Best is a relative word. One day you’re the best, the next day you’re out. Michael Jordan was the best, so was Tiger before he let his then wife know she wasn’t the best. Obama was the best choice until he wanted to raise our taxes and pillage the middle class. That being said, here are my current “best” tacos in LA. As you will see, these aren’t ranked in any particular order because they are separated by class. I can’t say that a carnitas taco is better than an al pastor because that would be like comparing a banh mi thit nguoi and a pastrami on rye, it’s that different. If you don’t see the difference, then follow the list below to learn the ways of the taco walker young Obi-wan.
When the Lebanese landed in the D.F., they brought their shawarma with them. Now lamb and chicken and beef are good meats, but the Mexicans knew what the Lebanese-Mexican’ts didn’t. Stick some pork on a vertical spit and you have one of the best dishes ever created. Unless your coward soul has made it to the D.F., you probably have no clue what al pastor tacos are. Most gringo establishments, and even the Mexican ones, serve you some stewed pork swimming in tenderizing pineapple juice and call it al pastor. If you are visiting LA, this is the closest you are going to come to Mexico City without getting stuffed into some taxi cab trunk while the idiots drain your cheddar from the ATM while you’re hopped up on ice and shitty mezcal. Remember, when you’re in LA don’t honk at other people, somebody might get pissed and just shoot you.
The best al pastor can be found inside a 76 Unocal parking lot in Mid-City. The taquero there has only one job, shave the al pastor off the trompo. He’s not sleeping on a chair (I’m talking to you El Flamin’), he’s not handling the cash, and he’s not grilling the tortillas. His sole focus is making you some bomb al pastor tacos. The meat is shaved off of the trompo after getting it’s edges seared on the propane fire behind the spit. After soaking up the pork sweat after spinning around for hours, the meat comes off the taquero’s blade still moist but cooked thoroughly. Then his blade raises towards the heavens and flicks off a wedge of pineapple that comes raining down from the sky landing perfectly on your waiting taco below.
Tacos Leo (***)
76 Unocal Parking Lot
Venice & La Brea
Carnitas should be cooked in a caso with boiling lard. Not vegetable oil, not canola oil, and no, not olive oil, that’s just stupid. Any pork part can be made the carnitas way and don’t be fooled by your local taqueria. Steamed pork that’s grilled on the plancha is not carnitas. Los Cinco Puntos, a term of endearment to a women’s assets, has a cute little abuela hand making tortillas slower than the line can order which means whatever you order is going to come on a hot tortilla. The carnitas are sitting behind the glass next to some tripas and chicharrones which can’t be beat. They top it off with some pickled nopal and salsa of your choice. If I were you, just get it with the salsa verde so that you can enjoy the pork in all of it’s glory.
Los Cinco Puntos (*)
3300 E Cesar E Chavez Ave
Boyle Heights, LA
This isn’t your glorified version of Rubio’s \ Chipotle’s \ FreshMex \ La Salsa grilled shrimp tacos. These are shrimp tacos the Jaliscan way. Yes Mexico has states, like us, Jalisco is not some country south of Mexico. These are crispy tacos filled with a potato, cheese, and shrimp combo, and then topped with salsa and fresh avocado. I can’t even begin to describe these tacos, and it’s my job to describe food. It shatters any preconceived idea of what a taco could or should be, but when I say that, I’m not making an endorsement for fusion tacos like those shitty Korean tacos everybody loves. You might see tacos like this at other places, shit, there’s even one parked 100 yards away. There are a lot of buster ass imitators in the city, but nothing beats the OG shrimp taco gangster. Don’t let the gringo award sheen and Food TV darling scare you away. People in Mexico even sneak across the border to try these tacos.
Mariscos Jalisco (***)
3040 E Olympic Blvd
Bistek (what you call Carne Asada)
Thank you Bill Esparza for setting it straight. The meat that’s grilled on la plancha are bistek tacos. Carne asada are beef tacos grilled over an open mesquite fire. It’s like the difference between a pan fried steak and a coal (wood) burning grilled steak. My favorite bistek taco is from a chain of food trucks, but this one happens to sit in a drive thru car wash parking lot on the Westside which is devoid of color other than white. Why are there good beef steak tacos on the Westside, who do you think keeps the westside running? They have to eat, don’t they? These are the best in LA because of the balance of burnt ends, fat and gristle, and moist flavorful meat.
Tacos El Gallito Truck (*)
Corner of Santa Monica & Westwood
West Los Angeles
I’m still looking. The Tacos Estilo Tijuana has been a no show at the Mercado Olympic. In the meantime, people like Mexicali Taco & Co, but I don’t, at least not enough to even give it 1 star.
You have to drive by when they are grilling their chicken over an open flame in the parking lot. JGold and the rest of LA swoons over the chicken at Pollo a la Brasa, but compared to El Piquin, that place is flavored for a senior citizen. What do you do with a perfectly grilled chicken? You chop it up and roll it up in tortilla. I can’t even describe the combination of flavors, you just have to try it for yourself.
El Piquin Mexican Grill (**)
4356 Slauson Ave
Baja Fish Taco
Unlike Gordon Ramsey, Ricky is actually in the kitchen cooking, and like your first apartment, the office, dining room, and den are in the same room. Unlike the more euphemistic place down the street, Ricky really is making a baja fish taco except for the basa. The made to order, mustardy-cumin tempura battered fish is prepared with a proportionate amount of raw cabbage, pico de gallo, and crema on a hot tortilla on some random driveway around a blind bend that would fit right into Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.
Ricky’s Fish Tacos (*)
1400 N Virgil Ave
Los Feliz, LA
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My ranking system. I use a different ranking system for my “best” choices because I don’t list offensive and distasteful restaurants on this list.
3 stars (***): If you are visiting LA from out of town, and definitely out of the country, this place should be on your must visit places. Food quality must be consistent. Hyperbole like “must try before you die” is an understatement.
2 stars (**): This place is good, good enough to go out of the way to try or to revisit in LA traffic. Your vacation in LA shouldn’t be planned around this place, but it should be included on your “let’s try to visit this place” list. Oh, what’s that you say, you don’t have any lists when you travel, then you’re probably fine grabbing a taco at your local taco bell even though you just traveled 3000 miles to be here. Why do you even bother reading these lists?
1 star (*): It will do as a stand by for any craving you have but not motivated enough to test your patience on the LA parkways. Is it worth visiting if you have a 24 hour layover, probably not unless your hotel is nearby. Probably not because if you left LA and you didn’t try it, your life wouldn’t be any worse because you missed it. The food isn’t always consistent, don’t blame me if you didn’t like it; it was good when I tried it.