Thursday, February 26, 2009

Taco Stands Standing Tall: Los Angeles Taco Stands & Taco Tables


***Update 10/6/10. This posting was written over 1.5 years ago and many of the taqueros no longer set up shop. The ones that do exist are Fletcher/Larga, Verdugo/Ave. 31, a few on York Blvd. and Pasadena Ave./Figueroa. Happy taco hunting.***

I remember working till 1 am one night. I was exhausted and driving back home on the 10 freeway. The last time I had eaten was 5 pm and I was starving. At this point, I was ready to go home and sleep, but my brain made me double-check the hunger department. Yes, you did eat earlier today. But did you have double dinner? Why no i didn't! Something about me when I work late, I feel like I should reward myself for burning the midnight oil. Ok then, let's find something else to eat for all the hard work. When you're looking for late night eats, Los Angeles provides the options. I exited the freeway off the Vermont exit and immediately became happy because I was in food-hawk mode. I put both hands on the steering wheel and ducked my head lower to check out my options on the left and rightside.

Bland-looking burger joint. Probably too greasy.
Jack in the Box. Greasy and probably a long ass line in the drive-thru.
Korean-style pho. No, especially when you have to ask for cilantro.
24-hour diner. I'm not paying $13 for ham & eggs.
Taco trucks. The obvious choice but I'm kinda tired of it.

I was already nearing home and quickly becoming concerned that I had not made a food decision yet. It usually does not take me this long to consider what I'll eat. I stopped at an intersection and watched as cars crossed. Suddenly, as the last car passed and the light turned green, I noticed four blurry white lights. Like a moth in flight, I became drawn to it and hit the gas pedal. As i drew closer to the source, I noticed that the four lights were actually Home Depot clamp lamps on a pole. There was a crowd of people huddling around the light source like a campfire. And then I could see that they were huddling around a man and a woman behind a table. Oh yes. It could only mean one thing: taco stand, or as I refer to them, taco tables because they use folding tables to set up shop. I pulled over to the side and parked. Business time.

As I walked towards the taco vendor, I suddenly time traveled to Oaxaca, when Jeni and I were on a taco hunt. A boombox on medium volume playing Spanish music. A child, bundled in a jacket, sitting on a little chair cupping warm Horchata with both little hands. Patrons talking quietly among their friends. And finally, the sound of metal spatulas clanking the griddle top as the vendors cook up their meaty offerings. I asked what the taqueros had to offer besides the beautiful orange spit of spiced pork. The man smiled and removed the foil from one of his trays, bearing fresh lengua and cabeza. The vapors rose from the pan, giving a nasal teasing. I ordered my tacos and Jarritos, paid the lady and moved on to the 'salad bar' – a smorgasbord of taco accoutrements such as salsa, salt & pepper, curtido (spicy, pickled veggies) and napkins. I walked back towards the curb behind some patrons and quietly enjoyed my little snack, muttering groans of satisfaction. This is all I needed at 1:30 in the morning, and for me, was the true taco experience. All of this set within a auto repair shop backdrop on a busy street in Los Angeles.

It's not that you couldn't get the same quality tacos from trucks. You definitely can. But for me, there are little things that do it for me. While trucks can operate in rain or shine, they pretty much sell tacos all day long for a living. For the people running the taco stands/tables, they are usually families making extra money every night after their primary jobs. And in some cases, the vendors I've spoken with are even employees that station themselves in front of their own businesses/workplace. It's a lot of work and I am more drawn to them because its a method of business practiced heavily in Mexico, that I want to support. It's real street food.

