***Update 10/6/10. This posting was written over 1.5 years ago and many of the taqueros no longer set up shop. The ones that do exist are Fletcher/Larga, Verdugo/Ave. 31, a few on York Blvd. and Pasadena Ave./Figueroa. Happy taco hunting.***
I remember working till 1 am one night. I was exhausted and driving back home on the 10 freeway. The last time I had eaten was 5 pm and I was starving. At this point, I was ready to go home and sleep, but my brain made me double-check the hunger department. Yes, you did eat earlier today. But did you have double dinner? Why no i didn't! Something about me when I work late, I feel like I should reward myself for burning the midnight oil. Ok then, let's find something else to eat for all the hard work. When you're looking for late night eats, Los Angeles provides the options. I exited the freeway off the Vermont exit and immediately became happy because I was in food-hawk mode. I put both hands on the steering wheel and ducked my head lower to check out my options on the left and rightside.
Bland-looking burger joint. Probably too greasy.
Jack in the Box. Greasy and probably a long ass line in the drive-thru.
Korean-style pho. No, especially when you have to ask for cilantro.
24-hour diner. I'm not paying $13 for ham & eggs.
Taco trucks. The obvious choice but I'm kinda tired of it.
I was already nearing home and quickly becoming concerned that I had not made a food decision yet. It usually does not take me this long to consider what I'll eat. I stopped at an intersection and watched as cars crossed. Suddenly, as the last car passed and the light turned green, I noticed four blurry white lights. Like a moth in flight, I became drawn to it and hit the gas pedal. As i drew closer to the source, I noticed that the four lights were actually Home Depot clamp lamps on a pole. There was a crowd of people huddling around the light source like a campfire. And then I could see that they were huddling around a man and a woman behind a table. Oh yes. It could only mean one thing: taco stand, or as I refer to them, taco tables because they use folding tables to set up shop. I pulled over to the side and parked. Business time.
As I walked towards the taco vendor, I suddenly time traveled to Oaxaca, when Jeni and I were on a taco hunt. A boombox on medium volume playing Spanish music. A child, bundled in a jacket, sitting on a little chair cupping warm Horchata with both little hands. Patrons talking quietly among their friends. And finally, the sound of metal spatulas clanking the griddle top as the vendors cook up their meaty offerings. I asked what the taqueros had to offer besides the beautiful orange spit of spiced pork. The man smiled and removed the foil from one of his trays, bearing fresh lengua and cabeza. The vapors rose from the pan, giving a nasal teasing. I ordered my tacos and Jarritos, paid the lady and moved on to the 'salad bar' – a smorgasbord of taco accoutrements such as salsa, salt & pepper, curtido (spicy, pickled veggies) and napkins. I walked back towards the curb behind some patrons and quietly enjoyed my little snack, muttering groans of satisfaction. This is all I needed at 1:30 in the morning, and for me, was the true taco experience. All of this set within a auto repair shop backdrop on a busy street in Los Angeles.
It's not that you couldn't get the same quality tacos from trucks. You definitely can. But for me, there are little things that do it for me. While trucks can operate in rain or shine, they pretty much sell tacos all day long for a living. For the people running the taco stands/tables, they are usually families making extra money every night after their primary jobs. And in some cases, the vendors I've spoken with are even employees that station themselves in front of their own businesses/workplace. It's a lot of work and I am more drawn to them because its a method of business practiced heavily in Mexico, that I want to support. It's real street food.
I hate to mention the 'B' word, but taco tables give you a Mexican Benihana experience. Disclaimer: I do not eat there nor will I ever again. You know Benihana. It's the type of restaurant that seats you around your own 'chef' and grill. The actual quality of the food is usually masked by whatever circus act the 'chef' has to offer. Will it be the blindfolded, juggling of shrimp? The knife stab between the v-shaped space of your spread fingers? Or my favorite, the 'onion volcano' which consists of butter being cooked inside a well created by stacked onions, causing rising vapor like a semi-dormant volcano. Whatever the case, it's pleasing to the senses. Taco trucks have been under fire over the last year or two by the City, and there has been an emergence of taco tables because of the relatively low overhead, compared to a truck that costs upward of $50,000. At a taco table, I'm more hungry than I would be at a taco truck. I can see, smell, hear and ultimately taste the food. And with a truck, I can get good tacos but not quite the same experience.
Here are a few places I've stumbled upon in Los Angeles, mainly in the Koreatown, Echo Park and Highland Park areas. I'd like to do the East LA and Huntington Park area next. You should be the judge though. Some are great, some aren't. Even my favorite places have had bad days and some don't even show up like they say they will. Sometimes when I go too late to a stand, the results aren't as desirable because the meat has been sitting out too long or the vendor isn't willing to make a new batch. And I sort of like the unpredictability of it. It goes back to the the caveman days where we had to forage for food that was available. I've listed the meats each vendor offers and you can see what the abbreviations mean in a few moments.
Few Things to Consider:
(1) All the taco vendors listed here are $1. Break down your Grants and Franklins prior to.
(2) If it's raining or extremely cold, taqueros probably won't be there.
(3) Al Pastor with pineapple on top is tasty. Ask them for a slice or have them sauté with the meat.
(4) Buche and tripas can be gummy sometimes. Say the magic words "mas dorado(a), por favor" and you'll get them fried longer. Tasty.
