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Apr 16, 2009 04:12 PM

The Forget Bandini... A Serious Chowhounds Guide to L.A's Best Tacos

This is the new, nicer, more polite Eat Nopales speaking... but enough with the adulation of the Taco Bloggers. Honestly, some of these guys (or gals) really... well I won't go there... I think there a better informed, more competent CHers on these boards whose I opinion I personally value many times more than some of the Bloggers... whose main Cred is that they actually take the time to Blog in an organized manner... but when it comes down to judging a good taco and pointing the way for everyone else... I don't know.

Let's break this down... Tacos are simple food just like Sushi, Steaks & Burgers only you need to have some exposure to the best incarnations before being able to judge the rest. Its not rocket science... a good taco necesitates three good components:

> Tortilla... to even be on the judging block its got be a handmade tortilla (hell I might let a truly superior commercial tortilla like Abuelita's slide.. but just barely)... please don't nominate Tacos made with crummy packaged tortillas.

> Filling... the filling should be good enough to stand on its own, on a white plate. No mediocre blends of chopped Chuck griddled to anonymity.

A chow worthy "Carne Asada" taco in Mexico is purchased by its cut... you have Arrachera, Cabreria / Rib Eye, New York, Puntas de Filete / Filet Tips, Palomilla, Diezmillo etc.. if you have to order an anonymous "3 de Asada" instead of "1 de Arrachera, 1 de Palomilla y otro de Cabreria" its not likely to belong on our list.

Similarly a chow worthy "Carnitas" taco in Mexico is ordered along TWO dimensions.... Beast & Cut. For example, you have Carnitas de Pierna de Pavo (Duck Leg) or Carnitas de Robalo (Sea Bass filet cooked until very crispy)... of course the more ubiquitous Pork Carnitas are ordered by:

a) Cachete... Cheeks
b) Trompa... Snout
c) Chamorro... Cross Shank
b) Maciza... rump & shoulder
d) Lomo... Loin usually cooked in really big sections

And it goes on & on... we could be talking about Mushroom, Squash Blossom, Frijoles Chinitos (Whole Beans seared on a griddle), Nopales etc.,... but the filling has to be top notch in QUALITY, DISTINCTIVENESS & EXECUTION.

> Condiments... Well most Tacos in L.A. (including many raved about the Taco Bloggers) are really mediocre on the Tortilla & Filling dimensions... one thing L.A. does just as well as Mexico is the condiments. Usually there aren't significant differences between Salsas in L.A. versus Mexico. The few things is sometimes the local taqueros are forced to use slightly inferior ingredients like Tahitian Limes instead of Key Limes, and big, mature White Onions instead of the Spring White Onions common in Mexico (Cebollitas Cambray). In addition, sometimes LA Taquerias don't make the special salsas that traditional go with a type of filling. For example, Al Pastor's proper pairing is a simple, grassy Jalapeno & Olive Oil salsa... only people from around Mexico City seem to get this right. Further... the few Pork Chop tacos I've had in L.A. weren't served with the Peanut Salsa or the Salsa de Molcajete Los 3 Chiles that best go with them. So its got to be a good Salsa & Garnishes... but also important... its got to be the right pairing for the filling.

So what are the best Tacos in L.A judging by the following criteria:

Tortilla (Only Handmade Tortillas Qualify... Exceptions Might Be Made For Extenuating Circumstances) - Aroma, Texture & Flavor

Filling - Quality, Distinctiveness & Executiion

Condiments - Quality & Proper Pairing

Let the deliciousness begin.

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  1. My first nomination is the Goat Birria Taco at Birrieria La Barca:

    > Tortilla... Handmade... soft, pillowy & substantial but not too thick. Aroma & flavor is weak being made from Masa Harina. Average for handmade tortillas.

    > Filling... perfectly braised, fall apart, gamey goat that has been wonderfully complimented with a marinade of Guajillo Chiles, Vinegar, Spices most notable Cloves & Ginger, Onions, Garlic, the trilogy of Jaliscan herbs (Oregano, Thyme, Marjoram).

