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.
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.
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.
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.
Breakfast tacos are a simple concept: scrambled eggs, cheese, some sort of early-morning meat, a four tortilla. So why has it taken so long for Los Angeles to begin embracing the long-held Lone Star State dish?
Thankfully, breakfast tacos are on the rise in L.A. First, there was the outsized version found at downtown’s Bar Ama, chef Josef Centeno’s ode to all things Tex-Mex. Blistered in spots, gigantic throughout and softly scrambled into a forkful of bliss, the larger-than-life introduction for urbanites unfamiliar with the meal has been a success. It’s a talked-about dish now, along with many of Bar Ama’s other Southern Texas specialties, and helped to start a larger conversation about the withering lack of true Tex-Mex flavors in our own Southland.
For nearly a century, downtown Los Angeles’ Grand Central Market has been a place for locals to buy everything from fresh produce and quality meats to takeaway snacks and big bottles of liquor. Untold numbers of stalls have come and gone since then, felled by sinking economies or turned into newer, shinier fronts during prosperous times. Now, after years of slow decline at the once-vaunted downtown open market, things are turning over and looking up once again.
Is there officially a ‘first family’ in the Los Angeles taco world? There may be, thanks to Chef Ricardo Diaz and his clan.
Diaz’s family is responsible for the Southern California seafood mini-chain El Siete Mares, whose Silver Lake walk-up stand we profiled last year. (If you’re in the mood for fish tacos and want to give them a shot, opt for the fried shrimp tacos dorados.) And if that wasn’t enough, chef Diaz himself helped open Guisados, one of the most celebrated taco spots in the entire city, before splitting with partner Armando de la Torre and leavving the stewed taco empire to him (for now at least). Then, just last month, we talked lovingly about the mole fries and cochinita pibil at Bizarra Capital, Diaz’s slightly upscaled beer bar and Mexican food outpost in Whittier.
Angelenos have barely had time to push away from the table and wipe our mouths before word of another Ricardo Diaz operation spreads like salsa down our shirt. This time, Diaz is back to take on the world of stewed meat tacos with a spacious, open eatery all the way out in La Puente. Known as Colonia Taco Lounge, the dark and roomy restaurant is part Bizarra—lots of puffy booths and a solid beer list—and part Guisados, thanks to hand-patted tortillas, simmered meat taco options, and long, deep flavors.
Everyone loves the rooster. Emblazoned on the front of those iconic plastic squirt bottles with the bright green cap, the Sriracha rooster is as emblematic of a specific flavor as the Lucky Charms leprechaun.
On Sunday, Josh Lurie of Food GPS and Randy Clemens, author of The Sriracha Cookbook, joined forces with LOT 613 downtown to merge that vinegary Thai-inspired hot sauce with a few of the best chefs in Los Angeles. The event, dubbed simply the L.A. Sriracha Festival, brought together Wes Avila from Guerrilla Tacos; Neal Fraser from BLD, Vibiana, Fritzi Dog and elsewhere; Eric Greenspan (of grilled cheese and Foundry fame); and Ernesto Uchimura of Plan Check, who paired up with L.A.’s most celebrated cocktail hound Matt Biancaniello for drinks as well.
Each chef outpost offered a taste of their signature dish, with a touch of Sriracha to liven things up. Greenspan, of course, opted for a straightforward grilled cheese, and the Guerrilla Tacos crew slung signature tacos with a thick and fiery Sriracha-laced salsa. Fraser, working under the Fritzi Dog moniker, pushed out hundreds of mini hot dogs with the rooster sauce as a condiment. That is, until he ran out of buns.
It can be tough for taquerias to make a go of it in East LA, where the standard for tacos is higher than perhaps anywhere else in America. It’s even harder for late night taco trucks, considering their proliferation in the area, particularly on that stretch of Olympic Boulevard that shoots east of downtown.
So what can a single truck like Tacos El Korita do to stand out in the crowd? Paint their truck bright purple, for one. The brightly lit lonchero is decked out in a very regal looking hue, with even more flash and color on the ordering side of the truck, where glossy pictures of your potential meals are highlighted in saturated colors. But the real eye candy is inside the truck. That’s where you’ll find a pile of raw masa, ready to be hand-slapped into a thick, warm, satisfying corn tortilla—right before your eyes.