#HeiKingTacoCrawl (2/8/14)

During this past weekend, food enthusiast friend Andy came down to LA  from NorCal for another weekend of gastronomic expeditions. For our Saturday lunch meetup, his one request was simple: tacos. We all know that tacos suck up north (I didn’t stutter, NorCal people – come at me bros), so this was a request that was forthcoming on one of Andy’s visits to LA. At first, I was a little perplexed – which one place should we go to in order to showcase the best of what our city has to offer, in a city full of amazing taco options. But then it hit me: we don’t have to go to just ONE place – WE CAN CONQUER THEM ALL!!!

My original itinerary began with some of my favorites, and a couple of consensus favorites I have yet to try. After some deliberation, I ended up with six taco joints fairly close in proximity to one another to hit up (in alphabetical order): Guerrilla Tacos, Guisados,  Los Cinco Puntos, Mariscos Jalisco, Mexicali Taco & Co, and Ricky’s Fish Tacos (while I came up with this list independently, I definitely glanced at Midtown Lunch’s post afterwards on how to attack this taco crawl). Okay, so that wasn’t going to work obviously (I just had a 14-course dinner the night before, one where I had so much food I had to run stairs between dessert courses – details to follow, and Andy had gone through a similar experience elsewhere), but we had such high hopes. Oh young Chris…

With my visions of grandeur all but assuredly dashed, we decided to focus on the three Boyle Heights places (Guisados, Los Cinco Puntos, Mariscos Jalisco) and Ricky’s Fish Tacos. We began the #HeiKingTacoCrawl at what has quickly become one of Boyle Heights’ institutions: Mariscos Jalisco.

Mariscos Jalisco
3040 E Olympic Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90023
(323) 528-6701
twitter.com/MariscosJalisco

While Mariscos Jalisco focuses on ceviches y cocteles from San Juan de Los Lagos in Jalisco, Mexico, the one thing they’re known for isn’t necessarily something true of the region, but rather something that developed into the food truck’s own identity: the fried shrimp taco known as the taco dorado de camaron. Not too big in size at $1.75 per taco, we each ordered one of these – corn tortillas stuffed with a spiced shrimp filling of sorts, then the taco is folded and deep-fried whole, and topped with a slice of avocado and unique salsa roja. Just genius. There are now multiple imitators of this taco, including a competing truck parked on the very same block (and with maybe 4x the number of patrons), but nothing compares to this one. To this day, the shrimp taco is still the only thing I’ve tried at Mariscos Jalisco, and there is much to be discovered here. But we were on a mission, and the next stop awaited…

Tacos de camarones @mariscosjalisco #mariscosjalisco #HeiKingTacoCrawl

A post shared by Chris Hei (@chrishei) on

Los Cinco Puntos
3300 E Cesar E Chavez Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90063
(323) 261-4084

The next stop might be the most surprising to the casual taco fan. It’s just a plain-old Mexican mom-and-pop deli/market of sorts, frequently by the local families of Boyle Heights. But insiders know that they have some damn good carnitas, and an impressive variety of different beef and pork offal parts. Not a word of ingles was spoken inside of the place until it was our turn at the counter. At first, the friendly tia that served us was caught off guard by the sight of an Asian guy and white guy ordering individual tacos (the vast majority of their orders are of their meats and tortilla sold in bulk), but once I busted out my ordering-level espanol (my Spanish comprehension is actually better than my Mandarin), she smiled and proceeded to stuff our tacos with carnitas, buche (pig stomach), guacamole, salsa, and their amazing nopales. We stood outside of the market, hovered over a counter barely a foot deep and a trash can underneath, and savored all the porky goodness in between the fluffy, almost pita-like tortillas hot off the press.

