Los Angeles Perfects Tacos

Meredith Jenks

L.A.'s most important contribution to what Americans eat now is a teeny tortilla that can be filled with every delicacy imaginable.

On a hillside stretch of Sunset Boulevard overlooking downtown L.A., a line has started to form outside Guisados. A chalkboard menu lists a dozen or so guisados (stews) served on homemade corn tortillas that have been patted to the thickness of saddle leather and crisped on a dry grill. Women—and men—in skinny jeans are already eating on the back patio, and a few document their meals on smartphones: pictures of slow-cooked chicken tinga, pork chuletas en salsa verde, diced calabacitas resembling succotash. Three or four filled tortillas, served on waxed paper on a small pizza tray, make a meal. Out front the line continues to grow, and the evening ritual it represents is one that is not only woven into L.A. history but also the epitome of trendy nowness: It’s taco time.

Guisados proprietor Armando De La Torre, a gregarious man with a wine-sack belly, pauses outside the kitchen to explain why his modest restaurant has become a destination for taco eaters across the city, most of whom pass multiple taco-eating opportunities on their way to Echo Park.

“The stews are family recipes,” says De La Torre, a former commercial real estate agent who was born in L.A. but has family roots in Aguascalientes, a Mexican city known for good cooking. “It’s the way we eat at home. A lot of Mexican restaurant food is banquet food—the carne asada and that kind of thing. We hear criticism that our food is inauthentic or gourmet. It’s not. It’s home-style.”

Whatever you call it, Guisados is a taco success story. The original in Boyle Heights gave many blog-reading foodies their first reason to head east across the Los Angeles River, and De La Torre has plans for a third outpost, in downtown’s rapidly gentrifying Historic Core. But from a larger perspective—call it cultural, historical or gastro-philosophical—the question of whether Guisados makes “authentic” taco fillings is largely beside the point. For the filling doesn’t make a taco; the tortilla does: a four-inch disc that has been hand-formed from fresh masa, a cornmeal paste. It is the taco’s universal signifier, the common link between the “home-style” eating that De La Torre, 54, serves and a new wave of fancy tacos that ascend the socioeconomic strata all the way up to the $28 lobster taco at The Tower Bar, the de facto clubhouse for the Hollywood establishment.

“The definition of ‘taco’ is ‘on a tortilla,’?” says De La Torre, as a soundtrack mist of “She’s a Bad Mamma Jamma” settles over him. “It’s like sushi is ‘fish on rice,’ whereas sashimi is that same fish on a plate. A taco is something eaten on a tortilla.” He breaks away for a moment to say goodbye to a couple who, it turns out, are Dutch tourists. “I get people from all over the world,” he says when he comes back. “They land at LAX, Google ‘best tacos’ and Guisados comes up. I love it.”

What restaurateur wouldn’t? Although many places claim the title of “best L.A. taco,” there exists a host of criteria by which to judge. (Check out L.A. Times’ food critic Jonathan Gold, LATaco.comGreatTacoHunt.comLAist.com and LA.Eater.com, among others.) The taco is arguably the city’s signature contribution to American food, and tourists, residents and homesick former Angelenos alike could rightly proclaim L.A. as America’s first and foremost Tacolandia—which also happens to be the name of an annual local food festival. All over the city, food trucks, pop-ups, market stalls, informal joints and fine-dining establishments are expanding the already broad contours of taco cuisine in every direction, from arch-traditionalist to radically experimental. And as demonstrated by journalist Gustavo Arellano’s recent study Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, this ur-form of Mexican cooking has never been more fully embraced by the mainstream. (Former Chez Panisse chef and cookbook author David Tanis recently devoted his New York Times column to tacos.)

