Today, on National Taco Day, we honor the humble taco. Not some fancy, "perfect taco of griddled shrimp with tamarind" or some culturally authentic delicacy so regionally specific it can be pinpointed not just to the neighborhood but to the block where it originated. No, today, we honor the most ignoble of tacos, the gringo taco a.k.a. the hard-shell, crispy or white man's taco.
What, exactly, is a gringo taco? It starts with a hard-shell that's filled with beef (usually ground), shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes and cheddar cheese. Sour cream and salsa may show up. In other words, it's what many Americans simply call: a taco. The gringo taco isn't about "authenticity" (a perilous notion, anyway). It's an utterly Americanized dish, divorced from tradition but anchored in the hearts and minds of taco-lovers across the land. Maybe it's paean to suburban America, maybe it's the pleasing crunch of that hard, corn shell, but today we pay tribute to the love that dare not speak its name: the gringo taco.
(For the record, today is also National Vodka Day, but don't expect us to list our favorite gringo vodkas.)
2920 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 452-2970, www.panchostacos.com.
A Santa Monica staple since 1977 (now with an additional location in Culver City), Pancho's serves the quintessential gringo taco (though tomatoes are replaced by a watery house salsa) -- with one notable upgrade: A fresh, ultra-hard shell that shatters with every bite.
4017 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City. (310) 397-6654.
[Update: After further research, we have learned that the gooey, brown substance we described in a previous version of this post is, in fact, chili rather than refried beans. And it does contain meat. We apologize for the error.]
Johnnie's taco is really more of a tostada, and it's not a traditional one,
lacking ground beef or any meat at all. Buried under the lettuce and cheese is a pool of refried beans chili hiding a slice of tomato. In true gringo fashion, it's topped with ribbons of ketchup. You can't get less authentic than that. Somehow, it all hums: the thick bean paste and sweet ketchup sustained by grand amounts of orange cheese and chopped raw onions into a sweet, savory, crisp concerto.
3. El Taco
7870 E Florence Ave., Downey. (562) 776-5212, www.eltacoofcalifornia.com.
Before he founded Taco Bell, Glen Bell did his damndest to Americanize Mexican food at El Taco, a chain that still survives across Southern California. (This particular location in Downey is the one to seek out.) El Taco's hard-shell taco can be forgiven if it recalls the taco from that other chain. It's thin and small, more appetizer than entree. It doesn't require a masterful eater to pound through half-a-dozen of them. The ground beef is saucy, easily soaking through the shell but the flavor is distinct and greasy. Another bonus: El Taco is one of the few places you'll find Heinz hot sauce, not sold in any retail store we can find.
9020 Telegraph Rd., Downey. (562) 869-7045.
People come from miles around for Pepe's gigantic taquitos slathered in enough guacamole to turn Shrek green(er) with envy, but their hard-shell tacos are every bit as massive and opulent. Instead of ground beef, they're filled with huge chunks of stewed, barely shredded beef. Some might argue that such a variation should banish Pepe's from this list, but we're not strict constructionists about the gringo taco. Pepe's taco costs $3, about twice the price of the beef taco at nearby El Taco. That's because it's twice as dense. The fresh cheese has the perfect creamy tang, and it's topped with enough lettuce and tomato to make a side-salad. Finishing one of these monsters with your grace and dignity intact? That's the best kind of quixotic crusade.
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6333 W. 3rd St., LA. (323) 938-4127.
Is it the industrially shredded cheese? The ground beef that tastes like it was seasoned with the exact same flavor packet that mom bought from the supermarket? The orange grease soaking through the slightly soggy shell? More than any of the other tacos on the list, Magee's achieves Platonic ideal of the gringo taco. Except for the lack of hard Ortega shells, this is the precise taste of taco night in millions of homes across America.