Carnitas + niche taco #loscincopintos #heikingtacocrawl

A post shared by Chris Hei (@chrishei) on

Guisados
2100 E Cesar Chavez Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90033
(323) 264-7201
guisados.co

After feeling the local love at Cinco Puntos, we had a change of scenery at the original/flagship location of what looks like a future local mini-chain in Guisados (just opened a location in Echo Park, and opening another one in Downtown soon). Despite the expansion, the OG location still holds up very well, albeit one with more hipsters and Asians than I recall. We had been doing one taco each at the previous two stops, but that sampler – it was calling us. Seriously, what’s a better way to try the multitude of options? And you know what? They’re improved the mini-tortillas used for the sampler-sized tacos. Before, they were small, thick discs that held the meats and veggies like a sope, but they were quite difficult to eat. But now, while the amount of masa appeared to be the same, they’ve managed to flatten out the tortillas more, enabling a better grip and bite.

Sampler @guisados #guisados

A post shared by Chris Hei (@chrishei) on

Ricky’s Fish Tacos
1400 N Virgil Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90027
(323) 906-7290
twitter.com/RickysFishTacos

Our last stop was more out of the way, but in my opinion, Ricky’s has arguably the best taco of any variety in LA, so it behooved us to visit (luckily, we had just enough stomach room for one more stop). As more of you know, Ricky’s is back at its old spot on Virgil Ave, but now in food truck form. This was my first time trying them in their vehicular form, and I think they’re doing better than ever. Fish was as good as ever, and I think the shrimp was better than I remembered. Not sure if Ricky was inside the truck himself, but I can safely say that the operation and experience overall has also improved.

Four stops, four different varieties of tacos, four amazing experiences. Mariscos Jalisco, Guisados, and Ricky’s Fish Tacos all continued their excellences, and Los Cinco Puntos – what a pleasant surprise. I had high expectations for them, but they’ve met those expectations…and then some. Definitely have to get a taco of each variety next time – or I can just buy a pound of everything + packs of tortillas. Overall, I thought it was a very successful taco crawl (I hope Andy feels the same way), and I have even greater aspirations to expand and improve the crawl if another opportunity arises.

Oh, and we technically ended the crawl with dessert – at Scoops Westside, sharing ice cream and dining accounts from the weekend with Mattatouille. What a day.

Ending the #Heikingtacocrawl at @ScoopsWestside w/ @mattatouille

A post shared by Chris Hei (@chrishei) on

Advertisements

Guerrilla Tacos

Untitled

Guerrilla Tacos at Cognoscenti Coffee (Wed 9am-2pm)
6114 Washington Blvd
Culver City, CA 90232
(818) 640-3033
guerrillatacos.com

Wes Avila is kind of like Batman of the taco world. When he’s not working as the sous chef for Le Comptoir (currently hosted at The Wine Vault in Glendale), he’s taking taco justice to the streets with the taco cart/stand-turned-truck Guerrilla Tacos. He doesn’t have any superpowers, but he does have an arsenal of quality gadgets (in this case, ingredients) to go along with his crime-fighting intelligence, honed from his experience at some of the finer kitchens around town. [update: I’ve been told that Chef Wes isn’t at Le Comptoir anymore – solely focusing on Guerrilla Tacos now]

Le Comptoir is known around town as a place where quality ingredients, especially vegetables, are allowed to shine, and that philosophy is ever so evident at Guerrilla Tacos. Farmers market vegetables, locally-sourced proteins, and each dish made to order – this is a one-man farm-to-table restaurant operating under a taqueria facade. They’re usually parked outside Handsome Coffee Roasters (Wednesdays 5-8pm, Fridays 9am-2pm, and Saturday & Sunday 9am-1pm), but they’re also outside Cognoscenti Coffee in Culver City on Wednesdays from 9am to 2pm – which is where I was able to try their offerings, as my office had moved to Culver City recently.

The fare at Guerrilla Tacos isn’t your standard taco truck food, nor is it traditional by any sense, but they are traditionally-inspired and jazzed up in ways beyond aesthetics. So far, I’ve only tried their breakfast items (seems like the only type of tacos/burritos offered at Culver City), and each of them have been excellent. Between my two visits, I was able to sample four of their tacos, two of their burritos, and a tamale (and no, my fat ass didn’t eat all of this in two meals). Of the four tacos, two centered around scrambled eggs, and two around fried eggs.