I hate to mention the 'B' word, but taco tables give you a Mexican Benihana experience. Disclaimer: I do not eat there nor will I ever again. You know Benihana. It's the type of restaurant that seats you around your own 'chef' and grill. The actual quality of the food is usually masked by whatever circus act the 'chef' has to offer. Will it be the blindfolded, juggling of shrimp? The knife stab between the v-shaped space of your spread fingers? Or my favorite, the 'onion volcano' which consists of butter being cooked inside a well created by stacked onions, causing rising vapor like a semi-dormant volcano. Whatever the case, it's pleasing to the senses. Taco trucks have been under fire over the last year or two by the City, and there has been an emergence of taco tables because of the relatively low overhead, compared to a truck that costs upward of $50,000. At a taco table, I'm more hungry than I would be at a taco truck. I can see, smell, hear and ultimately taste the food. And with a truck, I can get good tacos but not quite the same experience.

Here are a few places I've stumbled upon in Los Angeles, mainly in the Koreatown, Echo Park and Highland Park areas. I'd like to do the East LA and Huntington Park area next. You should be the judge though. Some are great, some aren't. Even my favorite places have had bad days and some don't even show up like they say they will. Sometimes when I go too late to a stand, the results aren't as desirable because the meat has been sitting out too long or the vendor isn't willing to make a new batch. And I sort of like the unpredictability of it. It goes back to the the caveman days where we had to forage for food that was available. I've listed the meats each vendor offers and you can see what the abbreviations mean in a few moments.

Few Things to Consider
(1) All the taco vendors listed here are $1. Break down your Grants and Franklins prior to.

(2) If it's raining or extremely cold, taqueros probably won't be there.

(3) Al Pastor with pineapple on top is tasty. Ask them for a slice or have them sauté with the meat.

(4) Buche and tripas can be gummy sometimes. Say the magic words "mas dorado(a), por favor" and you'll get them fried longer. Tasty.

(5) I recommend ordering two tacos at a time and eating them right away for maximum enjoyment. Tacos do harden and get cold after like 2 minutes. The vendors aren't going anywhere, so take your time.

(6) They say you can gauge a taco stand/truck by its carne asada or al pastor. But to tell you the truth, I usually stick with the buche, cabeza and lengua and really don't remember how the asada tasted. If it was good, I'd remember it. I RARELY ever come across bad buche, cabeza and lengua since they are cooked with simple techniques that don't require heavy marinating.

(7) Again, the later you go to a taco stand, the better chance of your meat being either (a) dried out or (b) burnt to an unidentifiable state. Take for example, the Taco Zone truck on Alvarado in front of Vons in Echo Park, which receives much praise from the Yelp army, has its on and off days. And I've noticed it's off-days are usually when I get the tacos from 12 am - 2 am.

Cow Chart

Asada (CA) - flap/flank/skirt meat. Usually grilled. Sometimes fried in oil.
Suadero (SU) - brisket. Fried in lard/roasted.
Lengua (LN) - cow tongue. Steamed/braised.
Cabeza (CZ) - head meat and cheek meat (cachete). Steamed.

Pig Chart

Carnitas (CR) - pork shoulder/picnic/butt. Fried in lard/roasted.
Al Pastor (AP) - pork shoulder/butt. Spiced and marinated over a day and roasted on a spit. Originated in Mexico City by Lebanese immigrants. An onion or pineapple is usually placed above the spit for extra flavoring. Try with pineapple!
Buche (BU) - pork belly/pig stomach lining/hog maw. Fried in lard. My favorite taco filling. When fried longer adds a nice texture.
Tripas (TR) - pig intestines/chitterlings. Washed, boiled and fried. People love these for the texture and 'filling'.


I found this stand by accident when looking for The York. They are situated in a car body shop and always have people eating here - good sign #1. Good sign #2, everyone there stares at me like I'm from outer space which should tell you the food is authentic. Good sign #3 is explained in the following image.

YN Pot2

YN Pot1

This is exactly what I look for in a taco stand/table. A pot of various meats cooking in oil. Here you can see carne asada, tripas and buche all having a good time in the hot tub. I just shed a tear. It's not a wonder that you're asada might taste like buche. This is the first place I'll stop at during a Highland Park taco hop. I always enjoy their cabeza, lengua and of course, buche fried crispy. They also offer a habanero curtido – onions, oregano and habanero peppers!





