Henry's Tacos has died; long live Henry's Tacos. The Studio City gringo taco spot, with its faded yellow sign and Googie-style architecture that jutted south from the corner of Moorpark Street and Tujunga Avenue, closed last year amid much controversy. As has been all too common for Los Angeles eateries over the past few years (R.I.P. Campanile et al.), a leasing dispute between a longtime restaurant and its landowner led to Henry's departure from the San Fernando Valley's Mexican food scene. No amount of endorsements from Elijah Wood or everyone's favorite meth maker could persuade the owners to renegotiate Henry's rental increase, and after 51 years the landmarked business shuttered.
Now, several months later, business at Henry's Tacos on Moorpark and Tujunga is booming. People are lining up, cash in hand, to catch a bite of the classic hard-shelled ground beef tacos, runny with "taco sauce." So what gives? Did the landlord cave and let Henry's return after owner Janis Hood sold the place to one of her decades-long employees? Nope. They just moved across the street.
As of early April, Henry's Tacos has resurfaced inside the former space of a walk-up sandwich shop called Studio Sub. While the former tenants must have had a rough go of things because, come on, you're across the street from Henry's Tacos, the space proved perfect for new owner Omar Vega. "I have a little work to do, I want to get a different stove," Vega told Studio City Patch last month. And while the architecture and original hanging Henry's sign are no longer part of the business, there's a reasonable facsimile of the pale yellow lettering above the new order window. And best of all? The menu board still reads off the same: $2.75 for a hard shelled beef taco. So, have the tacos changed now that Henry's is across the street?
With the sort of commercially fried corn-shelled gringo tacos that Henry's Tacos has been serving for more than half a century, there's not much to get wrong. Their tacos are still as crunchy, cheesy and messy as ever. The shells, warm and thinner than some competitors in the local gringo taco scene, give easily when bitten and don't leave an oily taste in your mouth like some less refined versions of the taco genre. The hefty chunks of shredded yellow cheese are as excessive as ever, falling out from the top of the shell shortly after the first bite. But what's left inside is melted to the ground beef concoction that awaits your tongue. This is pure Americanized seasoned taco beef, with an onion and garlic powder backbone and the faintest hint of paprika. There's no chile heat to speak of, but you wouldn't expect much from a straightforward 1950's hard-shelled taco like this. Besides, that's what the taco sauce is for.
Still doled out in packets, Henry's taco sauce is a glowing red, vinegary concoction that is thin enough to run to the edges of anything it's squirted on. The latent heat shines through weakly, but with enough taste memory to take you back to your boxed hard-shelled taco youth. A thick single slice of tomato tucked inside the gringo taco, underneath all of that pale shredded lettuce, is a nice addition as well. As a meeting point between hard taco shell and gloopy beef paste, the tomato offers something to actually sink your teeth into.
The rest of the menu board reads like a Henry's Tacos reunion tour. The meek chili is still on the board, and there are burritos that hardly anyone orders. Thankfully, Vega has also brought the taco burger down the block to his new location. The idea is genius: pile a commercial white burger bun with the same seasoned beef mix, pile on the cheese shreds, add in that same thick tomato slice, and make it rain with lettuce strips. It's a bigger, beefier version of Henry's signature tacos, but on a burger bun, for only 50 cents more!
Unless you've got your heart set on nostalgia, order up a couple of taco burgers for a true meal. The cheese better portioned as to optimize meatiness, the soft commercial bun is squishy and slightly sugary, and it's filled edge to edge with a thicker mound of ground, seasoned beef. The whole thing comes off like a taco-tinged sloppy joe, and will have you sopping up the edges of your bun accordingly.
So is Henry's Tacos in Studio City really back? That sort of depends on how you felt about them in the first place. It's certainly nice to see them reopening with the same menu board and something resembling their original signage, right on the same intersection. But if you were no Henry's fan before, don't expect to suddenly be drawn into their gringo taco charms, especially once you spot the line out front. And as for their original location, mere steps away? A sign for a new business just went up: Cactus Taqueria, another arm in the small-but-growing L.A. chain. Let the taco wars begin!
4389 Tujunga Avenue, Studio City CA 91604 (map)