    > Condiments... a nice, thick Arbol-Tomatillo salsa that is tangy & sharply spicy perfectly cuts through the richness of the goat & doesn't fade under the powerful flavors of the filling. And most importantly its served with a competently executed bowl of the Goat Consomme you can use to dip the taco.

    In addition, they serve a side of Mayocoba beans de la Olla with a Finas Hierbas accented broth that is absolutely top notch... and a very good counter balance for the intense taco.

    This is one magnificent taco in L.A.... I am sure there are others.

    10 Replies
    1. re: Eat_Nopal


      Birrieria La Barca
      10817 Valley Mall, El Monte, CA 91731

      1. re: Eat_Nopal

        A similar yet distinct taco, is the Goat Barbacoa served at Monte Alban.

        > Tortilla... Handmade... very thin & large (8inch diameter), not as pillowy as La Barca's. However, it often has a nice smokey little flecks of charring that are quite satisfying. Unfortuantely, because it so thin they don't retain steam/heat well, and since these aren't served from Griddle to Hand... the tortilla can get cool before you are done eating these substantial tacos.

        > Filling... fall apart, gamey goat... lightly marinaded with vinegar & dried chile... then roasted over Avocado leaves (this what gives the dish its distinct herbal licorice aroma). I also love this style of roasted goat with the anisey flavor such a perfect match. Unfortunately, Monte Alban doesn't do 1/20th of the goat volume that La Barba does. So while La Barca has its own private goat supplier raising them to specifications and cooks several of them per day... Monte Alban's meat is less special and the dish is only prepared a couple times a week at best... so its inconsistent. Some days the various flavors are distinct & brilliant.... other days they are perfectly melded & complex... and then there are off days when its been sitting in a fridge too long and just not as impressive.

        > Condiments... they offer a similar crimson, roasted tomatillo, arbol salsa that complements the goat perfectly. In addition, each taco is served with Black Bean Puree that packs a good punch of toasted Avocado leaf... and the fact that you can order a side of Nopalitos... is a big fringe benefit that shouldn't be overlooked.

        Nonetheless, this goat taco is a notch below La Barca... but its nothing to scoff at. Definitely among L.A's great tacos.

        1. re: Eat_Nopal


          Monte Alban
          11927 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, CA

          1. re: Eat_Nopal

            I have nothing of value to add to this thread but my thanks, my eyeballs and my joyous tasting of the nominees.
            Great idea!

            1. re: Eat_Nopal

              I love the goat taco at monte alban. Now I have to make it to Birrieria La Barca to try their version.

              1. re: joshekg

                Its definitely the worth the drive. Once you get there... you will have to focus... because there is other equally compelling things to eat there.

                1. re: Eat_Nopal

                  I made the drive yesterday and can testify: "worth it" is an understatement! Mandatory, more like it.
                  There is no point in any further description beyond what Eat Nopal has written above. AWESOME TACO. And the consumme is wonderful as well. My buddy and I split the tacos and platos of Birria and a Fried Quail. All were top notch. The quail was HUGE...seemed more like a small chicken to me...and tasty, if a tad dry.
                  Great call, EN.

                  1. re: Ciao Bob

                    "The quail was HUGE...seemed more like a small chicken to me...and tasty"

                    I think it was probably a Cornish Game Hen... as in the Highlands of Jalisco they call them Codorniz or Godorniz... wheras Quail are known as Huilota... naming convention problem.

                    Glad you liked it. I think for the price La Barca is one of the best regional Mexican restos in L.A.

                    1. re: Eat_Nopal

                      That seems about right: although I didn't mentions it, the meat was much white than quail, much more like a CGH.

            2. re: Eat_Nopal


              Taqueria Azteca
              10816 1/2 Valley Mall, El Monte, CA 91731

            3. Senor, a poignant topic indeed.The taco blogs are impressive in volume, but have no substance or great tacos.

              I'm glad you've started this discussion.

