asada (grilled beef), carnitas (pork slow-cooked in fat), and pollo (um, chicken), are often accompanied by other choices such as buche (pig’s stomach), cabeza (cow’s head), chicharron (pork rind), lengua (cow tongue), and tripas (cow intestines, not tripe). It is this side of the menu, and more, that we will be dig into in this series of posts.
Disclaimer: I called this A Beginner’s Guide to Offal Tacos, not only to introduce those readers who have yet to venture to this “other side” of the taco menu, but also because I myself am a beginner at tacos (though not offal), since I’ve only been an L.A. resident for a dozen years. So, this guide is not meant to be definitive, and I will not attempt to expound on the historical or cultural significance of the different ingredients or cooking methods. For a deeper dive into all things tacos, check out Bill Esparza’s Tacos 101 series.
Assorted Offal Tacos at El Chato Taco Truck:
In Part One, we will burrow into beef bits. In Part Two, we will pick through porcine parts. In Part Three, we will review some of the “variety” in variety meats and see what other types of offal tacos can be found in Los Angeles.
A Beginner’s Guide to Offal Tacos: Part One, Beef
For many Americans, “taco” means ground beef. In Los Angeles, many should also be familiar with carne asada, thin steaks ideally grilled or roasted over open flames. But there’s a world of tacos filled with various cow parts. Below is a brief overview, in rough order of how often I encounter them on taco menus around town:
Cabeza/Cachete: Literally “head” in Spanish, cabeza can be a mixture of the various types of meats found on a cow head, including cheek, tongue, eyeballs, brain. However, generally I’ve found that it’s mostly just meat from the muscles all around the head of a cow, braised until they fall off the skull. In more beef-centric taquerias, you may see cachete on the menu, which is meat from just the cheek muscles, also braised until tender, with a very concentrated, beefy flavor. Super-accessible for beginners--some offalphiles may not even consider cabeza to be offal.
Taco de Cabeza at Tacos Al Vapor El Canelo:
Lengua: One of the more commonly found cuts of beef offal on taco menus is lengua, or cow tongue. Often cubed, but sometimes sliced or shredded, the tongue is relatively unchallenging from a taste-and-texture perspective, especially since the outer layers of the tongue, with the taste buds and other potentially cringe-inducing parts, will generally be removed during prep. The meat is very tender, without the stringiness of large muscle fibers found in most non-offal cuts of beef. Conceptually, however, it may still be hard to swallow for some people.
Taco de Lengua at Santa Rita Jalisco Taco Truck:
Tripas: Though it would be natural to conclude that tripas translates to tripe, parts of a cow’s multiple stomachs, it’s actually the small intestines of cows. As such, when cut up, they can look like tube pasta, about a dime’s width in thickness, flat. Texturally, they may be a little rubbery, but a common request is when ordering tripas is to have them cooked extra crispy. While they are cleaned of their usual intestinal contents before cooking, they do retain a funkiness that may be an acquired taste.
Taco de Tripas at El Chato Taco Truck:
Sesos: Found at taquerias that specialize in beef, the challenge of sesos, or brain, is definitely in one’s head. Depending on preparation, it can range texturally from creamy and fluffy, to firm and almost crumbly. Taste-wise, it is relatively mild; you will more likely taste the salsas and toppings on the tacos more than anything else.
Taco de Sesos at Tacos Al Vapor El Canelo:
Labio: Another cut likely only found at beef-centric shops, labio, or cow lips, are similar to lengua in taste, but, due to a fattier and more gelatinous texture, may present more of a challenge for unadventurous eaters.
Taco de Labio at Tacos Al Vapor El Canelo:
Nervio: Resembling tendon or cartilage, I have not come across nervio, or nerves, much, and have only had it at one beef taco specialist. Not particularly flavorful, its snappy texture will likely be an acquired taste.
Taco de Sesos at Tacos Al Vapor El Canelo:
Other: There are others parts of the cow that are served in tacos, but I haven’t had the chance to try ojos (eyes) or molleja (sweetbreads), for example. Though, I did try bull pizzle (penis) tacos at Bill Esparza’s Tacolandia event last year! (Taste like chicken. Okay, not really.)
Bull Pizzle Taco at Tacolandia 2014
Where to Try Beef Offal Tacos: For some of the harder to find cuts like labio, sesos, or nervio, you’ll want to seek out a beef specialist like Tacos Al Vapor El Canelo in East L.A. They also serve excellent excellent cabeza, and cachete. For tripas, I usually hit Mid-City’s popular late-night taco truck, El Chato, though I need to try Jonathan Gold-recommended La Carreta in South L.A. Even though they don’t specialize in beef, I really enjoyed the lengua (and tripas) at Santa Rita Jalisco in East L.A.
Tacos Al Vapor El Canelo, 6168 Whittier Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90022
El Chato Taco Truck, 5300 W Olympic Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90019
La Carreta, 1471 E Vernon Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90011
Santa Rita Jalisco Taco Truck, 3900 E 1st St, Los Angeles, CA 90063
If you have any suggestion for other great places for beef offal tacos, please let me know!
Read Next: Part Two, Pork ~ Part Three, Variety.