Serious Eats

Los Angeles Tacos: Birria for the Hollywood Masses at Cactus Taqueria

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Among the late-night Hollywood set, there's a quiet war being waged on the streets. As you pile out of whatever expensive social experiment you spent the evening in, do you choose tacos or bacon-wrapped hot dogs?

Both are delicious, widely available and an essential source of Vitamin-Sober. But for all the consistent greasy goodness that a street dog provides, it is no match for the wondrous highs of a perfectly executed taco. Particularly if it's the birria taco from Cactus Taqueria on Vine.

On its bulging menu board, Cactus seems to carry the standard fare: burritos, quesadillas and tacos with your choice of meat. The add-ons (including avocado) and endless combinations make for a dizzying array of choices, though, so best to work your ordering like an episode of Pimp My Ride: choose your meat and preferred mode of transportation to your mouth, then bling that thing out with all the extras you could want.

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As an added bonus, any tastebud left unsatiated from the frankentaco you just assembled will be burned away or beaten into delicious submission by Cactus' phenomenal salsa bar. The salsas vary in intensity, with the creamy green avocado-based salsa being the most mild. Shaved cucumber rounds and sliced radishes from the all-you-can-eat bin are a welcome addition and refresh your mouth between tacos.

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The crunchy shrimp is thinly battered so the outside stays crisp while the plump shrimp give a nice bite and clean taste without any fishiness that can plague other seafood taco operations.

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If carne asada is your taqueria benchmark, you're likely to be disappointed here, unfortunately. A touch dry and chewy, they require a boost from what is thankfully a superb salsa station.

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The al pastor is shaved in thick chunks from the vertical spit, but isn't sliced to order and thus runs the frequent risk of needing a touch of salsa roja and some cilantro.

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Between the fried shrimp, passable carnitas and underwhelming al pastor, the juicy birria sitting in its own juices comes out on top. With a mild hit of pepper and spices, the birria overcomes any potential blandness and shines as the best taco on the plate.

Forget adding queso or avocado to your birria taco. The stewed goat meat is so tender and flavorful that anything more than a mild salsa wouldn't do the otherwise underutilized meat any justice. Instead, sit back with a plate full and enjoy the simplicity of a taqueria in Hollywood that does birria right.

With its predilection for upscale dining or fast-casual sit down spots, a large section of Hollywood doesn't offer much to those of us wanting a little more Mexican in our diet. Just up the street from Cactus Taqueria are the lights and doormen that make up a different, more complex world.

But on most nights, you can catch me keeping it simple: a picnic table outside, birria taco in hand, no add-ons to be had. This is a good way to end a night (or start a day).

Cactus Taqueria

950 Vine St., Hollywood CA 90038 (map)
10:30 a.m. to 3 a.m.

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