This is also my go-to place if I don't feel like venturing into Eagle Rock/Highland Park. A lot of people from Red Lion Tavern, Cha Cha Lounge and Home frequent this place off Fletcher Drive. And with good reasons behind it. I always get welcomed with friendly smiles and before I usually order anything one of the guys there assumes I want my buche fried longer. That is service. This place is one of two stands that offers suadero (brisket) and it's quite moist and tasty (pictured below). I recommend buche, cabeza, al pastor and suadero with an ice cold Jarritos.





This taquero offers a different style of curtido. It's more of a cabbage and cucumber salad that balances out a spicy taco. I enjoyed the carnitas, buche and cabeza here.





If you happen to be doing your laundry in the Virgil/Santa Monica Blvd. area, do it where this taco stand sets up. I arrived right on the dot at 6 pm while they were setting up and I knew things would be fresh. The girl working there strongly recommended their chicken and it was really good. I enjoyed the cabeza and chicken.





These guys do the hot tub thing. First thing I saw when I got there was buche being made. Mmm. I enjoyed the buche and cabeza.

VV Buche





Back to Highland Park, this guy is from Guerrero and is one of the the few stands that I have seen offering al pastor con piña, which is one of my favorites. I also refer to him as Disco Ball (pelota de disco) taco man since he had a disco ball tied to his stand. They also offer grilled cactus (nopales) for your tacos as well as a relish or pico de gallo with nopales. If you have not tried grilled cactus, it's kind of like a bell pepper with a slimy texture, similar to Japanese mountain yams and natto. Ask the nice man for his 'hot cookie' drink. It's something 'galletas' in Spanish and it's tasty on a cold night. I enjoyed the al pastor and tripas. He seems to favor tripas because there's always tons of it on the grill. A disco ball, tacos and some house music and you've got yourself a party.

AG Pastor Spit

AG Tacos


These guys are statione right in front of the Guerrero Meat market and also serve the al pastor con piña. They offer grilled cebollitas (green onions) and nopales with your tacos. Nice guys.

GM Tacos


Found these guys when I decided not to take the freeway and I'm glad I didn't. I enjoyed the al pastor and buche. There was a nice guy eating there as well and told me to try tacos another way. Order one soft taco, and one cooked a bit more crisp... put them together and you have a dual textured taco. I didn't know if he was making this up or talking about Taco Bell's latest caloric delight.





These guys are loved by the Yelp army. Probably because it's the closest taco stand for patrons of my favorite bar, The Verdugo in Glassell Park. I had tried to find them at least five times – either missing them or not being able to find them due to their frequent location changes. And like a moth, I drove down this really dark part of Verdugo Rd. and found the brightest lights along the sidewalk. The stand was covered by big trucks, probably done intentionally. The people running this here are young and very nice people. Tacos are served the way I like them... small tortillas, small portion of meat. $.80 for one taco. They also offer gorditas for $3. I enjoyed the asada, al pastor, buche (already crisped up) – my favorites being the cabeza and suadero. 5 pm - 11 pm, everyday except Thursday.

V31 CA

V31 SU

V31 CZ

V31 AP

V31 BU

Thanks for reading and enjoy it all as much as I do.


Food Marathon said...

Excellent exposé.

Anonymous said...

Very thorough and great photos, make me so hungry.
Thank you much! Loved how you went through the different areas of LA.

Anonymous said...

i'm speechless and in awe...u are my taco hero

Anonymous said...

This is the ULTIMATE L.A taco manifesto! When's the next tour bus heading out?

justinsloe said...

fantastic piece, Mr. Ho-zay

starving now

Anonymous said...

such a nice piece. there are quite a few taco stands in East LA as well

I tried to search for al pastor con pina awhile back in E LA but most were short on the pina.

