First, visit this slideshow of 40 of LA’s best and most mouth-watering tacos, then come back and read this Q&A with our former editor, Hadley Tomicki, who is now head honcho of Grubstreet LA, and creator of the web’s best LA taco slideshow.
Unlike a lot of “best taco lists” we’ve seen online, it looks like you actually visited every place on your list. How long did it take? How many places did you visit in total?
Thanks! The story took about a month to get all the photos and text together. My photographer, Tatiana Arbogast, and I hit about 45 different spots over that time and absolutely stuffed ourselves full of tacos every time we went out. Some nights, we’d eat at seven or eight different taco spots. Most of the work had to be conducted over weekends since I work full-time as editor and writer for Grub Street L.A. and she works full-time as an interior designer.
A lot of times, “best of” lists come together just too fast to meet deadlines, which can be a drag, especially in a city like ours that is so spread out and rich. But Tacos simply can’t be taken too seriously in a town like L.A. So while I had my allegiances to certain taco spots, I really wanted to start from the beginning and consider each and every taco to really determine whether each one was something I could point people to in full confidence, you know, both serious taco fans and people visiting L.A. who always want to know where the good stuff is but have a lot of different opinions coming from so many neighborhoods and tastes.
Any specific places that were almost good enough to make the top 40 but just missed?
Well, there’s something to be said for taco timing. I’ve always had a soft spot for Tacos Arizas in Echo Park, but I’m usually eating it after a show at 2:00 in the morning and I’m starving, so it’s bound to taste really good, warming, and nourishing. Something similar usually goes on at El Chato and Cactus, it’s all about the timing and placement. You’re leaving Hollywood and passing by, totally starving, and the tacos are just what you need to get right. But those are three places that I returned to without that context in mind and taken on their own, I just didn’t feel I could recommend what I ate on those occasions. Which doesn’t mean they don’t have strengths…
Of course, I know there are a ton of places I should have considered but I just couldn’t find the time to get it all in there. I was hoping to find some great tacos arabes and sesos, and even a particularly strong breakfast taco, but the clock was always ticking.
Places like El Taurino and Loteria were tricky. Probably the hardest decision was whether to include them or not, I know they are huge sentimental favorites and Jimmy Shaw’s mission is to be admired, but they are not my own favorite tacos in L.A. by any means.
I had a girlfriend from KTown who introduced me to El Taurino years ago, it was obviously a longtime favorite of hers and her family’s, but it’s never really appealed to me, then or now. In the end, it’s sort of there for civic sentimental value, to big up the King Taco family, and to show my admiration for the incredible ability of tacos to bring L.A. citizens and neighborhoods together. The scene at El Taurino could only exist in KTown, you know, it’s full of Korean and Mexican families eating tacos, which really reflects the neighborhood. I just tried to keep it close to my honest feelings, so I gave props to the salsa, which is really good there.
Any big surprises when trying places for the first time, or revisiting spots you knew well?
I think most of the surprises were in being reminded of just how great some of these tacos really are. Kogi’s short rib taco is such a mean motherfucker, even after all the spilled ink, you know? I mean, what great taco composition that is. Same with the taco dorado at Mariscos Jalisco, that is just one incredibly composed and executed taco. Getting reminded of how great the food is at classics like El Parian, Cinco Puntos, El Atacor, Baja Ensenada, and Guelaguetza, I just felt I really got to experience the best of what L.A. is all about in a very compressed time period, which made my L.A. pride shine. Homegirl, too, so different but so good.
I also hadn’t hit My Taco in a while. I used to work in Cypress Park for years and the Northeast is probably my favorite place to eat Mexican food. I was surprised at how much the neighborhood had changed, and My Taco was completely smeared in hipsters having inane conversations about band practice and shit. But the borrego de oro taco really rocked me after all of these years, it made me sorry I hadn’t been back more, but I typically find it hard to pass York without veering into El Pelon or Huarache Azteca or passing by for Cacao Mexicatessen.
Another incredible journey was Mercado Olympic, which I first heard about on Grub Street from an interview we did recently with Aida Mollenkamp, who learned about it, like a lot of Angelenos learn about their own great Mexican food, from Street Gourmet L.A. Bill Esparza. I’d had tacos de canasta in Santa Barbara at La Colmena, and they were wonderful at Mercado Olympic, but that market needs to be taken in on the whole, it is so completely brimming with great Mexican street food.
I also thought it was cool to see how the other cities in the Grub Street network had some incredible-looking tacos, too. I lived in New York for ten years and Mexican was very hit or miss, mostly miss, but I’ve also had some really excellent tacos in Queens and it’s been awhile since I’ve been back there. Seeing that New York, Boston, and Philly have strong taco scenes these days, too, is really just further affirmation that tacos, regardless of their origins, have really become the most popular, beloved food in the U.S. Seeing as our country has such strong Mexican roots, it makes sense that this should be among our favorite, most influential foods.
Are the spots listed in any sort of order? If you had to pick an overall favorite, what would it be?
I gave the tacos a bit of an order just in terms of how I placed them in the slide show, but they aren’t exactly ranked. I tried to introduce some of the most exciting, newfound loves of the city up front, then looked at a few of the classics, and ended with some of the incredible hybrid tacos that have emerged in the last few years with the food truck scene. L.A. has an incredibly broad taco scene, with high-end chefs like Michael Cimarusti, AshleyJames, and Laurent Quenioux offering their takes on tacos, and places like Xoia and Malo stretching the definition of what a taco means, along with the usual killer tacos coming out of trucks, and often less, in gas station parking lots and thing.
But if I had to pick a favorite, I’d be tempted to say MexiCali Taco & Co. I love the food there, it’s all familiar and comforting but on a different level where you can really taste the advancement and dedication to a superior taco. Love those catchetadas!
How do you usually get introduced to good tacos?
A. Well, like many people who write about food in L.A., I worship Jonathan Gold and keep closely tuned to the taco recommendations he’s offered and continues to offer, as well as those of Bill Esparza, who really helped raise the bar in L.A. for great Mexican food, as well as all the tacos I read about on L.A. Taco and The Great Taco Hunt and other blogs. Still, word of mouth shouldn’t be ignored. You have your people you trust in life and when someone I trust gives me a great rec, I’ll speed to it.
How long before you eat another taco?
Ha, I never thought I’d ever get tired of eating tacos. My mom is from El Paso, my brother lives in Vallarta, and I grew up in SoCal eating Mexican food at every chance I could get, so even as a gringo, I can say tacos are a vital part of my own personal culture, as I feel it as a Southern Californian. Mexican food just feels like a way of life out here, and a damn good one at that.
All that being said, it might be a few weeks before I’m back on to tacos, which is good, because there is a lot of other food I’m still trying to explore. I’ve barely gotten my feet wet in the SGV and along with so many classic great eats in L.A., places are opening every day.
That being said, I’ve been pretty curious to try Escuela and Garret Snyder from L.A. Weekly tells me the truck on Echo Park Lake that Richard Dreyfuss really likes is excellent. So, while I want to give tacos a rest for a minute, they’re too strong. They keep pulling me back in.