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Los Angeles: Why We Love Loteria Grill's Tacos

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[Photographs: Paul Bartunek]

It's hard to imagine a time when the Los Angeles Mexican food scene needed saving, let alone by a man named Jimmy Shaw. Ten years later, Shaw's flagship Loteria Grill in the bustling Farmers Market on Third and Fairfax has been credited with doing just that, and his Loteria empire keeps growing.

As a born-and-raised Mexico City native, Shaw quickly became disillusioned with the cheap and Anglicized versions of many popular food staples he'd grown up with. Where were the crisp chilaquiles for breakfast? Or the hand-formed tacos with fillings beyond "carne asada"?

Using recipes he'd culled from his mother's own hand, he opened up Loteria Grill in one of the many stalls along the interior of Los Angeles's whitewashed version of a street market.

At first, he hoped the large amount of foot traffic would help get his authentic tacos and other basic Mexican fare off the ground. Now, with outposts in Hollywood and Studio City (Santa Monica and Westlake Village are in the works), the Loteria Grill name alone is enough to bring people through the door. Well, at the flagship location in the Farmers Market, there are no doors, but that's a good thing.

The ordering line routinely inflates to a dozen or more, snaking it's way through the open-air tables. In the diminutive kitchen, the staff hustles to turn out an array of soups, stews, and specialty pork plates, but nearly everyone in line is there for the tacos.

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Hand-made flour tortillas firm up on the plancha in staggering numbers, as the orders roll in throughout the day. Albondigas en chipotle, a Mexican meatball of sorts, may be the hot item at one moment, or the slow-roasted cochinita pibil the next. All are served quickly, but with an attention to detail that has made Shaw such a beloved staple of the cheffy taco scene in Los Angeles.

Most of the $3 taco options on the menu board aren't found much around town, but that's not for lack of taste. The papa con rajas, creamy potato chunks mixed with poblano peppers, pull so much flavor from such simple ingredients that at first it's a wonder the combination hasn't taken over taco carts throughout the city. The truth is, anybody could match the ingredients list, but most people don't have Jimmy Shaw's chops.

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In the tinga de pollo taco, the unbelievably moist chicken is stewed alongside ribboned slices of chipotle to deepen and mellow out their flavor, while a pureed fresh chipotle salsa brings home the heat and offers a few different layers of goodness. The carnitas, perhaps a little staid on its own, is dolloped with a thin slice of avocado and a spicy red chile morita that makes the slow-cooked meat almost a backdrop.

Other options, like the nopalitos, comprised of wet cactus chunks, are true Mexican staples, but undoubtedly less successful north of the border. Served cold, the taco is a bit vinegary and too watery for even the sturdiest handmade corn tortilla.

The misses here are few and far between, and are to be overlooked in favor of other menu staples. Glancing around the Farmers Market, you'll see a spectrum of people sitting at the battered metal tables, each enjoying their own taco selection. These aren't carne asada tacos or even al pastor—just true versions of Mexican classics, presented with a carefully honed technique. It's exactly what Jimmy Shaw wanted all along.

Loteria Grill

Fairfax Farmer's Market (map)

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