The Vermont/Venice stand re-griddles their al pastor which really upsets me. Across the street and down the block is La Soledad which also has a al pastor stand on the weekends.

Anonymous said...

dude you killed it. this should be meme'd.

dealinhoz said...

FM, thanks. Where do you handpick your tacos?

GPigs, when I was writing it last night I wasn't hungry. After looking at the photos for more than an hour, I left to get some buche tacos in Highland Park.

Choisauce, i know you've been to Fletcher/larga.

Moviebruin, next tour bus is departing, say tonight?

Sloe, after Verdugo, we'll go find the $.80 shop.

TonyC, i know what you mean about re-griddling – it pains me. One of the places I tried reheated their already burnt pastor and after serving me my taco, threw the pastor crumbs back into their tubs. Bad bad move. I plan to do ELA and Hungtington Park next.

Rameniac, places look familiar to you haha? remember, we ate a lof of tacos after the oyster massacre.

Anonymous said...

wow. awesome. love the photos!

whats this about a bus tour??

Kayolks said...

You could start a lucrative biz doing taco table tours... AWESOME POSTTTT!!!! So informative and the pics of the meat in pots is so RAW- you KILLED IT!

mattatouille said...

amazing concept, coverage, photos and writing. i have thought about the distinction between taco truck and taco stand, and I love that you covered the local ones. cheers! if you ever go out again, tell me, and christine and I will join you!

Paystyle said...

Sweet post, I miss my hometown as we don't get anything close to this in NY.

e d b m said...

Jenni H, I've taken friends on beer/taco tours many times out here. it's always a lot of fun as the tables/trucks out in Eagle Rock/HP are pretty damn good. I'll write about the trucks soon.

Kayokomart, thanks! Nice meeting you finally. You're stealing my wife away haha.

Matt, thanks. The chances of finding me at a table are quite high haha. I'm sure we'll meet one day.

Paystyle, well that is true, but I can think of a hundred other delicious things you CAN get. Like yakitori totto, babbo and pizza... i need to go back to NYC.

boody said...

I really, really, really, really, really miss GOOD mexican food.=( The taco truck near my stop sucks donkey balls. For the love of God, somebody throw me a taco!!!! haha.

Lovely post by the way, pictures and all.

Anonymous said...

What a great post! Delicious photos!! Love your story (and the way you write)!!!

My favorite meat is lengua. Now I'm super craving for a taco.

jepot said...

Great post! I'm bookmarking these places on my iPhone right now.

Anonymous said...

you, my friend, are a gangster.

Chubbypanda said...

Awesome post. Some of the best meals I've ever had have been at setups like those.

Heidi Leon Monges said...

beautiful article,amazing pictures.
You let me craving for some tacos al pastor con pina!!!! oh, and one jarrito and I'm soooo far away from home! :-(

love it

Anonymous said...

A thoughtful and informative round-up. Thanks for doing the leg work.

Daily Gluttony said...

a-freaking-mazing post! so. hungry. now. must. have. some.

tripas have always been my fave; i've never tried buche but it sounds right up my alley!

dealinhoz said...

boody, yeah i'm sorry. mexican food can be worked on in NYC, like our "NY" pizzerias in LA. sending you tacos via UPS right now. here's the tracking number: ZZTUV-01288-NY-67UR.

Eileen/Jepot/CP, thanks you.

Juanito, is that Juan Juan?

Heidileon, pineapple + pineapple Jarritos work well together. better than sparkling wine and oysters.

DG, hi mama, thank you. If you enjoy tripas, you'll enjoy this. You're chinese, you never overlook any animal part haha. hope to see you, Isaac and Little Gluttony soon.

Right Way to Eat said...

Dude, love the lesson because I was tempted to do one before I do one of my tacos reviews. Explaining to my readers why I like tacos de cabeza will required them to understand which part of the cow because get often times people confused it with lengua (tongue). I'll have to link it to this post one of these days as it is very helpful.

