Jamie's Guide to LA's Must-Eat Mexican Food
LA vs. NYC. NYC vs. LA. It's a tale as old as time, and unless you're talking about Mexican food, I just don't have the spare century necessary to get into the debate about which is better. Oh, you do want to talk about Mexican food? Great. The answer is: LA wins. It pains me to say this as a New Yorker, but I'll just be real here: LA's Mexican food scene is about a thousand times better than New York's, in terms of depth, breadth, and sheer scope. (Now, I'm not saying good Mexican is impossible to find in NY—check out El Atoradero, La Palapa, or El Tenampa— but those are the diamonds in the rough. However, LA pizza still largely sucks.)
Anyhow. Every time I'm in LA, I go on a serious Mexican marathon, scrambling desperately to cram all of the city's tacos down my throat in one fell swoop. This has lead to some great gastrointestinal discomfort, but also an ever-expanding roster of favorites, and not just in the taco category. I don't live in LA and I can't claim to be an expert on any of this, but I do know that every time I visit, these are the places I plan my trip around. What about you? Angelenos, feel free to steer me elsewhere in the comments!
Aguachiles and Pescado Zarandeado at Coni Seafood
As I understand it, Coni is something of a rite of passage for many LA food explorers, and with good reason. It serves Nayarit-style fare (which I don't think I've ever even heard of in NYC), heavy on the shrimp and fish. The head-on raw shrimp aguachiles ($12), swimming in a citrusy bath of lime juice and spicy green salsa, hit that golden sweet-hot-refreshing trifecta square on, but the real star of the show is pescado zarandeado ($25/lb), aka grilled snook.
I'm sure that when alive, snook don't look that weird, but when splayed open and served unceremoniously on a metal sheetpan, they are fantastically ugly creatures. It does not matter in the slightest, because this snook (snook! Why don't you see snook, aka robalo, more often?) is one of the best things I have ever eaten in any city. Despite my repeated inquires, I'm still not totally sure what's going on behind the scenes, but here's what I can tell you: the fish tastes like it's been marinated in a mix of OJ and soy sauce, though a reputable source claims there's a touch of mayonnaise to help it crisp up on the grill; it comes with corn tortillas and a bowl of ultra-beefy-tasting caramelized onions ("it's like Mexican French onion soup!" said one diner); and it flakes easily off the bone into salty-sweet nuggets, some tender, others crispy. I know it sounds like I'm being hyperbolic, but I've truly never had fish like this, and I can't get it out my head. Bonus: Coni is in Inglewood, right by LAX, making it ideal for a first or last stop for visitors.
We've written about Guisados before, declaring the Boyle Heights counter had reached "stewed taco perfection," and the statement still holds. This is not the place to come for standard fillings like pastor or asada (they're not even on the menu) —as its name implies, Guisados focuses on traditional, homestyle stews and braises. The slightly thick, nutty tortillas are nixtamalized at the family-owned market right next door, then pressed and griddled on-site, so when I say "fresh tortillas," I'm not messing around. As Farley correctly notes in his review, the sampler platter of six mini tacos is the way to go, especially for the uninitiated —the sheer amount of stewy fillings can be overwhelming. The tender, smoky cochinita pibil (pork shoulder) is justifiably celebrated, though I found the chicken tinga equally delightful.
Blue Corn Quesadilla Cart near Echo Park (Echo Park Blvd and Sunset Blvd)
This cart doesn't have an official name, but that doesn't matter. Working off of a ramshackle little griddle in a parking lot adjacent to Echo Park, the Blue Corn Quesadilla Lady (who requested her face not be photographed for this article) makes fresh tortillas by patting out handfuls of blue corn masa directly atop the hot griddle (ouch!). Fillings (beyond stringy Oaxacan cheese) include squash blossoms, beans, chicharrones, chicken, chorizo, and my personal favorite, a juicy huitlacoche, aka corn smut, aka corn fungus that looks like a space alien and tastes like a mushroom. Each quesadilla ($3-3.50) is cooked flat until the thick tortilla begins to crackle and brown, then it's folded over and flipped, so both sides achieve a chewy-crisp texture. Fold the finished quesadilla back open to apply raw onions, nopales, or red or green salsa, but be warned: both are on the fiery side of hot.
Hours seem to vary: Yelp reports Mon, Fri, and Wed from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., but I went on a Sunday early afternoon and she was there.
Ricky's Fish Tacos
The first time I went to LA, Ricky Piña was slinging his crispy Ensenada-style fish and shrimp tacos ($3-3.50) beneath a rickety tarp in a parking lot. Turns out that wasn't entirely legal, but in a miracle of miracles, Ricky's now operates out of a shiny new food truck in Silver Lake. Despite the fancy new digs, the taco remains virtually unchanged, and unchallenged in utter fish taco supremacy: the batter blend is top-secret, but each taco is both golden and greaseless, served with crunchy raw cabbage, a chunky tomato and pepper salsa, and crema, with optional fresh salsa verde on the side. The big, plump shrimp tacos are just as good, as are the oft-changing agua frescas.
Hours: 9 a.m.- 5 p.m.
Chiquis Taco Truck (Santa Monica and Vine, gas station parking lot)
In a land of taco trucks, I cannot categorically declare that Chiquis best, but I can tell you that their tacos al pastor are the best I've ever had. Shaved off a spit and given a revitalizing blast on the griddle before gracing their tortillas, and served with slivers of pork-saturated pineapple, these three-bite tacos taste like a million bucks (er, $1.50). Literal buckets of salsas, raw and pickled veggies, and roasted peppers span the length of a picnic table— top as you see fit. This was truly the place where I fell in love with pastor—the difference between the dry, lukewarm meat shavings I've been eating for all these years and the juicy, crispy, aggressively seasoned meat at Chiquis is nothing short of profound. Bonus: if you're into dive bars (and I am), Chiquis is conveniently located next to 3 Clubs, a very divey dive indeed.
Hours: appx 9 p.m.-2 a.m. daily, seems flexible.
Mexicali Taco & Co.
Named for the Baja border town the owners grew up in, this stand-turned-brick-and-mortar restaurant is known for a few things: excellent flame-grilled carne asada; thin, chewy flour tortillas delivered straight from Mexicali; and something called the Vampiro, which combines both into one unholy and glorious mess. The Vampiro resembles a quesadilla, with extremely gooey Monterey Jack cheese and garlic-mayo sauces gluing the asada to either side of the toasted tortilla. There's a DIY salsa bar here, too, but choose carefully—the Vampiro is already a suckerpunch of flavor on its own.
Mexicali's architecturally perfect nachos, loaded with roasted peppers, tomatoes, and onions, then drowned in Velveeta-style cheese, also deserve a shoutout.
The longstanding champion of mariscos trucks in East LA (it's been running for over 10 years), Mariscos Jalisco serves several things I'd give my left arm to find in NYC. Chief among them is the taco dorado de camaron (fried shrimp taco) ($1.75), which defies easy explanation, but is something like a shrimp/tomato/onion fritter mix crammed into a tortilla and deep-fried until the outside is crispy and burnished deep brown, with a light and fluffy interior. Then the whole thing is doused in a thin, zippy red salsa and draped with creamy slices of avocado. It's a beast of a thing to eat, but you're not here to be polite. And while the shrimp tacos get (and deserve) a lot of love, I'd also put in a vote for the humble ceviches ($2.50-5), tart with lime (but not so much that the fish tastes chalky), studded with raw tomato and onion, served on a crispy tostada and topped with more perfectly ripe avocado.
Hours: Daily 9:30 a.m.- 5:30 p.m.