              Mariscos Jalisco is my first contribution, a truck featuring a fried shrimp taco with vegetables. the recipe is from San Juan de Los Lagos, Jalisco. Crunchy out tender in, a slighty fermented salsa with a mariscos tang, and fresh avocado.


              I've nothing for carne asada or al pastor that I've found in LA worthy of the said criteria.
              I just had trompa in Guadalajara a few weeks ago, brilliant, but don't know where to find it here.

              On Breed St., there's la veracruzana, tacos of cueritos, cochinita, barbacoa, huevo duro con arroz, and more.These are all killing,con sabor de abuelita.Breed St. just north of Cesar Chavez in Boyle Hts. on weekends.

              I will send more soon.

              5 Replies
              1. re: streetgourmetla

                "Crunchy out tender in, a slighty fermented salsa with a mariscos tang, and fresh avocado"

                Thanks you for your contribution and noting the slightly fermented salsa. FYI.. to you, KR & others devoted to quality research into Mexican cuisine... extrapolation from various sources... I learned that the pre-hispanic percursor to Salsa Borracha dishes was not at all the use of Pulque - that would have been sacreligious and punished... instead it was a common practice in Mesoamerica to let leftover salsas & moles ferment... in fact in many indigenous communities throughout Southern Mexico they refer to these concoctions as Tepaches even thought they have nothing to do with the fermented pineapple beverage. To me its particularly interesting... because my parents would love when their signature Tomatillo-Ancho-Arbol salsa would turn for those 1st couple of days. I kind of liked it too... but its an acquired and I was just a clueless teenager so I didn't fully appreciate it like I do today. As you know, San Juan de los Lagos is a mere 15 miles away from where my parents grew up.

                Breed Street & Cesar Chavez
                N Breed St and E Cesar Chavez Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90033

                1. re: Eat_Nopal

                  Oye cabrones! I went to Breed St. tonight and there was a barbacoa de borrego(mutton) stand.They had consume, many lamb parts including liver, and although they were out, they also have pansita(lamb stomach).

                  One of the cooks showed me pictures of the place they get the lambs, the pit they have in their backyard to cook the barbacoa with the maguey underground.They are from Hidalgo, and the barbacoa was excellent.

                  They have fresh looking bright salsa, and the salsa roja has a serious kick.They don't have a salsa borracha. They don't have a name but they are just north of the churros stand at the end of the B of A parking lot. Another outstanding taco.Awesome.

                  1. re: streetgourmetla

                    oh man! i hope they are out there the next time i venture to breed st.

                2. re: streetgourmetla

                  Just wanted to offer my thanks for the Mariscos Jalisco rec. I just drove here for lunch today and I'm glad I did. One thing you should mention are the generous portions. I ordered two shrimp tacos, a tostada de aguachiles and a tostada mixta. Out of the three I'd have to say the tacos were my favorite with the aguachiles a close second. Definitely appreciate the textural contrast between the crunchy taco, meaty shrimp, and creamy avocado. The salsa was just a touch salty for my tastes, but delicious nonetheless. Aguachiles was good and fiery, though there's only so much near-raw shrimp I can eat, and the tostada mixta was solid. Everything fresh. I think I looked a little ridiculous with 3 full paper plates of food...with a water everything came to $10.50. Definitely will come back.

                  1. re: fooddude37

                    Fooddude37, you're rigt about that. The sideshow of tostadas is amazing, the mixtas are overflowing, just like they are in Mexico.

                    I was so taken by the tacos the first couple of times I was there, but noticed the locals putting away those tostadas.

                    I didn't try the aguachiles but imagined them to be a generous as everything else.Thanks for reporting on your full degustacion and giving us a more thorough assessment. Sounds like you had a nice fiesta!

