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Tacos 101 with Bill Esparza ~ Part 3 “The LA Taco Scene”

4:26 PM PST on February 14, 2011

As a public service to the taco lifestyle, we have asked famed street gourmet Bill Esparza to drop some taco knowledge in this ground-breaking series we call TACOS 101Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

The Crowd

The universally accepted rule of stands and trucks is that where there’s a crowd, you shall find good tacos. This is more applicable in Mexico where there are full on taco wars, a gaggle of stands all serving carne asada for example. Customers will have established the supremacy of a stand over time. It’s always true that a crowd keeps the tacos fresh, with a higher turnover than a slow stand.

In Los Angeles, a place can sometimes be popular for various reasons, look for the crowd, but look for other indicators of excellence too.

There are a large group of Mexicans standing in line so it must be good? Well, many of the Mexicans standing around were born in the United States, and are Mexican-Americans. Many Mexican-Americans don’t have experience with great tacos, and aren’t aware of Mexican cuisine outside a cursory knowledge. Mexican-Americans are Americans, they love hamburgers, hotdogs, pizza, and Harry Potter, just as much as a non-Latino. There are pockets of Los Angeles that have more recent arrivals from Mexico that carry a little more taco experience. But, never assume someone is a foodie or an expert just because of their heritage.

LA Taco Scene

Los Angeles is flush with taco trucks manned by unskilled taqueros cooking meats on a flat iron, which should be fried, roasted, or steamed. Hog’s maw, chicken, steak, brains, al pastor, tripe, tongue, all from a single taquero cooking  on a flat iron? These aren’t the best practices, and this style of taco doesn’t exist in Mexico. This is a style that has developed in the local Mexican-American community.  No separate money handlers? This is essential for hygiene, and part of a taquero apprentice program where young aspiring taqueros clean, handle money, and prep before learning the finer skills of tacoing. Being a taquero isn’t a job, it’s an occupation requiring training, just like being a chef. Taqueros are specialists. An al pastor man is an al pastor man for life, moving from stand to stand, and taqueria to taqueria.

Salsas at our trucks tend to be bland and often are the same styles everyone else has. Condiments are an afterthought, and the pride and commitment to maintaining a fresh and clean condiment station seems unimportant to many.

Meats are bought for the sole purpose of keeping the cost of the taco at a buck. This means poor quality meats and ingredients. A great taco for most types of tacos in LA isn’t possible at the dollar price point. Our economy is different. In Mexico, even some of these tacos are more than a dollar, but they remain around a dollar due to lower food, employee, and operation costs. Carne asada has to be above two dollars in order to deliver a quality bite here in the United States.

That being said, there are good versions of the Los Angeles style of taco truck here in LA, and they garner a loyal following.

Taco Hunting

For those seeking the best tacos in Los Angeles, the rewards will outweigh the inconveniences. Sure, it’s great to grab a late night taco at a random truck. But, it has been my experience that when presented with the genuine article, most people have a hard time going back. So, let us dive in!

Start with regionalism. There is a certain pride that comes with representing a particular region of Mexico that marks the best stands, trucks, and taquerias. When your taco shop calls out their state or hometown, it’s likely they are making their regional style of tacos. Think small Mexico vs. big Mexico. Tacos Mexico is a sloppy, and bland taqueria chain. There isn’t a taco to represent the entirety of Mexico, like their name, their tacos are generic.  A truck or stand called Tacos Nayarit is better as it refers to a state, but even more specific would be a stand or taqueria named Tacos Acaponeta, named after a city in Nayarit. Mariscos Jalisco, estilo San Juan de Los Lagos, from the highlands of the state of Jalisco, is one of our best tacos in Los Angeles. The reference to their hometown is what brought my attention to this truck. They have a shrimp taco made from a secret recipe brought back from their town. It’s these little things that matter.

Look for specialists, and skilled taqueros. Look for places that observe traditional serving times, like places that do carnitas, or birria in the mornings, or on the weekends only. Any eateries observing Mexico’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner practices are worth a stop. Carnitas at night that are boiled, then fried in the truck are going to be salty, have a stringy texture, and lack in pork flavor.

Some Traditional Tacos in LA

Al Pastor/Adobada-adoboed pork roasted on a vertical spit.

Service-after 6PM until 2AM, or 4AM on weekends.

Region-Best from Mexico City, Puebla, Guanajuato, Yucatan, Baja California, but is done in all states.

Tacos Leo, Mid-City

Barbacoa-Pit roasted lamb and pancita(offal stuffed lamb stomach) served with lamb consommé with chick peas.

Service-Weekend mornings to early afternoon

Region-Best from Hidalgo, Guerrero, Puebla, and the State of Mexico.

Borrego de Oro, but better at underground locations.

Birria- Oven roasted or stewed goat, beef, lamb, or other proteins (even seafood), in a sauce of cumin and red chilis.

Service-mornings to early afternoon

Region-Best from Jalisco, Zacatecas, and Michoacan, but prepared in all states.

Flor del Rio, Boyle Heights

Carne Asada-charcoal or mesquite roasted beef.

Service-after 6PM is when the carne asada stands get going,’ til around 2AM, and 4AM on the weekends.

Region-Best from Sonora, Baja California, Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, Coahuila, generally dominating the northern states.

Mexicali Taco Co., Downtown LA

Carnitas-pork fried in lard, traditionally in a cazo(large copper pot)with various parts.

Service-Mornings to early afternoon, especially on weekends.

Region-Best in Michoacan, Jalisco, Mexico City, Aguascalientes

Tacos Los Guichos, Vernon/Main

Tacos de Guisado-stews and braised meats, seafood,poultry,vegetables,etc.

Service-Mornings to early afternoons during the week.

Region-All over Mexico, but the greatest tradition is in Mexico City.

Tacos Carmelita, MacArthur Park

Tacos de Pescado-tempura battered fried fish

Service-mornings to early afternoon

Region-Baja California, especially Ensenada

Ricky’s Fish Tacos, Silver Lake

Tacos Dorados de Camaron-deep fried shrimp and vegetable tacos

Service-mornings to early afternoon

Region-Highlands of Jalisco

Mariscos Jalisco, Boyle Heights

Previously: Part 1 / Part 2

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