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Meet East L.A.’s Taquero Making Steamed Beef Lip Tacos That Melt In Your Mouth

12:50 PM PDT on August 17, 2021

[dropcap size=big]B[/dropcap]enjamin Padilla comes from a family of taqueros from Arandas, Jalisco. He opened Tacos El Toro in a residential part of East Los and joins the thriving tacos al vapor culture in Southeast L.A. and East Los Angeles. Pull up to Padilla’s house and you’ll see him battling plumes of thick steam from his vaporera, the mystical Mexican cooking vessel used to keep the beef hot and forever tender. 

Working swiftly, he’ll grab steamed cow head proteins like cachete, labio, or cabeza, chop it down, grab a tortilla full of meat and serve it. The sound of the syncopated chopping of cleavers rings like a drum, building anticipation and filling the air with the music of tacos.

Chopping cabeza. Gif made by Cesar Hernandez

“My priority is always to get you a hot taco. A cold taco is no good, I want you to burn your mouth when you eat my tacos,” says Padilla.

Padilla cooks his proteins in a huge steaming pot that can comfortably fit four cow heads. But Padilla buys extra cachete and labio because each cow head only has a bit and they’re his most popular tacos. Then he gives them a steam bath for three hours until all the connective tissue and collagen breaks down. After the protein is steamed, he removes all the bone and places the meat in his vaporera.

Vaporera for tacos al vapor.
Vaporera for tacos al vapor. Photo by Cesar Hernandez for L.A. TACO.
Vaporera for tacos al vapor. Photo by Cesar Hernandez for L.A. TACO.
Tacos El Toro - Benjamin
Tacos El Toro - Benjamin. Photo by Cesar Hernandez for L.A. TACO.
Tacos El Toro - Benjamin.

They only offer five taco options at El Toro: cachete, cabeza, labio, lengua, and asada. The cachete is stringy and tastes of clean beef while the general cabeza has small pockets of juicy fat. The lengua taco is broken down to small morsels that are tender, spongy, and chewy. The labio is meaty, fatty, and melts in your mouth—Padilla’s favorite. The asada is grilled over coals then thrown in the steamer, smokey and beefy, but its not the reason you’re here. He only offers asada because customers would leave when they found out there was no asada. 

Dress the tacos with onions and cilantro, a squirt of salsa verde, and dots of a bright orange habanero salsa—a little goes a long way.

A tacos al vapor spot is only as good as its tortillas and El Toro sources his from a plug from Tijuana. The trademark of al vapor tortillas are the scorch marks that line the edges, almost like the smoke is stitched into the outer perimeter. Padilla throws in a dozen tortillas to absorb the steam infused with rendered beef fat. Dewy tortillas are an indicator that you are about to have an unforgettable al vapor experience.

Al vapor steam.
Al vapor steam emanating from El Toro's vaporera. Photo by Cesar Hernandez for L.A. TACO.

Padilla learned how to make tacos al vapor by watching. At 10 years old, he was working at taquerías helping restock sodas and cleaning. By the time he was 15, he was chopping and dispatching tacos like the best of them. His hardest lesson? Using his hands. “I had to learn to grab hot tortillas. I had to move my hands fast enough so I wouldn’t get burned,” says Padilla.

Benjamin is quick on the draw. Gif made by Cesar Hernandez.

Chopping the carne to order, sourcing good tortillas, and simplicity is what make El Toro stand out.

Padilla came to Los Angeles in 2012 and started working with a local taquero. He wouldn’t open Tacos El Toro until 2019, in his neighborhood, on the side of his house, under a canopy. Padilla had his taco cart specially made by a welder in Mexico. He wanted to make sure to have enough room to house his vaporera and chopping block, along with a rack for tortillas.

The tortillas absorb the juices from the steaming beef.
The tortillas absorb the juices from the steaming beef. Photo by Cesar Hernandez for L.A. TACO.
Chopped cabeza.
Chopped cabeza. Photo by Cesar Hernandez for L.A. TACO.

His first customers were his neighbors. Slowly more customers would trickle in, telling him that they heard about his tacos from a friend. Eventually, his wife suggested that they start an IG so that people could post about his tacos. Word of mouth and IG are still his main forms of exposure, since he’s nestled in a quiet residential area. But now he has customers coming from as far as Lancaster and all parts of the county.

Chopping the carne to order, sourcing good tortillas, and simplicity is what make El Toro stand out. Although many taquerías offer steamed protein choices, they tend to dry out because taqueros will chop them down and throw them back in the steamer. But tacos al vapor deserve to be more than just an afterthought taco, which is usually why they’re best at al vapor specialists. 

On a busy Friday night, taco harmony is achieved in front of Padilla’s home. A beautiful scene of patrons ordering tacos as Padilla emerges from vapor with a plate of tacos, ready to be eaten on the street. Not a care in the world.

Tacos El Toro

600 Bradshawe Ave, East Los Angeles, CA 90022

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