The tortilla defines a style of eating that dates back to the ancient Aztecs. But in the present-day SoCal imagination, the taco qua taco has found its fullest expression. “It’s the litmus test, regardless of a chef’s background or price point,” says Amy Scattergood, food editor of LA Weekly, which started the Tacolandia festival last summer. “The taco is all things to all people.” That bit of something wrapped in a tortilla could be a cheap snack, a scholarly essay on the past or an inventive approach from the future. It might hew to, embroider upon or deconstruct a tradition. In Mexico, it can be as plain as a taco de nada, a nothing taco; in L.A., it’s become a taco de todo, the everything taco. Advertising executive–turned–restaurateur Jimmy Shaw studied with 90-year-old Mexican culinary legend Diana Kennedy to master a taco vocabulary nearly as complex as the Italians’ for pasta. Classically trained chef Wesley Avila invented some 70 new recipes in the first year he ran Guerrilla Tacos, an illegal sidewalk pop-up that recently went legit as a food truck. His ingredients include braised baby artichokes with red peppers pickled in sherry vinegar; and roasted cauliflower with honey, dates, olives and pistachios. Entrepreneur Roy Choi, born to Korean parents and raised at the edge of the barrio, enfolds both cultures in his tortilla. The Kogi taco, which layers caramelized short ribs in a salsa verde made withgochujang, a Korean chile paste, rates as a transcultural culinary invention on par with Wolfgang Puck’s landmark smoked-salmon pizza. Choi, 43, is the hip-hop Asian of Mexican cooking and possibly the city’s most influential chef.

Tacolandia, with its myriad imaginative possibilities, can appear overwhelming, but it divides neatly enough into a three-part taxonomy: the traditional taco, the chef’s taco and the fusion taco. Yet because all iterations build upon the fundamental corn platform, the story of the L.A. taco begins in a far distant past that predates food trucks and Instagram by a millennium or more.

Chef and food historian John Sedlar strides into the million-dollar kitchen of his restaurant Rivera, a luxury outpost near the L.A. Live convention center, to explain the taco’s origin. “This is nixtamal, the basis of the tortilla,” he says, dipping his hand into a bin of cornmeal ground from dried kernels, which, before grinding, were first soaked in slake lime to release nutrients that would otherwise be indigestible. “That process changed Mesoamerica and the New World. It’s why the Aztecs, the Mayans and the Zapotecs could study astronomy, mathematics, architecture and textiles.” As has often been observed by archaeologists and nutritionists, corn and beans, when grown and eaten together, make for an agricultural surplus and an abundance of complete nutrition that fueled the development of complex social, political and economic systems. The ancient bean taco, in other words, was a foundation of pre-Columbian civilization.

Sedlar, 59, opened Rivera in 2009 and initially forbade his staff from using the word “taco” in favor of “maize cake,” in deference to the epochal agricultural advance in which a wild grass (perhaps the species Zea mays mexicana, which still grows wild in Central America) was domesticated as modern maize (Zea mays). Christopher Columbus wrote in his diary on November 5, 1492, of a “sort of grain [called] maize, which was well tasted, bak’d, dry’d and made into flour,” and Cortés later found the Montezuma eating maize tortillas when he reached Mexico City. Today Sedlar’s menu includes a gussied-up modern version he calls Tortillas Florales—corn tortillas with flowers pressed into their surface before they’re toasted on a plancha—and he continues to take a long view of the taco in the Americas. His current project is to raise funds for a proposed museum of Latin cooking, the Museum Tamal.

If the tortilla is Mexican all the way to that country’s deepest roots, the taco’s present name—two syllables to describe a quick bite you scarf without the trappings of a sit-down meal—seems to be, strangely, a recent development. The word’s etymology is unclear. Martha Chapa, author of Los Tacos de México, says it probably derives from Spain’s Aragon and Navarre regions in the 1700s, when similar words described a light bite between meals. Gustavo Arellano’s book claims the earliest mention of “taco” as a food dates to the late 1800s. The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drinkassigns the coinage a firm date: 1914. Jimmy Shaw shrugs off the debate: “In name the taco may have come up recently, but in form it’s thousands of years old.” (Incidentally, the hard-shell taco is demonstrably an American invention, writes Arellano. In 1947, Juvencio Maldonado, a Mexican immigrant to New York, applied to patent a U-shaped rack to deep-fry tortillas. Taco Bell founder Glen Bell debuted his crunchy version in 1951 in San Bernardino, California, not far from the original McDonald’s.)

When Shaw, 52, opened the first Lotería Grill in 2002, taco fever had barely begun. At L.A.’s Border Grill, chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, along with Rick Bayless’s establishments in Chicago, were already making the case that Mexican cuisine, properly understood and carefully prepared with quality ingredients, could attract an affluent clientele. But those were sit-down restaurants, and Shaw wanted the sort of taqueria he remembered from growing up in Mexico City. He wanted a place you could take a date.