Neither of the scrambled egg tacos contained any meat, but the respective roasted green bean and Anaheim chili were just downright delicious. So were the spinach and charred broccoli that were part of the fried egg tacos – they might have been even better than the prosciutto and pancetta that they were paired with, an amazing feat in itself. All four tacos were fully-composed, with multiple components contributing to the construction, and dressed to the nines – these dolled-up ladies are ready to be taken home by the time they reach your hands. The tortilla does get a bit lost among all the hotness, but gets the job done as the designated driver. The tacos can be messy to eat though, as it’s kind of hard to get a good grip on these busty beauties, but I like it dirty anyways.

From what I’ve read, the burritos here are relatively new to the menu. The two offerings I tried were breakfast burritos that don’t stray too far from the traditional ones I’m familiar with from my growing boy days. In fact, the second one I had, with Cook Pigs Ranch sausage, potato, avocado, and tomato habanero chili, is pretty much a traditional one made with quality ingredients. The other one, however, with that same Cook Pigs Ranch sausage but in patty form, fluffy egg, and queso blanco, was like the most awesome sausage McMuffin in burrito form.

I also tried the duck tamale, but unfortunately the duck was on the dry side, and didn’t have that duck flavor I love. Still a decent tamale though. In fact, the only “bad” thing about Guerrilla Tacos is their prices (tacos are ~$5, and burritos are $10), but I think they’re actually quite fair, for the ingredients they’re using, and each item being made to order by Avila alone. It’s not exactly buying 10 tacos from Leo’s after a night of drinking, but you’ll feel much better about yourself after eating these sexy tacos.

I’ve seen and read about their more creative and fancy offerings served at Handsome for lunch and dinner, and from the looks of it, they’re even better than the excellent breakfast fare I’ve sampled. So please Wes, let me try some of these dishes when you’re at Culver City one of these days. But for now, I’m more than happy continuing to try the creative, and more importantly, delicious breakfast tacos and burritos. Worth the ~4 mile drive from the office, that’s for sure.

Untitled

Tacos

Green Bean Scramble Taco

Spinach/Prosciutto/Fried Egg Taco

Cook Pigs Ranch Sausage/Egg/Queso Blanco Burrito

Duck Tamal, Arbol Chile

Tacos

Pancetta & Charred Broccoli Taco w/ Fried Egg, Arbol Chili, & Scallions

Roasted Anaheim Chili Taco w/ Oaxacan Cheese, Scrambled Egg, Almond Chili, & Chives

Burrito w/ Cook Pigs Ranch Breakfast Sausage, Potato, Avocado, & Tomato Habanero Chili

Cuisine City/Neighborhood Price Grade
Mexican Food Truck/Culver City $ A-

Guerrilla Tacos on Urbanspoon

CaCao Mexicatessen [2]

Tacos

CaCao Mexicatessen
1576 Colorado Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90041
(323) 478-2791
www.cacaodeli.com

I love CaCao. They use quality ingredients, and their dishes are well-thought-out and well-executed. You are paying more here than at a typical taqueria, but it’s fair for the reasons I laid out. Yet, the restaurant almost never gets discussed in the conversation for having the best tacos in LA. CaCao isn’t just a taqueria, but the tacos here can go toe-to-toe with the best of anyone’s in town. I’m not usually in the Eagle Rock area, nor do I desire to be in it on an usual occasion due to all the damn hipsters, but I do try to make it out to the restaurant a couple of times a year.

I ordered 4 tacos on this visit (in order from left to right in photo above):

Suckling pig cochinita pibil ($5.95 – weekly special) – shredded suckling pig in Yucatan spices, bed of black beans, topped with plantain bananas, habanero aioli & pickled red onion

Carnitas de pato ($4.25) – duck confit, avocado, vinegar onion, radishes, chile oil

Huitlacoche ($4.65) – Burns Farms huitlacoche, Rancho Gordo hominy & roasted corn, topped with aged parmesan cheese, salsa & radish

Quesataco de Tijuana ($4.25) – pan seared tres quesos, filled with alder smoked albacore tuna, topped with salsa roja, avocado, crema & micro-cilantro

First of all, the prices have gone up, by ~50 cents for each taco, and proportionally so for most of the dishes on the menu. I’m not sure when the prices changed, but it’s been almost a year since my last visit. The taco sizes remain the same though, so that’s fine (although the amount in the huitlacoche taco was on the lesser side). I’ve had the huitlacoche and the carnitas de pato tacos before, and they remain as great as ever. The duck carnitas is probably tied with Ricky’s fish taco as the best individual taco in town, in my opinion.

