While embarking on a weeks-long quest to try every steak, chicken, carnitas, and ground beef taco at any multi-state I could reasonably get to in Los Angeles, I got hit with plenty of requests to branch out to Chronic Tacos. With locations in California, Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, and Vancouver, Canada, they certainly fit the bill, but the closest Chronic location to my little stretch of Hollywood is in Torrance, a mere three-day drive in the deadened traffic of the 405. Head below the Orange Curtain into the OC, however, and it's nothing but Chronic Tacos locations, surf shops, and Mercedes dealerships.
So, on a recent taco expedition, I swung my non-Mercedes into one of their two Newport Beach locations. This is the coastal city where the magic started for the surf-and-skate inspired taco shop, so it seemed only fitting to wait in line with the bleach-blonde locals to taste what I'd been missing. That answer, as it turns out, is very, very little.
Beyond the stickers for defunct internet TV shows or skate shoe brands that are slapped haphazardly to tables and all over the soda machine, I remained open-minded about their food. After all, this is an operation that grew, franchised and bought into four states plus a whole other country in just over a decade; they're probably doing something right.
What they are succeeding at is the idea of surf-style Mexican food, if not the execution. Burritos here are "monster," tacos are "fatty," and guacamole comes on basically everything. There is no salsa here, only "hot sauce" as determined by their color. You can basically make anything into a fajita by throwing around some grilled veggies, and if you turn your back for a second they'll try to stuff french fries inside your meal.
So what of the namesake tacos? There are several meat options to fill your hand-sized double-stacked tortillas (corn or flour, your choice), but you may just want to point and grunt—most of the fillings are indistinguishable anyway. The pastor and chicken both arrive as large, curled chunks that have been over-salted and left on the griddle too long. The pastor attempts at a more distinguished chile flavor and offers up a slight hint of citrus marinade, but there's none of the char or deeply smoky, penetrating flavors you might be craving.
The carne asada begins to approach something more worthwhile, but doesn't have the salty juiciness to shine through any of the extra toppings at your disposal. There's cilantro and white onions, a shredded cheese blend, lettuce, pico de gallo, sour cream, guacamole, those fajita veggies, and a couple different types of "hot sauce." That unassuming asada doesn't stand a chance.
If you're interested in making the best out of a bad situation, opt for the fried fish tacos. While not the fresh, delicate and golden-battered prizes you can find throughout Southern California, they are still light and simple enough to be satisfying. Plus the chipotle mayo mix and a small hint of the beer batter offer up a unique flavor profile that the rest of the menu can't match.
What's interesting about a place like Chronic Tacos is their success. Obviously, there is a market for the meals that they present, and their extensive franchising agreements have made them a fiscal winner. But, approaching one of the flagship locations of a decade-old taco institution, I can't help but feel like I missed out on something. Does scalability across dozens of locations mean that quality necessarily has to decrease to the levels I found? Or, perhaps, was Chronic Tacos never that great to begin with?
Over 30 locations; view all at eatchronictacos.com