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Los Angeles: We Love the Taco Tables Along Pico Blvd.

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[Photographs: Paul Bartunek]

The Los Angeles taco—that old reliable benchmark for cheap, delicious eats—comes delivered in all manner of ways. Draped with grilled green onions from Mexicali Tacos' former art space; plated on styrofoam from the Mariscos Jalisco truck in East LA, splashed with thin red salsa. There are trucks and trailers and carts and stands and big, overbearing spaces where the large booths and big tables match the bloated price points.

But the real mom-and-pop operations (or brother-sister, father-son, friends-from-childhood, etc.) remain with the taco table, a ubiquitous late-night sight along the avenues and corners of much of Los Angeles.

Heading east from Western along Pico Blvd. towards downtown, the weekend streets are awash in tacos. Further down, King Taco and Tacos Tamix have cemented their location and legacy on the Pico-Union neighborhood, but in the loose Harvard Heights / Byzantine-Latino Quarter, stands emerge and fall away with time, never staying long enough to be given a name.

On the corner of Hobart and Pico, the telltale white string of lights points the way to an occasional table run by a couple of good-natured long time pals. Together, they chop and scrape and boil and serve all night long, occasionally checking in on the overflowing salsa bar atop a folding table.

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Judging by the smells and the small line, they're already making friends in the neighborhood. Vibrantly red al pastor hangs loosely from a small, rotating trompo topped with a single white onion. The bubbling vat of various meat cuts or the few hanging bits of pressed pork won't do much of the aesthetics, but when you're eating curbside from a battered metal table, these things tend to matter less and less. And when the tacos taste like this, you stop caring about looks all together.

Thankfully, the witch-like cauldron of meats doesn't skimp on flavor. Slow-cooked alongside a bag of white onions, each protein option is given a small section to sit in, while the rest churns under low heat all night. The carne asada overflows with a blend of char and mixed juices, having been grilled flat earlier, then left to sit with all the others. Cuts like carnitas do well here, with their ability to hold in large chunks for hours while still falling tastily with the fine swipe of a blade. Everything gets a slow-simmered taste, with just a touch of the fragrance that onions impart.

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At stands like this, all over Los Angeles, fortune favors the bold. Cuts like buche, cabeza (or even tripe) stand out, needing the long, slow cook time to really blossom into a meat worth eating. Heaping piles on two-ply tortillas don't break the $1 taco mark. What you end up with—peeking out from underneath a storm of white onions, cilantro and mildly impotent salsa verde—is the deep, earthy taste of simple slow cooking. Moist without being greasy, each bite is a soft, flavorful mouthful.

Taking an alternate route home, you might see one or two new tables you hadn't noticed before. There, a couple of friendly guys, smiling under the shine of incandescent bulbs, might just be serving up the best meats you've been afraid to try.

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