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New Taco Unlocked: Head to Gardena to Taste Belize-Style ‘Orange Walk’ Tacos

12:02 PM PST on January 28, 2022

Gardena’s The Blue Hole, photo: Hadley Tomicki

The Blue Hole is a bright spot on a beige Gardena boulevard serving L.A.’s best Belizean food.

Part the glass doors at this stand-alone, yellow-and-blue abode on Crenshaw and you’ll enter a happy place where sunny fake flowers, a bottle of Marie Sharp’s habanero salsa, and Lord Rhaburn’s calypso greet every table. Between cyan walls supporting a pastry case and portrait of Belize’s legendary Great Blue Hole, a beguiling, coral reef-encrusted sinkhole that is a major marine attraction off of Belize City.

We can’t accurately say how lepidopterists felt when spotting the Appias Phoebe Nuydai in the wild for the first time last year. But it’s hard to imagine their joy surpassing our own at finding a new species of taco in Los Angeles.

For ten times out of ten, if you bring us to a Belizean restaurant, we’re getting oxtails with our garnaches and salbutes. Only this time, we’d come to The Blue Hole for our first taste of Orange Walk tacos. This type of chicken taco was made famous in northern Belize’s Orange Walk District, which borders both Quintana Roo, Mexico, and northeast Guatemala in a massive territory that has long been a venerable bastion of Mayan culture. Until spying the menu at Blue Hole, we’ve simply never seen them on our streets before.

In Belize, Orange Walk tacos are widely coveted, traditionally consumed as a comforting breakfast treat with a cup of morning coffee. Though people have been rolling and topping various forms of cooked corn dough in this region for thousands of years, the origins of Orange Walk tacos themselves are often attributed to a local husband, wife, and brother who set up shop with a beloved taco recipe sometime in the last century.

Today, these tacos are one of the things Orange Walk is most renowned for, even holding an annual festival for the many vendors and home cooks who have jumped into the game over the years.

Meticulously made, they are notably juicy, rolled tacos in handmade corn tortillas bearing super tender chicken rubbed and marinated in a ground recado, before being shredded and slow-braised in its own juices. Their reputation and rich flavor stand on the strength of local poultry, hand-nixtamalized masa, and natural ingredients taken straight from their source.

Leslie Gillett of The Blue Hole

Leslie Gillett, The Blue Hole’s manager and part of the family behind the restaurant, grew up north of Orange Walk in the city of Libertad, Corozal. His first experience trying the tacos is still fresh in his mind. It happened when stopping at a gas station while traveling from Belize City north through Orange Walk during one of his frequent summer visits.

“There was this man selling street food and I didn’t know what it was but there were a lot of people there, so it had to be good,” he says. “There were about five rolled tacos on the plate for a dollar. I remember picking one up, taking a bite, and shoving the rest of it into my mouth, it was so good. The juices in it were just amazing. I didn’t want it to stop. I drank all the gravy on my plate. It was one of the best experiences with food I’ve ever had in my life.”

These memories pushed Gillett to get the dish on Blue Hole’s menu once his restaurateur family took over the former site of Mars Caribbean Garden, which had fallen to the Covid-led restaurant shutdown at this same address.

“We just wanted to offer a proper sit-down family dining restaurant for Belizean people,” he says. “And offer the best quality food, made from scratch, that makes you literally feel at home.”

Salbutes handmade with fresh masa at The Blue Hole

Our own table began with glasses of soursop juice and some of the crunchiest, most addictive salbutes and garnaches we’ve ever tasted. Both of these close relatives to the taco are made in-house using fresh masa, the former’s tortillas puffed to a golden orange crown bearing shredded chicken, cabbage, and pickled jalapeno and onion.

Garnaches topped with beans, cheese, and coconut

The latter were impeccably crispy, their tostada-like surfaces spread with smashed pinto beans and powdered with asiago and coconut.

Orange Walk Tacos, let loose from their paper binding

Then came our first anticipated taste of the Orange Walk tacos, served five to a plate for $11. Their rolled and paper-clad form initially didn’t make much of a visual impression. But goddamn, they were good.

One bite of their hot, soft tortilla yields into threads of spiced, tender chicken flooded with mildly smoky, mildly sweet juices and the pronounced richness of cooked onion with the crunch of sauteed cabbage and carrot bits. The effect is tacos de canasta-like, deeply comforting, and perfect in their suppleness and simplicity. Like all things, a few fiery dabs of Marie Sharp's helped knock them out of the stratosphere.

Orange Walk Tacos, exposed

A showcase of great home-cooked chicken with the slightly dulcet, smoky tones of a pibil. Like great soft tacos prepared at someone’s home more than a daring culinary mutation from a farmer's market-adhered chef.

We fucked up all five and fast, immediately looking forward to the day we’d come back for more.

Gillett points out that The Blue Hole does its best to recreate the tacos as Orange Walk does it, though there remain some things that can never be the same. There’s no achiote tree on site to pick from for the recado. No field-raised chickens to pluck. No ability to cook outside over an open fire.

Still, Blue Hole’s tacos are quite consciously constructed, using tortillas made specifically for the dish by an outside company and a 24-hour preparation, as opposed to the two days it takes in Belize.

“It literally goes through a process to make the chicken, the tortillas, the salsa, the seasoning that goes in,” he notes of the tacos back home.

Pastries at The Blue Hole

Leslie also mentions that Orange Walk tacos are made in a variety of personal styles these days and that their popularity has spread the dish throughout the country. Some cooks make them drier and there’s even a version made with pork, as opposed to the more traditional juicy and/or chicken-based tacos.

Not only is he proud to have them on the menu because they provide a delicious taste from home. But he sees tacos as innately Belizean.

Like Gardena itself, where a West African market, kushiyaki spot, pupusa place, and barbecue joint could theoretically share the same strip mall, Belize is a famously diverse country where generations of different cultures meld, including African, Creole, British, Indian, Chinese, Lebanese, Garifuna, Mestizo, and many more.

But it’s the region’s longstanding Mayan culture, particularly in the country’s north and west, that have set the base for some of Belize’s most famous dishes.

“Tacos are very traditional for us,” he says. “Being that we border Mexico and Guatemala and have a Spanish heritage, tacos do play a big role. It is part of our culture, part of our people, part of our identity.”

For Gillett, welcoming customers for a taste of home, as well as opening others’ eyes to the full breadth of Belizean culture, is what makes him proudest to oversee the busy Blue Hole.

“It is an amazing feeling to be representing my people, my culture, my food in Los Angeles,” Gillett says. “Because we make people see that we are part of the Caribbean, and we are part of Central America. So they come to understand a whole different culture, a whole different set of people.”

“It opens up their mind,” he says, “that ‘Wow, Caribbean food is not only quote-unquote ‘Jamaican food.’’ It’s also tacos, it’s salbutes, garnaches, tamales, panades. All those foods can be part of the Caribbean culture.  And part of the Belizean culture. It’s an amazing feeling to share that with people.”

The Blue Hole ~ 14008 Crenshaw Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90249 ~ (424) 396-3228

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