Bill Esparza single-handedly raised our standards for authentic asada, carnitas, and pastor in L.A. through his blog Street Gourmet L.A. and writing in The L.A. Times and O.C. Weekly. Fueled by fastidious explorations of the regionally rich and diverse culinary culture of Mexico’s many states while traveling as a professional saxophone player, the Stockton native often plays secret weapon as a consultant on other parties’ street food events, intrepid eaters’ television shows, and fancy restaurants State-specific Mexican menus. Next Sunday, Esparza presents his own event, Tacolandia, in a partnership with L.A. Weekly at The Palladium. Priced at $20, the writer promises us, “I’ve put together a tight group of vendors that is a refreshing break from the usual Gourmet Truck fests–not knocking them–I love them and support them for real as I support all street food venues–but it’s nice to offer something different. We also have the best Mexican chefs in town: Rocio Camacho, Jimmy Shaw, Jaime and Ramiro (of Bell’s Casita Mexicana). We have the 4 Baja chefs and stands, Trey Foshee from George’s on the Cove in Coronado, we have traditional mom and pops, and some chefs doing great things with tacos–Wes Avila, Joshua Gil, Laurent Quenioux–can you say…escamoles?–and Ricardo Zarate.”
To get ready for this titanic L.A. taco throw-down, Esparza picked L.A. Taco up in a van from the company Mustache Rides (the two throw tours together on weekends) and we hit the town to sample four of L.A.’s own regionally specific and extremely different taco spots. Come take a look at what we got into last Saturday with The O.G. Street Gourmet L.A.
The Tacu-Tacu Taco at Mo-Chica
It’s not only apple pie and burgers that tacos have routed. Tacos are a truly global phenomenon these days, no less in the streets of L.A. where Korean, Irish, and Vietnamese tacos can all be sniffed out. So it was fitting that our taco tour started at Downtown’s Mo-Chica, the vital new iteration of Peruvian sensation Ricardo Zarate’s ode to Andean ingredients and biting ceviches. Zarate greeted us with his creation, the tacu-tacu taco, a vertical construct of crisp-edged fried and braised carnitas under diced red onions on top of a mash of potatoes and rice on handmade tortillas the chef bought that morning, with Peruvian sauces. Tacolandia plans to feature fine-dining chefs, as well as loncheros, taqueros, and Tijuana standouts.
Bill Esparza with Mo-Chica, Picca, and Paiche chef Ricardo Zarate.
Tamales Elena, Watts
We bailed Downtown to cruise down the 110 to our next stop, Tamales Elena, which sits catty-corner to Grape Street Elementary on Wilmington and 111th Street. Tacos are priced at one-dollar each and were each phenomenal.
Beef barbacoa at Tamales Elena.
Cachete (beef cheek) Taco at Elena’s.
The Tamales Elena Team, with Bill Esparza.
A strawberry dessert tamale at Elena.
Coni’Seafood (nee Mariscos Chente)
After Watts, our Mustache Ride took us to Inglewood, our suspicions growing that we were heading to Nayarit shrimp and seafood specialist Coni’Seafood, which used to be named Mariscos Chente like its Centinela sister. There we were greeted by the charming Coni Cossio and her daughter, soon to be followed by the locally legendary dishes of Sinaloa’s own Sergio Peneulas using mariscos that are routinely brought across the border from the central Western coastal state of Nayarit.
Head-on Mazatlan shrimp aguachile with jalapeno salsa at Coni Seafood.
Nayarit shrimp ceviche with mango at Coni Seafood.
Coni and her daughter at Coni’Seafood.
Carnitas on Slauson
Passing by both locations of canitas superstar Los Guichos on Slauson, our chariot rattled further east until we ran parallel to the Avenue’s infamous train tracks, where vendors of grilled chicken and random tools formed the few sights dotting this industrial desert. We set up last camp at a non-descript carnitas spot stacked with an acute attention to detail. Carnitas are chopped on the spot using a range of pig parts (including uterus, hearts, and snout), chicharrones stiffly teeter in sheets over their own cazo of lard, and tortilllas are made by hand.
Our Daily Chicharrones.
Taquero reaching for some snout, skin, liver, and maybe some ears or something.
Carnitas surtidas, a mix of different cuts, was a popular pick.
We went for carnitas made from a few specific cuts. Clockwise from top, pork liver, heart, and kidneys.
A close-up of the liver taco. Our favorite was the heart, which comes across as a tender cut of beef with a more subdued organ flavor that that found in liver and kidneys. The liver and kidneys were a little drier than we expected, leading us to designs on the carnitas surtidas next time.
Look out Flynn McGary, this tiny taquero was basically running the whole show.
Tortillas hecho a mano.
Thus concludes our epic Saturday through Taco Town, a thorough demonstration on the range of dedication and inspiration that make Los Angeles a superior place to catch creatures embedded in tortillas. We hope to see you next Sunday at Tacolandia, in which the city’s strong taco scene will be concentrated and celebrated under one roof. Esaprza concludes the tour by telling us more about the event, “Ultimately, it’s a celebration of one of L.A.’s favorite foods–the taco–with vendors from Westside to Eastside to South L.A. to the O.C. to San Diego to Baja California.”