With El Chato, the guessing games are over. I park, I walk up to the ordering window, and I know exactly what I’m going to get: the al pastor quesadilla, with griddled onions on the side. I’ve long ago traded the palm-sized $1 tacos for the $5 quesadilla, arguing with myself that I get more meat, more flavor — and more of that unstoppably smoky salsa — if I spring for the larger order. The thing is a beast to eat, and would by any reasonable health professional be deemed a threat to humanity’s arteries, but there is nothing so satisfying as those first few bites, shoulder-to-shoulder around the trunk of a car under the warm decadence of a flashy action franchise billboard.
That is El Chato. The hunkered-down eating over a trash can or a car hood, the messy parking lot, and the crowds that never seem to dip below 20 people anymore. To eat at El Chato is to experience a Los Angeles that isn’t trying to be anything else — more or less — than what it already is.
Wine-loving folk in Baja, Mexico, speak with pride about the Valle de Guadalupe, a surprisingly lush, wide cut of land just off the coast from Ensenada. One of the more popular tales comes from the age of the Spanish occupation of Mexico itself, when it’s believed that conquering Spaniards took such a shine to the intense grapes being grown in the Valle that they stopped importing bottles from Europe nearly altogether. To save face and keep a sense of national pride about their own wines, the Spanish government had the vineyards destroyed, throwing the Valle out of the wine game altogether for a few hundred years.
Today the grapes are back. Many vines are still young, and growers in the Valle continue to experiment with varieties as they work to develop a local signature, but there’s no denying the sense of exploration and innovation happening a mere 90 minutes south of San Diego. Along with the dozens and dozens of above-board wineries, garagiste-style winemakers proliferate the Valle, turning a small crop of grapes into individual hand-labeled bottles that have intrigued many a wine-lover. And the region has become something of a travel destination in its own right; not just for wine, but food as well.
L.A.’s taco culture is an ever-evolving affair. Popular spots fall off just as new places come on strong, meaning there’s never a shortage of exciting places to discover and explore.
Just this year, a handful of taco operations have begun making a name for themselves, whether slinging old school carnitas or next-level fusion plates, while still others made waves simply by moving on. There’s exciting taco news on the horizon, too, along with the emergence of a detailed taco digest, meant to demystify the many regional influences of this city’s great carts and trucks. Here then are the most notable taco stories from the year that was.
You likely recognize Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu, the upbeat cooking team behind longstanding Bell restaurant La Casita Mexicana. Their image is fairly iconic, particularly in the Mexican-American community, where the two have been watched weekly on various cooking programs and cooking competition shows across both Telemundo and Univision. But it’s not uncommon to find the affable Martin del Campo and Arvizu still hard at work at La Casita Mexicana, which has been going strong in Southeast L.A. for more than fifteen years.
L.A. is a taco-mad town. We revere the stuff, whether at late night trucks or all-day stands, from the Silver Lake to Downey, East L.A. to the ocean. But not all tacos are created equal, and after years of chowing down on the city’s finest, we’ve come up with a list of the twelve best tacos you’ll find in Los Angeles. You can opt for Baja-style fried fish tacos, slow-cooked carnitas, grilled carne asada or smoked marlin, but you won’t do better than the tacos on this list.
You may not know it just by looking at chef Carlos Salgado’s modern Mexican four-course menu at his Costa Mesa restaurant Taco Maria, but the fine dining chef’s biggest inspiration may well be a hole-in-the-wall taqueria in Orange. That restaurant — his parents — sparked a lifelong love of Mexican cuisine, cooking and Orange County itself.
After stints in the Bay Area as pastry chef at fine-dining spots like Commis in Oakland, Salgado returned to Orange County to start Taco Maria as a market-driven food truck, before eventually expanding into Costa Mesa’s hip OC Mix Mart. Now one year in at his wood-lined open kitchen restaurant, Salgado is blessed to have the eye of L.A. diners, and to be serving the kind of food (in exactly the kind of town) that he’s always wanted.
Tacos are the heartbeat of Los Angeles’ culinary scene. Upscale chefs sling braised meats and fresh tortillas alongside uni and imported mezcal, while daily loncheros keep the city fed with $1 late-night tacos from the same trusty location. From hand-patted tortillas to all manner of ingredients — stews, moles, seafood, slow-cooked pork and plenty of carnitas — there are endless iterations of possible taco greatness. Here, in no particular order, are twenty tacos to try before you die in LA.