But let’s talk about the tacos I’m trying for the first time. The menu at CaCao has changed a bit, specifically to include more delicacies from Baja California, according to my Mexican cuisine professor. Because of his post, I ordered the quesataco, a Tijuana taco with fried cheese and smoked albacore. I have my concerns regarding a fish + cheese combo, but as it works for Coni’Seafood’s marlin tacos (which I tried at Tacolandia), it works here. It’s a big block of pan-fried cheese, over some meaty smoked albacore, and topped with avocado, crema, salsa roja, and some microgreens. Heavy, but refined with complexity.

The other new taco I tried was their weekly special. For this week, it was the suckling pig cochinita pibil. I actually don’t see the regular pibil on their menu anymore, but I’ve had it before, and considered it one of the better versions in town. This version was different in 2 ways. One, it was made with suckling pig – true Yucatan-style. Extra porky, extra fatty, extra delicious. Love what CaCao does with suckling pig when they get their hands on it. Two, it was served with black beans and plantains. I could’ve actually done without them, but enjoyed their inclusion nonetheless. An excellent taco here.

CaCao remains as good as ever, and I just wanted to bump it to reflect its continued excellence. In addition to the menu additions, they’ve finally completed expansion to the former flower shop next door, and have added beer and wine to the menu. And don’t forget the weekly specials – subscribe to their weekly mailings to receive emails notifying you of them, as well as a 10% coupon for Tuesdays-Thursdays. I still need to go for their specials with sea urchin that’s been so highly spoken of. It’s nice to see that they’re not just content, with their reputation and success.

Cuisine City/Neighborhood Price Grade
Mexican Eagle Rock $$ A-

Guisados

Sampler

Guisados
2100 E Cesar Chavez Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90033
(323) 264-7201
http://www.guisados.co/

It might surprise some of you, but I wasn’t a citizen of the United States of America until a couple of months ago (although I’ve been here for 20+ years). I had to take a day off work to drive ALL the way east to Pomona for the oath ceremony with 1600+ others. While I couldn’t have been any more apathetic about such a monumental event, I appreciated the majority of others happily cheering and crying at each other’s successful naturalization, all while waving those little American flags that they gave each of us. A good number of them lined up at a booth afterwards to take photos with a life-sized cardboard cutout of President Obama, and some even had limos waiting to take them off to what I’m sure were awesome naturalization fiestas. But for me, the only thing I cared about was making this drive count with regards to eating.

Originally, I was going to get something from the SGV on my way back home, but I didn’t have any cash on me (how American of me). So I thought to myself, “what can be more American to celebrate my citizenship than tacos?” Actually, the idea to get tacos for lunch was the result of all the Mexicans present at the oath ceremony (and yes, they were indeed Mexican – the “court” recognized Mexico as the most popular previous country of nationality at the ceremony, so I’m not being ignorant). So I pulled up my Foursquare to-dine list on my phone, and boom – Guisados was right off the 10 Freeway heading back (not having been to Guisados might be another fact that might surprise some of you). America, I have arrived.

By (loose) definition, guisados is meat and/or vegetables cooked in a sauce like a stew, and that’s the kind of stuff that you should expect to find in between your tortillas (wonderfully homemade, I must say). So instead of fried fish, barbacoa, or al pastor, expect slow-cooked protein in various sauces. If it’s your first time, like it was mine, then the sampler is an awesome starting point – you get six mini-tacos of different varieties. By default, it’s the top six choices on their expansive menu, but you can mix and match any six varieties. I stuck to the first six, which on that day were: bistek en salsa rojo, steak picado, mole poblano, tinga de pollo, chicharron, and cochinita pibil – a nice variety of 2x steak, 2x chicken, and 2x pork.

