Denise's is a small, sweet taco stand whose customer base consists largely of people waiting at the bus stop right in front. A caricature of Denise is painted on one wall, and if you poke your head into the takeout window, occasionally there's Denise herself, chopping meat, working the register, folding her special burritos. In a land dominated by carne asada, Denise's is where to go for pork, a bagful of one of three or four different kinds of house-made chicharrones (fried pork rinds), the pickled pigskin called cueritos, or a pound or two of roast pork. If you have a buck for a taco, you can taste the carnitas, among the best in East L.A., dense-textured, with the full, almost gamy flavor of slow-cooked pig. Also good are the tacos with chicharrones stewed in spicy tomato sauce -- numbingly rich, a 1,500-calorie taco. 4060 E. Olympic Blvd., East L.A.; (323) 264-8199. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $7$10. No alcohol. Parking lot. ATMs, V.
Gallo's Grill -- a tiled patio furnished with oversize wooden tables, shaded from the sky by a canopy -- serves everybody's fantasy of a great Eastside meal: warm, thick corn tortillas patted to order, fresh salsas brought to the table perched on intricate wrought-iron stands, garlicky steak served still sizzling, flanked by bushels of charred scallions on superheated platters. An order of queso fundido brings what seems like an entire pound of cheese crusted into a steel baking dish, smoking and sputtering, flavored with dry, spicy crumbles of beef. Gallo's Grill prepares its beef in a specifically Mexican way, meat butterflied and re-butterflied and laid open like a scroll, a broad, thin sheet of seared meat -- filete abierto -- with something like an acre and a half of surface area and the maximal ratio of brown, crusty outside to red, squishy inside, although marinated enough to allow for a bit of juice. 4533 Cesar Chavez Ave.; (323) 980-8669. Open daily for lunch and dinner; weekend brunch. Dinner for two, food only, $13$20. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. D, MC, V.
El Gran Burrito
Grilled beef, snatched from a big fire, chopped -- thwack! -- into gristly nubs with a big cleaver and swept into a gray pile. From the pile, still hissing, the grill man tips the meat onto a juxtaposition of two thick corn tortillas that have been briefly toasted with oil, splashes it with a bit of the stand's tart green tomatillo salsa, dusts it with chopped onions and a little cilantro, and slides the taco -- or four -- onto a thin paper plate in less time than it takes you to fish a couple of dollars from your jeans. This is a grand taco, sizzling hot, oily, glowing with citrus and black pepper, the kind of taco that can for a fleeting instant seem like the best thing that ever happened to your life. 4716 Santa Monica Blvd.; (323) 665-8720. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $5$8. Outdoor grilled tacos served evenings and weekends only. No alcohol. Parking lot. Cash only.
King Taco No. 2
Situated in the no man's land between the freeway interchange and the pulsing heart of East L.A., King Taco No. 2 is really more of a taco metropolis than a mere taco stand, and on weekend nights it seems as if half of Latino Los Angeles is crowded into the parking lot. There are a lot of different kinds of tacos here, including tongue tacos (which are actually sort of delicious) and brain tacos and tacos made with spicy chile verde, but the thing to get is King Taco's famous tacos al pastor, which are made with crisp bits of marinated pork hacked off a rotating grill that looks like those things you see at gyros stands. Do what the locals do -- order them to eat here, then use the roof of your car as a picnic table. The red sauce can be murder on crushed-velour seats. 4504 E. Third St., East L.A.; (213) 264-4067. Open daily 24 hours. Dinner for two, food only, $2$6. No alcohol. Takeout. Guarded lot parking. Cash only.
Hurtling east on Olympic from downtown, you can smell Tacos Leovis two blocks before you see it, from the sweet whiff of roasting meat and burnt chiles that blasts through the internal-combustion fumes on this heavily trafficked stretch of road. There are a lot of gypsy taquerías grilling meat over open sidewalk fires late on weekend nights, but this is the place to come in the afternoon, a battered metal cart where vertical spitfuls of pork rotate before a roaring fire in the al pastor style. I've seen stakebed trucks make screeching U-turns when their drivers spot the grill. Order a few tacos with grilled onions, grab a cold Mexican apple soda from an ice bucket, and garnish the tacos yourself from a buffet-style salsa bar -- the tart green salsa is better than the lackluster red. 3120 E. Olympic Blvd., East L.A.; (323) 269-2990.
El Taquito Mexicano No. 2
Like many of the neighborhood's best small Mexican restaurants, El Taquito -- a tiny taco stand that somehow opens up to a dining room almost as spacious as a Dodge Durango -- may function less as an institution unto itself than as a docking station for its fleet of taco trucks, which fan out from the restaurant every day at dusk. It's also a genuine center of Mexican home cooking: fresh-simmered rice, oily, homemade-tasting refried beans, pozole that tastes like somebody's grandmother had a hand in it. When you order the full lunch, a waitress brings over a huge bowl of freshly made chips, tooth-crackingly dense, served with fresh salsa made from roasted green chiles or an intense chipotle dip. As in most loncherías, the food varies from day to day, even hour to hour. Sometimes, at least, the chiles rellenos are crisp and oily, magnificent beasts sturdy enough to stand up to a thick blanket of tomato sauce. And I have eaten some of the best carne asada of my life at El Taquito, wildly peppery, fragrant with citrus and garlic, charred black at the edges. 467 N. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena; (626) 577-3918. Open daily for breakfast and lunch. Lunch for two, food only, $6$12. No alcohol. Takeout. Street parking only. Cash only.
My particular favorite tacos come from the truck that spends its weekends parked behind El Taurino, an otherwise undistinguished taco stand on Hoover. A gleaming column of marinated pork al pastor rotates before a simulated shepherd's fire; nubbins of the outside layer of meat caramelize and drip juice. Somebody hacks off a few slivers, slivers you know are meant for your very taco, and rushes to anoint the pork with finely chopped onion, cilantro, and a stupendous, dusky hot sauce that perfectly accents the sweetness of the meat. There are also decent stewed tongue, carnitas and carne asada -- about as beside the point as the hot dogs at Tommy's. Truck operates weekends behind 1104 S. Hoover St.; (213) 738-9197.
Tito's, a Culver City taco stand near the fast-food corner of Sepulveda and Washington Place, is a high-volume spot where chips go from the fryer to giant galvanized trash cans that serve as storage bins, where freshly fried tacos are stacked in long rows and salsa is made in a drum. People eat at long picnic tables, either inside or out, gray cardboard takeout cartons forming tabletop Stonehenges. In years gone by, while my mom's dog liked Apple Pan Hickoryburgers, Patio Chicago Dogs, Gelson's rare roast beef, Oat Thins, kosher salami and basically anything from Jerry's Deli that wasn't coleslaw, what the dog liked best was a hard-shell taco from Tito's, stripped of salsa and the mantle of shredded lettuce. When Mom went for tacos, she always got them with extra cheese. Dogs love the taste of cheese. As do I. 11222 Washington Place, Culver City; (310) 391-5780. Open daily 9:30 a.m.11:30 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $2$6. No alcohol. Takeout. Cash only.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Los Angeles dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.
More Food & Drink News
- From At-Risk to On-Set: Homegirl Café Staffs Program Graduates at New Movie Studio...
- Part Can, Part Growler, the Crowler Has Landed in L.A.
- L.A.’s Most Idolized Chef-Without-a-Restaurant Reveals His Long-Awaited Second Act
- Championship Burgers Revealed! L.A. Weekly's Ultimate Burger Bracket's Final...