BTW, breaking down Benjamins?? Why can't you buy 100 tacos?? I know wifey would love it! hahaha!!

Unknown said...

FANTASTIC review of the various taco stands in the area. I gotta check some of the locations out, especially the famous Verdugo taco stand.

Anonymous said...

talk about food porn...incredible! i might have to move to LA just for the taco stands now.


e d b m said...

PepsiMan, the cabeza and lengua really do look alike. Sometimes I don't know which is which because they are being steamed side by side. But you know what, a lengua/tongue taco would be tasty as well. Thanks.

Danny, thank you. Yes, get some beer at Verdugo and get some Verdugo tacos.

Anonymous, yes I love Mexican food porn. Addicted to it. There's plenty of other edible reasons to move out here to LA!

Anonymous said...

All this info is fine and dandy, but you can throw all that out the door when you go visit the Kogi BBQ Korean Taco Truck!

If you's like to have more great Tacos, consider coming out to El Sereno area to try out La Mojica, Cheos Tacos, La Golondria, and others along Huntington Dr. before you hit the border cities of South Pas/Alhambra.

Also the crowds on Fair Oaks in Pasadena between California and Orange Grove.

So can you imagine the success of these tacos street vendors would have if they too did what Kogi does w/ the use of their website and Twitter subscribers?

Anonymous said...

I just came. Thank you.

Man I really wished I lived in LA...

One Food Guy said...

OMG are you fahking serious!! Abso-freaking-lutely ridiculous post. I don't know if I've ever seen better looking tacos, WOW.

I got a good fix from Kogi on my short trip to SoCal last year, but this is the real freakin' deal! Mmmm! I wish we had some of this in Boston!!!

Anonymous said...

Those Taco picks really makes me want a taco right now, Fantastic. Great article. Luckily we’ll be going again this weekend. I’ve never paid under $1.25 for those tacos, but glad I know where I can get them for cheaper now. Happy Birthday Bro.

KirkK said...

Awesome, awesome post.......taco truck porn! Boy, you've really come a long way since SF in 2006!

Jonah Lee Walker said...

Damn that makes me hungry! I have not had a good taco in so long, and these photos are making me drool all over myself!

Anonymous said...

Kogi will be in Eagle Rock this week. Go to their website and click on "catering" link and you will see their schedule for the week. It comes out EVERY Monday.

dealinhoz said...

MisterJ, all those that you listed are trucks that I've seen/heard of mainly because of . Fair Oaks truck (in front of Nishikawa Auto Service) is very good. This posting is about taco stands/tables only but regardless, thank you for the suggestions.

Du, no problem!

OMGOFG, thank you to Boston! Any tacos worth eating in Boston haha? $4 Maine Lobster tacos?

Mocos, don't worry you'll experience the beauty of one dollar tacos again this weekend. see ya soon! thanks.

KirkK, thank you sir! I've "eaten" a long way since 2006. I really should start my before/after photos like NOW.

JLWalker, thanks.

One Food Guy said...

There are some seriously awesome tacos for the taking in Boston. Tremont 647 (Andy Husbands) has $2 Taco Tuesdays and the tacos are outstanding. La Verdad (Ken Oringer) is a taqueria and they are awesome too.

So yes, there are some good tacos but you will find none for a $1!

Anonymous said...

in honor of your post .. i'm doing a taco table/cart crawl tomorrow :]

Anonymous said...

Just giving up some props and letting you know that you've got fans up here in Portland as well.

Anonymous said...

What did you take the B&W photos with?

j said...

great post. i'm partial to the last cart, on verdugo and 31. btw, the verdugo stand that is big on yelp is actually at verdugo and 33, closer to the verdugo. it's smaller and has pastor on a spit. i prefer the cart on 31, but it's got virtually no write ups on yelp. and generally no white people at it either.

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