When it comes to pure taco nostalgia in Los Angeles, King Taco definitely wears the crown. The regional taco outpost that began in the Glassell Park neighborhood northeast of downtown now sports nearly two dozen locations, a few lunch trucks and a loyal following, mostly among native Angelenos with a fondness for the tacos of their past, even if what King Taco dishes out now hasn't kept up with the times.
The Pico Boulevard King Taco location has that sterile fast-food feel, not exactly the welcome home party one might expect from such a proudly discussed taqueria. But, what the place may lack in both formality and familiarity, it seems to make up for with actual families. Being that King Taco is traditionally an east of the Los Angeles River phenomenon, the west of downtown Pico edition comes complete with happy young Latino couples, large broods smiling over waves of tamales and a steady flow of Koreans floating down from nearby Koreatown.
Perhaps the fondness for King Taco is akin to walking into your neighborhood bar and ordering "the usual." Here, the menu is all basics. Nearly the whole back wall is one long food prep/ordering station, with designated lines for the busier hours. The friendly staff bustles around, moving carne asada around on the hot griddle, chopping fresh white onions or cilantro.
Look closer, though, and the fine-tuning that comes with a singular storefront is largely gone. The flour tortillas are pulled from a nondescript plastic bag, a seemingly endless tower of pre-pressed and reheated taco rounds that usually spell trouble at first bite. The tamales emerge from their steamer already wrapped in wax paper emblazoned with the signature King Taco red flourish logo; they're pushed down some conveyor belt miles away and sent out to dozens of local small-time restaurants, not just King Tacos.
Perhaps it's the consistency people love; the prices ($1.29 per taco) are about the only thing that keeps changing. You always know what you're getting at King Taco, even if it's not knock-your-taste-buds-off delicious.
The carne asada is the best option; the beef is seasoned well with salt and a touch of lime and even crisps up nicely on a few of the more prominent beefy edges. The al pastor is an attempt at a classic, but without the technique or technology behind the counter to produce anything more than a dry-rubbed slice of pork doused in citrus juices. The carnitas, a slow-roasted staple, must move out the door too fast to really be allowed the time it deserves. The few slow-fried bits are just a teasing of what true carnitas should be, if left to simmer in a smaller operation.
I may never truly understand the pull of King Taco, with its florescent lighting and hard-backed metal chairs. I may never understand what it means to take your family to King Taco for a night out. Something here is missing for me. But seeing all of smiling faces sitting around me, enjoying the company they brought, I realize it's probably not about the food at all.
2020 West Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90006 (map)