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Where Locals Eat Good Tacos In the Santa Clarita Valley ~ The L.A. Taco Guide

11:23 AM PDT on April 26, 2018

Meats to order at Taqueria Jalisco/Yelp.

[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]n the Santa Clarita Valley in northeast L.A. County — yes, home of Six Flags Magic Mountain and Cal-Arts — where I’ve lived since the unbearably sleepy early nineties, reliable sources of tasty pleasure have always been few and far between. My memory is dotted with the equally sudden emergences and disappearances of restaurants throughout the loose pack of neighborhoods that makes up our little city: Newhall, Valencia, Saugus, Canyon Country.

To this day, almost nothing truly great stays around here for long.

The Los Angeles Times has written that plans to build entirely new cities within the valley limits go back at least two decades. With the land here in such high demand – for developers and filmmakers, opioid addicts and award-winning chefs – it is shocking that so many family businesses have not only kept going, but have in some cases thrived. Any collective sense of identity that might have existed in a bygone version of Santa Clarita has shifted into an amorphous multicultural stew of survivor’s pride.

A view of the SCV/Wikicommons.

Nowhere is that shared spirit more clearly reflected than in our regional food culture, which, as I wrote multiple times for LA Weekly last year, is in the midst of a locally-owned, locally-made renaissance. As “Awesometown” fractured and rebuilt itself time and time again, it has also given space to a variety of new businesses, including several taquerias that challenge years of favoritism towards the stalwarts.

Among the most beloved of the new bunch is Saugus’s La Esmeralda (2015), a sporty, casual hangout with secretly exceptional fish and shrimp tacos. Fresh fish is hard to come by in the valley, but that only seems to have encouraged La Esmeralda to concoct a lightly spicy, homemade crunchy-crusted breading for its seafood.

Then there is Ay Caramba!, a cozy Mexican diner across from the giant local Costco. Less than five years old and still dealing with growing pains (a tacky logo, limited parking), Ay Caramba! is the passion project of gifted head chef Margarita Gutierrez and her husband, Alberto. While Gutierrez’s tacos are tasty, her menudo is magnificent, and the interior is constantly cloudy with the aromatics of Oaxacan street cuisine.

[dropcap size=big]O[/dropcap]ne can find a family-owned Mexican restaurant virtually anywhere in this valley – often on the far end of a strip mall, in the shadow of a much busier chain. For decades, this is how it has been: if, say, the Arby’s on Soledad is under construction, you simply pop over to Taqueria Jalisco (known around town as Tacos Los Toritos, due to the faded neon sign above the doorway) for super-fresh pastor and SCV’s best homemade horchata instead. Somehow, though, through it all, the taco-makers of my childhood held their ground.

Meats to order at Taqueria Jalisco/Yelp.

Where the objectively “best” tacos are made, however, is a matter of one’s environment. Living in Canyon Country put me within spitting distance of Mi Tierra, an innocuous convenience store and backroom diner on a dusty north-bound stretch of Sierra Highway. Growing up, my friends preferred the quite affordable three-taco combo – lengua, carne asada, and carnitas, typically – at Las Delicias, a storefront just off State Route 14. It took me 25 years to eat at Mi Tierra, where the asada is truly superb: abundantly portioned, crispy aboveground and tender below, and doused in a fragrant, tart salsa verde.

Similarly, I avoided eating at El Pueblo panaderia for years simply because it competed with one of Santa Clarita’s major success stories: Egg Plantation, the breakfast landmark located across Walnut Street. El Pueblo has maintained its Newhall brick-and-mortar since its founding in 1987 (it is now under new management), despite a massive redesign of the neighborhood over the last ten years. Newhall looks nothing like it did in my childhood; but El Pueblo, seemingly, has always been there.

Tacos at Mi Tierra/FB.

Only last month did I give into rumors that El Pueblo's barbacoa tacos were peerless in the valley. I have never been to Carnitas Michoacan, another highly regarded spot just east of the Saugus Speedway, but if the comparisons between the two businesses are accurate, I will certainly adore it. In any case, El Pueblo's tortillas, warm and soft as fresh hand towels, are gourmet blankets for their orange-colored, cilantro-heavy steamed bee. I regretted my hesitation at the first bite.

As a Santa Claritan, the impressive resilience of these individual shops has created a social tissue that eclipses any debates about how their tacos compare. Long-time residents have watched the valley expand drastically in population and sprawl since the turn of the millennium, some with consternation and others with a bristling excitement. A population that was once 100,000 residents has nearly tripled, and that only includes the documented members of the community.

With new small-business owners and entrepreneurs moving to our changing suburb every day, perhaps there will never be a definitive champion in Santa Clarita’s race to taco glory. Personally, I hope it never ends.

RELATED: After Almost 75 years, Carrillo’s Tortilleria & Mexican Delicatessen Remains a San Fernando Valley Staple

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