“In Mexico, tacos and a movie are a first date that will get you a second date,” says Shaw, an affable taco evangelist who now owns five Lotería locations, with three more on the way. “I wanted to figure out why that was not true in L.A.” He realized two things: The first was that tacos were inevitably cheap fast food served on a tray, rather than something a waiter would respectfully deliver on a plate, and they were generic to the point of caricature, easily dismissed as immigrant food because Americans understood them only as broad stereotypes, the way today’s many varieties of pasta were once grouped under the catchall name “spaghetti” and served with two or three standard sauces. Shaw claims that almost no restaurant in Mexico would offer the singular carne asada (grilled meat) but would instead present a menu of various named carnes asadas, plural, just as no American steakhouse would describe its various cuts as plain “meat.”

“When I started, I offered regional stews and sauces in the school of Diana Kennedy,” Shaw says, noting with some pride that Kennedy is now a friend and has cooked in his kitchens. “The taco is fast food in the sense that it is served quickly, but what goes into it is made slowly, with care.” Much of traditional Mexican cuisine, he continues, depends on elaborate recipes of dozens of ingredients, which often undergo painstaking preparation and long cooking—the legacy of a society in which labor is nearly free. Compare that, he says, with Italian cuisine’s genius for combining a few ingredients quickly. A real taco is not slapdash, and it holds respect at all levels of Mexican society: A taco could be served at a black-tie occasion.

The chef’s taco has gone far to upend the perception that tacos have to be cheap. Sedlar put quail eggs and truffle on a blue corn tortilla for his first book, Modern Southwest Cuisine, and today he lays a 63-degree egg—that sous-vide signature of modernist cuisine—on a tortilla with watercress salad and lardons. Chef Walter Manzke, 47, trained under Alain Ducasse in France, Ferran Adrià in Spain and Joachim Splichal in Los Angeles; as a restaurateur he opened Bastide to acclaim and later imported the Balthazar-brasserie aesthetic with Church & State. Recently, though, he opened Petty Cash Taqueria, inspired by his trips south of the border, where street tacos can be had for a greenback. A price that can be deceiving, he warns.

“In Mexico a carne asada taco for $1 is made with New York strip loin,” Manzke says over a plate of his own creations, which are traditionalist in approach but assembled with chef-y attention to ingredients. “It’s their high-end meal. But those prices don’t translate, and that same taco here has to be made using ground meat that’s cooked in a pan. The fish for our fish tacos costs us $1.20 to $1.80 per serving. Our taco can’t be $1.” His charcoal-grilled octopus on a handmade tortilla costs $6.50.

L.A.’s most expensive taco appeared several years ago at The Tower Bar, the paneled dining room of the Sunset Tower Hotel, where celebrity maître d’ Dimitri Dimitrov presides over the most consistently starry clientele in the city: Sean Penn, George Clooney, Tom Ford and Jennifer Aniston are regulars, and Jon Hamm has been seen eating the $28 lobster taco.

“I put together the menu by imagining my ideal customers from the past and then thought about what they would eat,” says Sunset Tower owner Jeff Klein, citing his fantasy of Truman Capote with a dish of oysters Rockefeller. “The lobster taco was based on Babe Paley, who served them at Round Hill in Jamaica. It’s the perfect high-low thing.” And Klein is convinced the taco catches his old Hollywood vibe. “One night January Jones was at the bar,” he recalls. “She was sitting there alone, with her legs crossed, having a martini and delicately eating a lobster taco. I thought, That’s a real broad, like I think Grace Kelly would have been.”

The finest taco chef in town, former Manzke staffer Wesley Avila, of Guerrilla Tacos, had until recently worked out of the humblest kitchen: a small flattop grill and one butane burner set on a grubby street corner in L.A.’s arts district. The 35-year-old’s heritage is Mexican American, but he trained in France and worked in several noted kitchens before going out on his own. His taco menu changes daily based on what’s at the farmers’ market and runs the gamut from brilliant simplicity (scorched spring asparagus topped with a lightly fried organic egg) to complex depth (braised lamb neck with pickled onion, agrodolce raisins and a salsa verde of minced herbs). Meat-free tacos figure heavily in Avila’s cooking, a legacy of the haute cuisine pride that says anyone can grill a steak, but it takes artistry and finesse to master vegetables. At $4 to $7 a pop from his new food truck, Avila’s tacos can seem steeply priced for a sidewalk meal, and his most avid customers are the kind of scruffy connoisseurs who gladly pay for the oddball erudition of artisanal culture. “Coffee nerds love our tacos,” says Avila. A fusion sensibility informs Avila’s taco imagination, blending Mexican, French, Japanese and even Armenian and Lebanese flavors (like his use of nut-based sauces).