                3. In the same commercial development as Birrieria La Barca, and almost exactly across the lane is Taqueria Azteca specializing in Mexico City style casual food such as Tacos, Huaraches, Tlacoyos, Licuados, Flan Napolitano etc., the food & service is not quite the same level as La Barca but they certainly have some noteworthy not your crap-of-the mill Carnitas Michoacan / King Taco / El Taurino stuff.

                  First Up.... Tinga de Pollo

                  > Tortilla.... Handmade, 5 inch diameter, slightly dense & chewy texture... very good aroma & flavor made from fresh ground masa

                  > Filling.... braised, smokey shredded chicken & chorizo in a chipotle sauce with lots of carmelized onions... a very solid version.

                  > Condiments... a very nice rendition of the slightly brownish yellow, tomatillo salsa that has big chunks of onion & flecks of dried chiles... tart & sharp

                  2nd Suadero

                  > Tortilla... same as above

                  > Filling.... thick slices of supremely tender "Mexican Corned Beef" that has been pickled in a spicy vinegar, slow cooked then finished on the griddle. Someone what akin to the juiciest versions of Pastrami around.

                  > Condiments... I don't remember

                  Thats all I remember for now... the draw of La Barca is too great in that part of town (also the service is pretty slow at Azteca).

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: Eat_Nopal


                    * Taqueria Azteca
                    10816 1/2 Valley Mall El Monte CA Remove

                    1. re: Eat_Nopal

                      I love Suadero. Taco Zone's is very good. How does this one compare?

                      1. re: blackbookali

                        I haven't had the Taco Zone version.

                    2. "A chow worthy "Carne Asada" taco in Mexico is purchased by its cut... you have Arrachera, Cabreria / Rib Eye, New York, Puntas de Filete / Filet Tips, Palomilla, Diezmillo etc.. if you have to order an anonymous "3 de Asada" instead of "1 de Arrachera, 1 de Palomilla y otro de Cabreria" its not likely to belong on our list."

                      Do any of the Taco trucks/Taquerias in LA have these different cuts for Carne Asada? I haven't seen any, and I thought that most use skirt steak for asada... El Parian is the only place that seemed to have better quality steak, though not quit sure what cut. I would love to have the options you outlined. Do you know of any places that do this?

                      24 Replies
                      1. re: mdpilam

                        I think we all wish the Taco trucks / Taquerias used Skirt Steak (Inside Skirt is Arrachera, Outside Skirt is Falda or Ranchera)... instead they all use a blend of various cuts of Chuck.... chop it in cubes... beat it up with a Mallet, season it with Papain extract etc., to get it tender.

                        The only places that offer distinctive cuts... are El Parian (which offer the mentioned inside Skirt), Taqueria Sanchez' Lomo taco (which uses thinly sliced Loin chop strips)... then you have some of the more sit down places that offer fine cuts like NY Steak, Lamb Chop etc., (Frida, Border Grill etc.,)

                        1. re: mdpilam

                          There are none.Skirt, skirt, and lesser offerings.

                          1. re: streetgourmetla

                            Now that isn't true, because the occasional stand outside my local Mexican market (Jax, in Anaheim) buys up diesmillo from the market, prepares it, grills it and chops it right there. I haven't seen them in the last couple of weeks but I haven't really been paying attention because I normally go there on Fridays and meat on Fridays was not permitted recently.

                            While they fail on the tortilla front (seriously, how hard is it to make a tortilla?? Make a batch of masa earlier in the day, then make the tortilla a la minute...), Carnitas Michoacan in Northeast LA has astounding carnitas, though you only get the choice of maciza, cueritos or "surtido" (assortment).

                            1. re: Das Ubergeek

                              "Carnitas Michoacan in Northeast LA has astounding carnitas, though you only get the choice of maciza, cueritos or "surtido" (assortment)."

