Back in 2009 we launched an online bracket-style taco tournament to crown LA’s favorite taco. It doesn’t seem like that long ago, but in the preceding 8 years, the taco landscape in Los Angeles has vastly shifted. The changes have been almost universally positive– the city now has many more tacos, and many more great tacos, than it ever has. Los Angeles still has a long way to go, and wouldn’t make the top 5 of best Taco cities in the world, but it’s getting ever closer to not just having a taco truck on every corner, but having that taco truck cook using high quality ingredients from the tortilla to the salsa to the protein.
National Taco Day is kind of a stupid idea, but since it’s trending we thought it would be good to look back at Taco Madness and use it a lens to view the city’s changing taco marketplace. First, a quick recap of the winners every year.
2010: La Estrella
2011: Mexicali Taco & Co.
2012: (Tie) Guisado’s, Mariscos Jalisco
2013: Mexicali Taco & Co.
2014: El Coraloense
2015: Guerrilla Tacos
The competitive field of 2009 would be considered extremely weak by today’s standards. Most of the spots on the list were (and are) beloved, but simply can’t compete in terms of quality with today’s top tacos. Notable entrants included King Taco, La Estrella, Cactus Taqueria, and the eventual winner, Yuca’s. It’s interesting to note that Yuca’s has been a standby in the competition ever since, although they did not make the seeded entrants in 2017.
The next year, the competition expanded as we added 16 spots to make the field of 32. This time, the tournament did include some options which are now legendary spots– Ricky’s Fish Taco and Mariscos Jalisco. However, the audience was not yet as advanced, and both locations lost relatively early. The finals were won by Highland Park’s La Estrella.
In 2011 things started to get real. The audience and the selections started to align, and the city’s final four was the best and most voted on to date– that final four included staples of today’s taco scene and of the competition for years to come, Ricky’s Fish Taco, Mariscos Jalisco, and the eventual winner, Mexicali Taco & Co. At that time, Mexicali were still serving up tacos in a parking lot after hours, which is where we delivered their victory award. Their win helped them gain the backing they needed to open up their brick and mortar on Figueroa St.
2012 is when we see a Los Angeles growing up as a taco paradise. New competitor Guisado’s, then with one location in Boyle Heights, showed a new generation of taqueros a path forward. Mariscos Jalisco gained fans city-wide, after being a local legend for a decade. Those two met in the finals and the voting came in fast and furious, hundreds of votes every hour. In the end, we literally could not believe our eyes as the two ended with exactly the same number of votes before the deadline. It was a taco miracle.
Taco Madness 2013 solidified the fact that LA’s taco scene was large, diverse, and room for competitors as different as Cacao Mexicatessan to new entrant Guerrilla Tacos. The city’s gourmet taco scene was thriving, but old stalwarts still had something to say– Los Cinco Puntos, a competitor from the very first, made it to the final four. But ultimately the winner was Mexicali Taco & Co, still the only two-time winner in Madness history.
In 2014, Taco Madness saw an intriguing mix of tacos, including newcomer El Coraloense, who charged from out of nowhere to win the entire competition. The final four that year included Guerrilla Tacos, Mariscos Jalisco, and old favorite Yuca’s.
The next year, the quality of tacos in LA had risen so much that we changed the bracket style and put competitors into protein based categories– mariscos, asada, pork, and wildcard. The list included most of what are still considered the best tacos in LA, and the winner was the city’s most talked about taco truck, Guerrilla Tacos, who seemed to be everywhere in LA that year.
2016 was another landmark year and another format change– this time we divided the city by region, using freeways as boundaries. We got some flack online this year for not including some prominent newcomers, but in the end we had a very strong final four which included Ricky’s Fish Taco, Carnitas El Momo, Perennial favorite Mariscos Jalisco, and the surprising eventual winner– Revolutionario. The fusion tacos of Chef Zadi were backed by a very strong fanbase of USC students and locals, and they proved their merit with a huge win in the finals.
Last year, we returned to form with a field of classics and newcomers, representing the strongest 16 tacos we’ve ever featured. Our panel of taco experts were challenged to only select the best of the best and not consider nostalgia. Newcomer Sonoratown represents everything that is good about tacos in LA right now– it’s both new and classic, the owners are friendly and welcoming, and the food is universally good and also interesting. This year the final four also included B.S. Taqueria, Burritos La Palma, Carnitas El Momo. That’s some damn good tacos right there, fitting for the best taco city outside of Mexico.
Happy National Taco day– go support your local taquero and tell them L.A. Taco sent you!