(5) I recommend ordering two tacos at a time and eating them right away for maximum enjoyment. Tacos do harden and get cold after like 2 minutes. The vendors aren't going anywhere, so take your time.
(6) They say you can gauge a taco stand/truck by its carne asada or al pastor. But to tell you the truth, I usually stick with the buche, cabeza and lengua and really don't remember how the asada tasted. If it was good, I'd remember it. I RARELY ever come across bad buche, cabeza and lengua since they are cooked with simple techniques that don't require heavy marinating.
(7) Again, the later you go to a taco stand, the better chance of your meat being either (a) dried out or (b) burnt to an unidentifiable state. Take for example, the Taco Zone truck on Alvarado in front of Vons in Echo Park, which receives much praise from the Yelp army, has its on and off days. And I've noticed it's off-days are usually when I get the tacos from 12 am - 2 am.
Asada (CA) - flap/flank/skirt meat. Usually grilled. Sometimes fried in oil.
Suadero (SU) - brisket. Fried in lard/roasted.
Lengua (LN) - cow tongue. Steamed/braised.
Cabeza (CZ) - head meat and cheek meat (cachete). Steamed.
Carnitas (CR) - pork shoulder/picnic/butt. Fried in lard/roasted.
Al Pastor (AP) - pork shoulder/butt. Spiced and marinated over a day and roasted on a spit. Originated in Mexico City by Lebanese immigrants. An onion or pineapple is usually placed above the spit for extra flavoring. Try with pineapple!
Buche (BU) - pork belly/pig stomach lining/hog maw. Fried in lard. My favorite taco filling. When fried longer adds a nice texture.
Tripas (TR) - pig intestines/chitterlings. Washed, boiled and fried. People love these for the texture and 'filling'.
CA, CZ, LN, AP, CH, BU, TR.
I found this stand by accident when looking for The York. They are situated in a car body shop and always have people eating here - good sign #1. Good sign #2, everyone there stares at me like I'm from outer space which should tell you the food is authentic. Good sign #3 is explained in the following image.
CA, CZ, LN, SU, AP, CH, BU, TR.
This is also my go-to place if I don't feel like venturing into Eagle Rock/Highland Park. A lot of people from Red Lion Tavern, Cha Cha Lounge and Home frequent this place off Fletcher Drive. And with good reasons behind it. I always get welcomed with friendly smiles and before I usually order anything one of the guys there assumes I want my buche fried longer. That is service. This place is one of two stands that offers suadero (brisket) and it's quite moist and tasty (pictured below). I recommend buche, cabeza, al pastor and suadero with an ice cold Jarritos.
CA, CZ, LN, CR, CH, BU, TR.
This taquero offers a different style of curtido. It's more of a cabbage and cucumber salad that balances out a spicy taco. I enjoyed the carnitas, buche and cabeza here.
CA, CZ, LN, AP, CR, BU, PL.
If you happen to be doing your laundry in the Virgil/Santa Monica Blvd. area, do it where this taco stand sets up. I arrived right on the dot at 6 pm while they were setting up and I knew things would be fresh. The girl working there strongly recommended their chicken and it was really good. I enjoyed the cabeza and chicken.
These guys do the hot tub thing. First thing I saw when I got there was buche being made. Mmm. I enjoyed the buche and cabeza.
CA, AP, TR.
Back to Highland Park, this guy is from Guerrero and is one of the the few stands that I have seen offering al pastor con piña, which is one of my favorites. I also refer to him as Disco Ball (pelota de disco) taco man since he had a disco ball tied to his stand. They also offer grilled cactus (nopales) for your tacos as well as a relish or pico de gallo with nopales. If you have not tried grilled cactus, it's kind of like a bell pepper with a slimy texture, similar to Japanese mountain yams and natto. Ask the nice man for his 'hot cookie' drink. It's something 'galletas' in Spanish and it's tasty on a cold night. I enjoyed the al pastor and tripas. He seems to favor tripas because there's always tons of it on the grill. A disco ball, tacos and some house music and you've got yourself a party.
CA, AP, BU, PL.
These guys are statione right in front of the Guerrero Meat market and also serve the al pastor con piña. They offer grilled cebollitas (green onions) and nopales with your tacos. Nice guys.
CA, CZ, LN, AP, BU, TR.
Found these guys when I decided not to take the freeway and I'm glad I didn't. I enjoyed the al pastor and buche. There was a nice guy eating there as well and told me to try tacos another way. Order one soft taco, and one cooked a bit more crisp... put them together and you have a dual textured taco. I didn't know if he was making this up or talking about Taco Bell's latest caloric delight.
CA, CZ, LN, SU, AP, BU, TR, PL
These guys are loved by the Yelp army. Probably because it's the closest taco stand for patrons of my favorite bar, The Verdugo in Glassell Park. I had tried to find them at least five times – either missing them or not being able to find them due to their frequent location changes. And like a moth, I drove down this really dark part of Verdugo Rd. and found the brightest lights along the sidewalk. The stand was covered by big trucks, probably done intentionally. The people running this here are young and very nice people. Tacos are served the way I like them... small tortillas, small portion of meat. $.80 for one taco. They also offer gorditas for $3. I enjoyed the asada, al pastor, buche (already crisped up) – my favorites being the cabeza and suadero. 5 pm - 11 pm, everyday except Thursday.