But when it comes to fusion tacos, no one can top Roy Choi, who, after a conversation between friends eating tacos in Koreatown, began serving Korean barbecue on a taco. His Kogi taco—a purposeful misspelling of the transliteration of the Korean word for meat, gogi—was a genuine milestone.

“Roy did something that is the future, and the future is multiracial,” says Amy Scattergood. “Jimmy [Shaw] is very authentic. Guisados is home cooking done incredibly well. Wes is a remarkable chef. Roy was like, ‘Fuck it, I’m from L.A. and I’m Korean and I can do what I want.’ He doesn’t have any obligation to stick to a tradition. Roy is hitting it sideways.”

If Choi’s food is forward-thinking, so is his intuitive grasp of technology. He built a fleet of four taco trucks and multiple restaurants—and also launched a thousand imitators and aspirants—through the adept use of Twitter. He broadcast his voice and message directly to an eager audience, akin to how pirate radio circumvented Soviet state media to reach a political underground. The kids loved Kogi from the start, and then mainstream culture caught up.

“I became the cultural lightning rod,” says Choi. “Kogi started to represent everything in L.A.: geeky, nerdy, gangster, creative, Hollywood. It became a voice for all of the city. It changed the way that people think about the truck. Some thought of this as cheap and dirty. Now we roll up on a patio in Malibu and serve people like Steven Spielberg.”

Choi has a guru aura, the charisma of a transformative CEO or a street godfather, and his talk at times seems to originate with the same muse who presides over rap and beat poetry. He runs Kogi as a loose collective with himself on top as “Papi,” and when he speaks of “we,” he sometimes clearly means his Kogi collaborators. Sometimes, though, his “we” is still more expansive, as he speaks for the entire Kogi audience and the cultural communities it represents. “We’re a bridge because I speak English,” he says. “This is immigrant culture.”

Choi’s dream for Kogi is utopian, a vision that spans the uplift of the American dream and the pragmatism of the empire builder. His social-media outreach gets crowds to appear wherever his trucks park, but Choi’s spirit is that of the political activist. His vehicle of action just happens to be the taco. And by popular consensus, they are very good tacos, perhaps even the city’s best. Not that Choi allows himself to be seen grasping at such elitist honors. “It’s no different than any other taco on the street,” says Choi. “Our food tastes like L.A.”

Los Angeles: Taco Time

To understand L.A., you have to sample its tacos in all their diversity, from high to low and back again. This tour goes from early-morning trendy downtown to the Sunset Strip and into the late-night hours.

Guerrilla Tacos: The truck’s menu changes daily, but chef Wesley Avila almost always offers a taco of egg-and-something. Whatever it is, have it for breakfast. guerrillatacos.com for truck location.

Guisados: Visit Guisados’ newest outpost downtown for a mid-morning taco of mellow, rich chuleta en salsa verde, thin-sliced pork chops stewed with tomatillos and herbs. At 541 S. Spring St.; guisados.co.

Kogi: Dedicate dinner to the taco that defined an era: caramelized short ribs covered in a salsa verde made with gochujang, a spicy Korean chile paste. kogibbq.com for truck locations.

Lotería Grill: The veggie tacos—mushrooms with epazote, zucchini and roasted-corn succotash; cactus-paddle salad; and potatoes with peppers—make for a light, refined afternoon snack. At the Farmer’s Market at 6333 W. Third St.; loteriagrill.com.

Petty Cash Taqueria: Go late to the boisterous, boozy taqueria for a shot of small-batch mezcal and chef Walter Manzke’s take on the classic Baja fish taco. At 7360 Beverly Blvd.; 323-933-5300; pettycashtaqueria.com.

Rivera: Chef John Sedlar’s restaurant for the expense-account lunch crowd offers a luxury version of the traditional, plain taco de nada: delicate, handmade Tortillas Florales decorated with edible flowers. At 1050 S. Flower St.; 213-749-1460; riverarestaurant.com.

The Tower Bar: The $28 lobster taco is the city’s most elegant, even more so when paired with a chilled martini or a glass of Champagne. At 8358 Sunset Blvd.; 323-848-6677; sunsettowerhotel.com.