                              Alright... I am willing to give CM a little more cred if they are at least offering three choices for Carnitas. I still doubt they are preparing them properly (copper pot, orange rind etc.,). Lincoln Heights - with a few sabbaticals - is where I lived from 5 until 21.... CM was a regular for me... but just a convenience spot.. kind of like going through the McD's Drive Through at 2AM... when we were serious about carnitas we would head to Carnitas Uruapan or Los Zamoranos (I believe they may be now defunct or under different ownership) unlike CM... those places measured their Carnitas volumes in number of pigs slaughtered & cooked per day... the operation was similar to that of Carnitas meccas in Mexico. When we stopped going to those places (I forget why)... Cinco Puntos or worst case scenario the Bakery / Pork Fryery attached to the King Taco in Lincoln Heights were the next place we looked for the real deal.

                              It looks like we will be visiting in the Fall... so I may stop for some carnitas before visiting my parents... and see if they have improved over the last time (3 or 4 years ago)

                              1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                I think there are good tacos to be had here in LA, definitley.But the asadas, al pastors, and carnitas, not happening. Like yourself I've had it in Uruapan,Jalisco, all over Mexico, and by Michoacanos living in other states in Mexico. I don't expect that quality here, but without at least a full array of meats, at least?

                                Again, DU, give me an address.Astounding, though?

                                1. re: streetgourmetla

                                  Give a man a google response - he's informed for a moment. Teach a man how to google and he's informed for a lifetime. ;-D>


                                  1. re: Servorg

                                    cuteness isnt getting us tacos compa! dame tres de tripas doradas

                                    1. re: kare_raisu

                                      ...ew. I've eaten a lot of tripe and I think I can say with some authority that I hate tripe, dorada or not.

                                      1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                        Despite the simiarity in word... Tripas are not Tripe they are chitlins.

                                      2. re: kare_raisu

                                        "cuteness isnt getting us tacos compa!"

                                        True. But Street can now find Das U's suggested location for diesmillo, (and for which he asked location information 2 or 3 times after Das U posted about it) so perhaps it wasn't totally useless to this discussion?

                                        And in the future, he and others like him here, who come along to this discussion in the future will be able to utilize this information in other situations of the same perplexing situation, allowing them to locate places mentioned here on CH without delay.

                                        1. re: Servorg

                                          Whoa, just realized this wasnt a chowhound team tsk tsk, sorry servorg. What are you bringing to our taco table again?

                                          1. re: kare_raisu

                                            The map of Los Angeles with addresses and zip codes so you all don't get lost.

                                      3. re: Servorg

                                        What a great website! Thanks for sharing this with everyone.

                                        Agree with DU... Jax is a great place.

                                        Mr Taster

                                  2. re: Das Ubergeek

                                    OK, so we have a stand that has diezmillo.But, just having it doesn't really make it great. How is the meat?Flavor?Texture? I really prefer arrachera or blends.I've seen nor tasted anything interesting here.DU, I will be in Santa Ana tomorrow, maybe I'll hit this up.Need coordinates.

                                    1. re: streetgourmetla

                                      What I meant Senor DU, was that if the diezmillo is from Smart and Final, or Ralph's, it's not the same thing Senor Nopal is talking about.DIezmillo in Mexico is not that sad stuff we have in our supermarkets.That said, I'm still interested in your stand.Saludos.

                                      1. re: streetgourmetla

                                        The stand is there occasionally. They buy the meat from inside the store. I'm just not as fussed about whether it's up to some exacting standard I don't really have, so I don't enquire too closely, but the store is on North East and East Sycamore in Anaheim.

                                        1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                          Hermano, wanting a quality piece of steak for a steak taco isn't an exacting standard. Any taquero should care about the quality of his meat.

                                          1. re: streetgourmetla

                                            Understood. But I don't stand there and ask the provenance of the meat, I eat the damn taco and if it sucks I don't buy any more.

                                            1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                              Well, you went far enough to ask about the cut? When you've had excellent quality diezmillo, and shopped for it 'round town it's fairly obvious. An OG with your experience should be able to tell the difference without inquiring too much. It's simple, in certain parts of mexico there's a guy that's known for his diezmillo.You try it, then you look for something close.No need to ask too many questions.

