In Los Angeles, you can separate Mexican food by time. There's morning Mexican: the machaca plates and lonchero breakfast burritos that keep a large segment of this city running. There's lunchtime Mexican: a quick asada burrito or a couple of tacos, washed down with a Jarritos before returning to the grind. Evening Mexican is a more refined affair, where people sit in overstuffed booths noshing on steaming tamales or chile rellenos or scoops of dark, sweet mole. Late-night Mexican is greasy, cheesy, salty and so unhealthy as to be unthinkable without some liquid fortifier first.
But there is another beast, lurking just beyond the shadow of the hour hand: the 24-hour Mexican spot. Not "open until 4 a.m." or "we stay late on the weekends." We're talking truly 24-hours.
As luck would have it, West Hollywood managed to produce a perfectly satisfying all-night taco spot, backed into a small strip along Santa Monica Blvd. Los Tacos, as it's aptly named, is a typical plastic booth, order at the counter kind of place. There's lots of busywork on all the walls, a mural or two, and a bunch of plastered placards to let you know they only take cash. Good. Who needs to try to remember their PIN number when the sun is threatening to come up behind them anyway?
The namesake tacos are clumped together on the menu under the sadsack heading "The Singles," as if to say "we know why you're here". You might be left searching between the seats for extra quarters when you spot the $2.25 price tag, but these all nighters aren't your average street tacos. Not in size, anyway. The carne asada is chunky in every sense of the word; loose chops of well-seasoned beef cooked over a fiery grill get tossed by the baleful onto double-stacked tortillas the size of your hand. A little chewy, a little greasy and a lot satisfying, all these tacos need in a run at the salsa bar for onions and some liquid heat.
Unfortunately, the carnitas tacos are beyond repair. Pork tossed blandly into a crockpot then fried hard before serving does not a good carnitas taco make. The crisped edges are oily and the more inviting segments turn out to be too dry to be anything but a disappointment, even with a gluttonous amount of deep, smoky salsa roja.
Just when you thought Los Tacos was a one-trick latenight pony with its carne asada, you take a quick look around the room and spot plate after plate stacked with hard-shelled tacos. Filled and fried to order, any taco can suddenly transform itself from post-midnight mediocrity into early morning superstar. A big fist of mozzarella gets tossed onto the opened taco just before serving, along with some chopped lettuce and a few dices of tomatoes. Before you know it you've got a cure for the hangover you don't even have yet.
The big winner in the fried taco competition is the chicken taco, which is filleted and charred up wonderfully on the same grill as the carne asada. Mixed in with the casual fattiness of the cheese and the cooling crunch of lettuce, the chicken taco is one to be reckoned with, any time of day.
That's the thing about 24-hour Mexican places: You almost don't want to try them in the daylight, because you may find something is missing. But at some point in a food operation that doesn't stop, 4 a.m. becomes 2 p.m. becomes 11 p.m., and everything is prepared exactly the same way, day or night. You may not remember those chicken tacos the same way when you stumble back looking for your cell phone, but trust me: they're still delicious the next morning.
7954 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood (map)