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The Seven Best Tacos Al Vapor Spots in Southeast Los Angeles

Tacos La Portranka

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]here are two big heavyweights in the steamed taco championship. Tacos de canasta are a steamed pre-made tacos that you’ll find for breakfast in Mexico City. They sit in a basket all morning hence canasta. On the other hand, there are tacos al vapor, a central Mexican style of steamed tacos. Tacos al vapor uses beef offal, usually from the cow head.  You’ll often see cabeza (head), cachete (cheeks), labio (lips), and lengua (tongue).

The taqueros who specialize in al vapor use steam as their weapon and harness it with the dexterity of a metal worker. The common practice is taking a large sheet of heavy-duty plastic stretched over a vaporera (steamer), sometimes covered with a towel. This insulates the meat and breaks down all the fat, collagen, and connective tissue. The tortillas get the same treatment which results in wet-to-the-touch tortillas. Al vapor offers a solution to dry tortillas and can even elevate the worst tortillas. The steam from the beef head often coats the tortilla. You’ll notice lines on the tortillas like they are threaded by scorch marks around the edges, the marker of a good al vapor tortilla. And if you’re health-conscious, these tacos usually don’t have any added fat or grease.

Southeast Los Angeles has become a sort of hub for tacos al vapor – especially Long Beach Boulevard – thanks in large part to its overall growth as a Mexica- American Dream destination for first time home-buyers and first-generation business owners. The place is better and tastier for it. From late-night tacos at a tire shop in Walnut Park, to brand spanking new restaurants that look modern in everything but the patented splash of orange decor and the intoxicating smell of salsas, rábanos, cebolla, cilantro, and steamed cow head … here are the seven best tacos al vapor spots in the South East.

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Tacos La Portranka. All photos by Cesar Hernandez.
Tacos La Portranka

7. Tacos La Portranka

1501 N Long Beach
Compton

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]his taqueria is next to a car wash on Long Beach Boulevard in Compton. They also have a second location, a truck in Watts. La Portranka started as a lonchera but now they also have a brick and mortar. They pay homage to their beginnings by painting a truck on the storefront, to simulate to lochera experience. One of the first things you’ll notice about this spot is that they offer sesos, brains, but only occasionally. The tortillas have the trademark scorching around the edges and are nicely wet. The cachete and cabeza are flavorful but on the mushier side. A sign that they have been steamed a tad too long or chopped too fine. Nonetheless the tacos are delicious. They also offer asada al carbon, grilled over coals, but that’s not why you’re here. Bonus, the aguas frescas are sweet and refreshing.

Tacos Al Vapor El Rey.
Tacos Al Vapor El Rey

6. Tacos Al Vapor El Rey

6534 Pacific Blvd
Huntington Park

[dropcap size=big]E[/dropcap]l Rey is located in the busy strip in Huntington Park colloquially known as “Pacific,” named after the street its on. They are small taco shop that specializes in tacos al vapor. El Rey also gives the al vapor treatment to al pastor which is pretty good but the cabeza and cachete is the real the reason to come. The tortillas are slightly wet from steam and they have the scorch lines around the edges, a good sign for tacos al vapor. They offer three sauces red, green, and habanero.  At El Rey you can get the best of both worlds. They also have tacos de canasta on the menu which are tasty. The steamed hard shell tacos have the taste of a tamal but with a slight crunch.

Tacos La Guerra
Tacos La Guera

5. Tacos La Guerra

Multiple Locations

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]his taco truck is parked on the side of the road along the South Gate Walnut Park border. La Guera has trucks at multiple locations and a brick and mortar at 8015 Long Beach Blvd. The Jalisco style taquero specializes in al vapor, al pastor and suadero (brisket). There’s usually separate lines for each style of taco. The al vapor line is often the longest. You’ll want to sprinkle some lime on your tacos and get a side of complimentary aguachile cucumbers. They offer a fresh burn that accompanies the cabeza and lengua tacos.

Tacos Al Vapor El Ruizeñor.
Tacos Al Vapor El Ruizeñor

4. Tacos Al Vapor El Ruizeñor

7848 Pacific Blvd
Huntington Park

[dropcap size=big]Y[/dropcap]ou can find El Ruizeñor parked on the side of the road on Pacific Boulevard in Huntington Park. You can’t see it when you order but rest assured that they use the plastic and towel method. The meat here is not chopped as fine as other shops. You’ll notice that labio and cacheta still have small chunks of meat. Another thing that makes El Ruizeñor special is that they offer salsa macha, a rich sauce made of dried chilis, oil, and nuts. It is very similar to chinese chili oil you’d find at your favorite dim sum shop. The little clumps of dried chilies bring a deep kick of spice, without much of the heat. They also offer tacos dorados de birria, you’ll want to try those too.

Tacos El Negro.
Tacos El Negro
Tacos El Negro Animated Gif by Cesar Hernandez.
Tacos El Negro Animated Gif by Cesar Hernandez.

3. Tacos El Negro

5720 Imperial Hwy
South Gate

6525 Eastern Ave
Bell Gardens

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]his is a small local chain from South Gate that specializes and only serves tacos al vapor. Tacos El Negro is not looking to explain themselves to the uninitiated as they don’t even have a menu. They offer cachete, cabeza, labio, and asada for the less brave, which is good in its own right but pales in comparison. It’s almost as if they included only to highlight the offal. The taqueria will welcome you with a drumroll of chopping. The meat here is chopped to a pulp to create an even mouth feel. The soft steamed meat pairs well with touch of their habanero sauce. A word of caution, use it sparingly as the heat bites immediately. After you eat here you’ll wonder whether the drumroll of chopping was actually in anticipation of trying their tacos.

Tacos El Cacheton
El Cacheton

2. Tacos El Cacheton

4518 E Rosecrans Ave
Compton

[dropcap size=big]E[/dropcap]l Cacheton is a lonchera that has a residency on the side of the road in Compton. Often you’ll find hungry patrons waiting eagerly for their tacos de cabeza. Some will collect the accutroments in small sandwich bags. Ever had a quesadilla de cabeza? But was it with a handmade corn tortilla? Well now you can get the Jalisco-style steamed protein with melted cheese and a bigass corn tortilla. That’s no slight against the tacos as they serve great al vapor tacos. In fact, the quesadilla is the draw but those who know come back for the tacos.

Tacos Estilo Guadalajara.
Tacos Estilo Gudalajara

1. Tacos Estilo Guadalajara

10733 Long Beach Blvd
Lynwood

13121 Lakewood Blvd
Downey

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]he godfather of tacos al vapor is my city’s pride and joy. Born in Lynwood, Tacos Estilo Guadalajara has been serving tacos al vapor for better part of this decade and has moved a few times. Now their flagship location is sandwiched in a shopping center that beckons anyone driving near it with it’s bright turquoise signage. Underneath the sign is two church steeples a nod to the neo-gothic churches found in Guadalajara, perhaps a warning of sorts to the religious experience of eating their tacos. When you order you’ll see the plastic stretched over a vaporera. When the taquero pulls the plastic up a cloud steam shoots up as he assembles a taco. Often times your order will be ready before you finish paying. What makes Estilo Guadalajara special is perfect balance of meat and tortilla. The meats are cooked to velvety perfection. They offer a simple menu with typical sides, radishes, limes, cucumber, and two sauces, habanero and green. But everything works to make a better dining experience. Afterward, you’ll understand the spiritual power of a taco al vapor.

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