As a whole, all of the tacos were delicioso. Despite the varieties being similar textually, the flavors all worked in different ways. Some brought a good amount of heat, some were rich and hearty, but all of them were great. However, if I was to go back and try new varieties (like the calabacitas and camaron), I’d probably have to move the chicharron out of the rotation – it was good, but I like my rind to be crispy and fried instead of soft and chewy. Or I can just order more tacos in addition to the sampler. If anything, I should just get six regular-sized tacos to get a better grip on the tortillas. The one negative about the sampler-sized tacos (besides leaving you wanting more) is that the difficulty of eating them is almost tostada-level. They’re small, and actually thicker, so you’re basically taking a couple of quick bites before they fall apart. But again, it’s a great way to try the different types of guisados without feeling like a fatass.

In conclusion, the best tacos in LA can be found at Guisados, who’s accomplishing this without the glitz and glamour. And it just gets better – they just opened their second location in hipster centro (Echo Park), and a third location is opening in Downtown. None of these locations are particularly convenient for me, but perhaps that’ll change with my company moving offices in a couple of months. Regardless, I’ll definitely be going back to Guisados. Or someone can just bring some to me in West LA…

Current Chris Hei LA Taco Power Rankings:

1) Guisados
2) Ricky’s Fish Tacos
3) CaCao Mexicatessen
4) Tacos Baja Ensenada
t5) Tacos Leo
t5) Tacos Punta Cabras

Cuisine City/Neighborhood Price Grade
Mexican East LA $ A-

Guisados on Urbanspoon

Tacos Punta Cabras

Fish Taco

Tacos Punta Cabras
2311 Santa Monica Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90404
(310) 917-2244

You might not know it, but the opening of Tacos Punta Cabras is a pretty big deal. The search for legitimate, quality tacos in the western part of LA (particularly of the seafood variety) is similar to that for Chinese food. For example, to find authentic, good Chinese food, the long-running (and correct) argument is that you have to drive east to the SGV (or just East LA for tacos). But that hasn’t stopped diners from searching for that diamond in the rough here on the westside, though their efforts are essentially that of a 16-seed facing a 1-seed during March Madness. For a micro-level analysis, take a look at ROC Kitchen on Sawtelle Blvd. A Chowhound thread regarding the anticipation of the restaurant opening was active for months, accumulating almost 200 replies from prospective diners anxious and hopeful of it becoming the westside Chinese messiah they’ve been waiting for. And I’ve been seeing a full house every time I drive or walk by the restaurant. But enough about Chinese food – let’s talk Mexican.

While there isn’t nearly as much buzz, Tacos Punta Cabras is deserving of the comparable hype…and acclaim. Take out the novelty (or drunken) idea of ordering from a run-down food truck late at night on the westside (let’s draw the line at west of Leo’s), and I think most people will agree with me in saying that for the most part, the food itself isn’t especially memorable. That changes, however, with Tacos Punta Cabras entering the big dance – playing with a short bench of a limited menu of mariscos tacos and tostadas (sorry for the March Madness references – it’s that time of the year). First of all, keep in mind that it is still located on the westside, in Santa Monica. That means it probably won’t win any blind taste tests against the likes of Ricky’s or Tacos Baja Ensenada. But there’s no point in trying to live up to that comparison, and Chefs Josh and Daniel know that, instead wanting to “just make good food.” And if that type of good food is finally within reach, all the better for everyone in West LA.

The restaurant is located on Santa Monica Blvd, in a small space in the middle of the block surrounded by minimal parking. There is no signage, although there is a low-hanging, tacky banner that belongs in an UFC octagon ring. Enter the restaurant, and there are a dozen or so seats and a counter where you place your order. On a random Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago, I got a fish taco and scallop tostada for dine-in, and some more fish and shrimp tacos to-go. The tacos had a nice, light batter, though I wish they were a bit more crispy – somewhat difficult when considering how they don’t have a stove or gas, using what I’m assuming are just non-commercial deep fryers. The tacos were more acidic slaw and less salsa and crema, but that works here, especially with the wonderfully-griddled tortillas that tasted like a blend of corn and flour. The chefs assured me that this product would travel well, and it sure did. The star though, was the tostada. The bay scallops, which I’m not usually a big fan of, were fresh and briny, and the tostada was more refreshing than heavy. The salsa was light, including some Persian cucumbers, and was accompanied by a spicy cashew puree that reminded me of tan tan mein. It’s just a quality mariscos dish. Finally the day has come when westsiders have a Mexican seafood joint to call their own, with fish tacos you can actually eat near the beach.

