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Al Pastor Battle in Los Angeles: Tacos Leo vs. Tacos Tamix

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[Photographs: Liezl Estipona]

In Los Angeles, al pastor is basically a municipal treasure. Its savory, porky goodness adorns the countless planchas that roam the streets, keeping this city fed. For many, it surpasses carne asada in its ability to distinguish the real taco players from the pretenders.

Yet, there are many ways in which al pastor can be prepared and (just as importantly) presented.

Some trucks think soft globs of reddish pork, warmed momentarily on a griddle, suffices. Others keep their offering drier and more crumbly, letting fiery salsa rojas take center stage. But without the vertical spit, pressed tightly with marinated pork and topped with a large chunk of pineapple, you'd be hard-pressed to find al pastor worth the late-night calories.

Two trucks, Tacos Leo and Tacos Tamix, bring the trompo (that beautiful log of spinning al pastor) to heights not often seen outside of Mexico City. At each, the taqueros use a sharp knife to ease off generous slices of pastor directly onto a warm, waiting tortilla with a hunk of pineapple for good measure.

Such ingenuity has made Tacos Leo the talk of taco town for the better part of a year, but Tacos Tamix shouldn't be overlooked as a serious, and longstanding, contender.

Tacos Leo

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The local taquerati have all but christened Mid-City's Tacos Leo as the progenitor of meat on a tortilla. When the gigantic trompo comes out on weekends, crowds jockey for position in front of the spit for a chance to order the spinning al pastor.

All night, thin slices are plucked off and sent straight to a waiting tortilla by a deft hand and sharpened blade. Then, in a move that should be dubbed the White Manna, the whole thing is flipped upside down onto the waiting plancha for a warm-through before being righted and sent off with a slice of pineapple from the large chunk marinating on top of the meat. The rest is up to you.

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The thin, delicate slices feel nothing like the chunky bits of meat you might be used to with al pastor at other trucks around town. In fact, there's an unmistakable familiarity to the textured layering, almost like a shaved turkey sandwich, albeit with a lot more flavor and heat. The marinade—a mix of pineapple, citrus and chilies—provides an excellent flavor base for the succulent pork. Add a touch of salsa roja, some diced white onions and the crisp cool of cilantro, it's not hard to see why Tacos Leo has quickly become so beloved.

Tacos Leo

Corner of Venice Blvd and La Brea Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90019 (map)

Tacos Tamix

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Riding down Pico Blvd. to Tacos Tamix feels like a timeline of al pastor itself. From the shawarma places to Papa Cristo's tasty Greek gyros, the lineage for this 'shepherd' meat on a vertical spit is easy to trace. Once you reach Tamix, posted up in front of a late night car wash in the Pico Union neighborhood just west of downtown, you'd do well to pull over and grab a bite from this meat's long history.

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There's not much showmanship at Tacos Tamix. The plancha and trompo don't make it out of the truck much any more, but the guys inside are working every bit as hard as their Tacos Leo counterparts to serve up meaty, juicy slices of al pastor, straight off the spit.

Here, there are no thin bits, just hefty chunks of deep red pork that offer up a satisfying bite and nice kick. If Tacos Leo is the sandwich, Tamix is more like your turkey dinner. The cuts are generous and filling, and the pineapple never overpowers the plate.

Onions, salsa and cilantro are all fine additions, but aren't needed. Because the trompo is so much smaller at Tacos Tamix, there's a more even distribution of heat that leads to satisfying crunchy morsels that Tacos Leo doesn't often match. Usually it's up to the onions to offer that kind of texture profile.

Tacos Tamix

Pico and Westmoreland, Los Angeles CA 90006 (map)

The Al Pastor Victor?

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If Tacos Leo is the current blogger darling, Tacos Tamix may well be the hardworking hometown hero. Both offer a traditional take on Los Angeles's most beloved taco, shaving meal after meal for hungry patrons until all hours of the morning. There's a lot to love about each truck, and with only 15 minutes separating the two on any given night, you may never have to pick a favorite.

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