If you never left downtown Los Angeles, you'd be convinced that the whole wide world is awash in Mexicali Taco & Co. love. The former late night taco table long sat in a parking lot north of Staples Center, often siphoning off in-the-know event goers willing to trade in a yard of beer for some of LA's best street eats. After piling up enough gold stars from locals and food-blogging bigwigs alike, they managed to win the vaunted 2011 Taco Madness bracket-style tournament. They quickly earned a whole new wave of hungry customers. Then they earned themselves an eviction notice.
Now, several months and a pop-up or two later, the Mexicali guys have turned the key on a fully functional space just up Figueroa. The smallish spot keeps the kitchen tucked in a side room, while the main dining area is nothing more than red picnic tables and a few touches of exposed wood. Thankfully, the food hasn't skipped a beat from the old 1st & Beaudry days.
Most people will tell you that the thing to get is the vampiro, a quesadilla-like tortilla fold-over that comes loaded with cheese and your choice of meat. It's also really peppery and loaded up with garlic, a little wink to the clever name. Don't be fooled. If you're looking for an innovative, out-of-the-way dish that Mexicali absolutely nails, go for the cachetada. A single, crispy corn tortilla is poured over with your chosen protein, then doused with cheese and finished off with a chipotle aioli. Not enough for you? Make it "ranchero" style, which means it's topped with a fried egg. After a few crispy, meaty, spicy indulgent bites, you may need to let someone else take the reins and guide you home.
Despite the inventive concoctions and smoky flavors you'll find along the "main menu" side of the board, they guys in the back haven't strayed far from their true taco roots, back in that old, grimy parking lot. Served Baja-style, the corn tortillas are bussed up from Mexico and act as a thick, pliable backdrop to the star of the show: the carne asada. Simply put, this is how it's done. The well-salted beef arrives in thick chunks after spending just enough time over some very forgiving heat. You'll find a few crisp, meaty edges that taste familiar to anyone interested in barbecue-style rib tips. But you'll also find a softer, pliable interior that satisfies those savory pockets of your soul with thick chunks of slightly chewy, warm, satisfying pure beefiness.
There's enough juice left in each bite to get you from one end of the tortilla to the other, and if you're not careful that's exactly what you'll end up doing. If you can, make a run for the salsa bar to bring the asada to another level. A fiery fire engine red roja may make your face match the color of the tables, but the subtler avocado salsa doesn't need heat to make its presence felt. Your best bet? Combine the two for a little mix and match with every bite.
It's good to see Mexicali Taco back and stronger than ever. As trucks and tables grow and fall away with time, it's nice to know that greatness endures. And when it comes to Mexicali, their asada is truly great.
Mexicali Taco & Co. 702 N. Figueroa St., Los Angeles 90012 (map)