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Los Angeles: Tito's Tacos, a Nostalgic Hard-Shell Taco Stand in Culver City

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[Photographs: Liezl Estipona]

Depending on your provenance, you and I may have had a very different first idea of exactly what "tacos" are. For me, tacos began as stiff corn shells fried and folded into half-circles, filled lazily with shredded lettuce, yellow cheese shavings and ground, wet, salty beef. You know, tacos.

Tito's Tacos, the eponymous taco takeaway stand with the catchy late-night jingle, is a place for all manner of youthful taco nostalgia. Looming in the shadow of the 405 on Washington Place in Culver City, Tito's has a longstanding tradition of serving up the tacos that you and I may recall fondly from our childhood. It's just that, well, some things are better left to memory.

Despite a healthy mix of other Mexican staples, including a surprisingly tasty salsa roja and chicken tamale, folks flock to Tito's for their hard-shelled tacos. Just like Mom used to make before Mom knew what a Chipotle was, each namesake taco is topped with a mound of grated orange-yellow cheddar and a tuft of shredded iceberg lettuce. The only protein available for the interior is the shredded beef, a slight take on the ground beef and seasonings that plagued my youth.

Upon first glance, the tacos here seem to be updated and improved versions of the taco-pack style we remember. The fried tortilla shells have the misshapen imperfections that indicate a real human hand took part in the frying process.

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Elsewhere, a large window gives access to the steam table and all of its scoopable contents, proving without a doubt that there are no Taco Bell Fire sauce packets in the near vicinity. Unfortunately, it shouldn't take more than a few bites to shatter the illusion.

Back then, as now, the hard-shelled taco invariably suffers from an issue of liquid leakage. Stewed or simmered meats find themselves sliding smoothly from one side of the taco or the other. Ultimately, you're likely to end up with a half-taco monstrosity, caked in moist cheese and wet lettuce, with no beefy bites to speak of. The meat itself ultimately proves no safe haven for flavor, suffering instead from a lack of salt and in desperate need of some kick.

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Good luck with the pale pink salsa, which only moistens the whole affair without adding much to the fire. You could easily mistake it for your margarita just by looking at it.

On this night, as with nearly every other, Tito's is packed to the hinges with fine, rational people waiting to eat the hard-shelled tacos of their youth. And, despite its ubiquity and popularity in the Los Angeles area, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone willing to put these tacos up against any of the more sensible Westside spots.

Tito's Tacos does have the absolute best of something though: memories. Either you grew up here and have a touch of Tito's in your soul, or you've spent one or two hazy nights waiting in line after another unforgettable night on the town. Maybe it's just the memories you've always had for late-night family dinners from a box, those comforting hard shells and that beaming yellow cheese that Tito's still serves with a smile.

Tito's Tacos

11222 Washington Pl, Culver City (map)

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