Scallop Tostada

Cuisine City/Neighborhood Price Grade
Mexican Santa Monica $ B+

Tacos Punta Cabras on Urbanspoon

China Poblano

Untitled

China Poblano
The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas
3708 Las Vegas Blvd S
Las Vegas, NV 89109
(702) 698-7900
http://www.chinapoblano.com/

So China Poblano is the final product of what was supposed to be a Chinese restaurant The Cosmopolitan commissioned Chef Jose Andres to conceive? Sounds a little… preposterous. My theory: the hotel wanted to give Chef Andres two restaurants to appease him as the top dog in the building, but Chef didn’t know what type of restaurant to open (especially if planning for é was already in the works within Jaleo – since Spanish and “modernist” are what Chef’s known for). In the end, he probably conceived the idea of a Sino-Mexican fusion while drunk. But hey, Asian-Latin fusion? It’s been proven as a successful combination (see: Roy Choi restaurants).

Untitled

The menu concept of the restaurant is actually a little different than I expected (but the $0.88 pricing to some of the Chinese dishes is pretty hilarious) . For the most part, the two cuisines are kept separate in their own categories and individual dishes. But there are dishes where the fusion magic happens, and those are the most interesting-sounding dishes. I had already ate dinner at Holsteins next door that night last summer while I was in Vegas, but seeing that those takeout windows were actually working (I thought they were just for-show decor-wise at first), I decided to order a couple of the tacos for the walk back to our hotel room.

Untitled

I ordered the Silencio, which has duck tongue and lychee, and the Viva China, which has beef tendon, Kumamoto oysters, scallions, and a Sichuan peppercorn sauce. For $5.50 per taco, they were actually pretty fairly priced, factoring in the ingredients and location (although the other dishes are on the high side). The freshly-pressed tortillas (not sure if they were flour or corn, but could’ve been a combination) had a nice griddle to it, but were a little too soft and thin as vessels. The combination of ingredients were quite interesting, but didn’t necessarily work as a composed taco. Still, the menu as a whole looks fun and promising, and I’m hoping to try the restaurant as a whole in the future.

Cuisine City/Neighborhood Price Grade
Chinese/Mexican Las Vegas/The Cosmopolitan $$$ B-

China Poblano (Cosmopolitan) on Urbanspoon

Ricky’s Fish Tacos

Untitled

Everyone who knows or thinks they know about food has heard about food stand operating out of a small parking lot on Virgil Ave. And everyone who’s been here has done nothing but sung the praises of the tacos that come out of the fryers here, especially the fish ones (duh). I’m not going to go into too much detail, as countless people have probably described these tacos in detail and the history/details of this operation on their respective (and better) blogs or on Yelp, where it’s the #1 rated “restaurant” in LA.

What I will say, however, is that these are the best tacos I’ve ever had. Numerous people have told me that this is how it’s done in fish taco capital Ensenada, and Ricky’s still hangs/beats the best of those. And I wholeheartedly believe that, with my limited experience. While that proclamation means nothing coming from someone like me, for me to come to that conclusion while eating said tacos on a midday Saturday when it was cold and slightly drizzling and eating outside really says it all. I’ll brave any condition for this, although it probably wouldn’t reciprocate (it is a food stand operating outdoors, after all).

Untitled

Notes: cash only. Hours are usually around 12pm-4pm Wednesdays-Sundays (check Ricky’s twitter day of to make sure).

Chris Hei grade: A-

Ricky’s Fish Tacos
1400 N Virgil Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90027
Twitter: rickysfishtacos

Ricky's Fish Tacos (Food Stand) on Urbanspoon