                                              When I go to you're place, for which I'm asking a little bit more help locating, I will just taste it and it will be pretty clear I'm sure based on a sucks or doesn't suck criteria.Anyways, are you comin to Tj, or hiding from Kaire Raisu and I?

                                              1. re: streetgourmetla

                                                Not hiding -- just unbelievably overwhelmed at work.

                                                I respect your searching for the very best -- you are more dedicated to finding the wonderful Mexican food in our midst than I, so I'll tell you what -- if you find the diesmillo of your dreams tell me, and in the meantime when I find the Russ and Daughters equivalent (and it ain't Barney Greengrass) I'll let you know. :)

                                                1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                                  Ay Geek, it's not here.TJ?It's on you now.Habla pura cuenta. Let us now and we'll take you to the promised land.Until then, I've laid down recs that I stand behind, check 'em out when you're in those 'hoods and let me know.As far as time, we all gotta eat! Tripas?Tripas are chingon.

                                                  1. re: streetgourmetla

                                                    Well, and the taqueros outside Jax weren't there today... Ugh.

                                      2. re: streetgourmetla

                                        Hey Street... I really do think there are few very good places to get some decent grilled steak tacos... I agree that they haven't been identified. Before I moved from the Eastside to the Westside in 2001... my go to butcher was at Lincoln Heights' Rancho Meat Market... this was before I graduated college.. and such my, ehem... disposable income wasn't quite what is today... so I mostly bought whatever "hook" he put under $3 a lb.... but.. quality of meat was okay... his cousin owned a slaughter house about 20 miles north of bakersfield that sourced Harris Ranch cattle exclusively... so decent beef butchered up by a Mexican cutting for the Mexican community... over the years I enjoyed some beautiful Arrachera, Diezmillo, Palomillo, various incarnations of Lomo, T-Bones etc.,

                                        Before I moved they had opened a 2nd, larger location at the intersection of Broadway & Valley... smack between Lincoln Heights & El Sereno and where doing weekend, outdoor, mesquite fired grills... the Tortillas where the typical mediocre packaged crap... so it certainly isn't fit for this category... but the meats were quite decent... certainly several notches better than anything at Taqueria Sanchez, El Taurino, Carnitas Michoacan etc.,

                                        I don't know what the status is... maybe someone will go the extra 2 miles past Carnitas Michoacan & Chapalita to check it out & update... but overall in the right neighborhoods I am sure you can still find competent butchers sourcing better than average meat.... its just a question of where.

                                        1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                          Agreed. I've been trolling these neighborhoods pretty heavily, though.I'm looking for that magic marker, a stand with names of cuts, selling his tacos for $2.50 for a NY steak,palomilla, or arrachera.

                                          I will check it out, and hopefully others will keep their eyes open for such a thing.

                                2. From an earlier post

                                  El Paisita in Lynwood for excellent Tijuana style tacos de birria de res
                                  10350 Long Beach Blvd, Lynwood, CA 90262
                                  It's a stand across the street from El Paisa, a Sinaloan seafood joint.

                                  Tacos El Gordo, tacos de suadero, chorizo,buche, and others cooked in a comal de acero, nopal and onion braised in the intermingled meats just like in Guadalajara and D.F.The taqueros here are from Colima. Juicy suadero with braised onion, clean and fresh salsa station, radishes floating in cold water.These blow any truck out of the water.Chorizo is used as a dam to separate the meats in the comal.They also have lengua and cabeza al vapor at a steam table. Three taqueros at work here, hermano.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: streetgourmetla

                                    Arrrggh! Well, Tacos El Gordo has disappeared or moved. I stopped by tonight on my way home, and the stand was there but the salsa and condiments were set up differently, and there were women working instead of the three guys I saw last time. It was obvious, old cilantro, shoody looking radishes, and the meats were floating in a stew rather than a controlled and organized comal de acero.

                                    I asked, and yeah, they've been there for a few months,These tacos were lame. So it goes for the outlaw stands.Here today, gone tomorrow, replaced by mediocrity.