Now don’t get your panties in a bunch — no one is saying that tacos on the Westside rival those on the Eastside. That's just silly. There is, however, a claim to be made that the state of the taco west of the 405 is improving tremendously. Perhaps the dish that most defines Los Angeles, the taco keeps extrapolating in ways that reflect diversity and cater to adventurous eating.
Some anthropologists believe early iterations of the taco were filled with small fish and live insects. Nowadays, tacos run the gamut from plain old ground beef to Baja-style fish to lengua, cabeza and so much more. From the street-side taquerias of South L.A. to the Mexican restaurants across the rest of the county, the breadth of varieties is astonishing (we even created a food festival dedicated to the thing). The Westside — more known for its sit-down eateries than taco trucks — is doing its best to keep up with the taco tsunami, with some great new restaurants opening and some old-school joints that are still keepin' on.
10. Loteria Grill
A lot of different food options makes Loteria Grill, on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, a good option for almost everyone. The vegetarian tacos are just as delicious as the carne ones (which include an excellent cochinita pibil). The four meatless choices — potato, cactus, mushroom and zucchini — provide so much flavor and have so much substance you won't feel like you're missing out. The papa con rajas (potato) comes pureed and creamy with roasted poblano peppers, salsa verde crudo, onions, cilantro and queso fresco. You could easily remove the cheese and make any of the veggie tacos vegan. 1251 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica; 310-393-2700, loteriagrill.com.
9. Tito’s Tacos
There may be no taco more polarizing in L.A. than Tito's, the long-standing gringo-taco shop (just barely east of the 405) that has become almost an institution for its deep-fried crispy shells stuffed with beef, lettuce and yellow cheese. Some people say it's all hype, but they just don't get it. When you’re in the mood for a certain kind of Americanized crunchy/cheesy/ground beef taco, Tito’s hits the spot. With Tito’s packed to the gills with customers every day, you have to wonder: Can all those people be wrong? 11222 Washington Place, Culver City; 310-391-5780, titostacos.com.
8. Tacos Punta Cabras
Unassuming in all ways, Tacos Punta Cabras is situated in a stretch of Santa Monica that is a relative food wasteland, loaded instead with medical buildings, hospitals and an elementary school. Embracing the Baja California style, this small joint — which was opened in 2013 by longtime Los Angeles chefs Daniel Snukal and Josh Gil — focuses on seafood and hand-picked, organic produce. They serve four kinds of tacos: fish, shrimp, scallop and tofu. The protein is crunchily fried with a mound of fresh veggies on top (radish and cabbage slaw), doused in lime vinaigrette and adorned with house-made crème. It's also BYOB, so pick up beer from down the street and pretend you’re on vacation south of the border. 2311 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica; 310-917-2244, tacospuntacabras.com.
Co-owners Jesse Gomez and chef Jose Acevedo are a match made in cielo. Mercado’s highly calibrated mix of authentic Mexican food and fresh, seasonal ingredients manages to taste familiar yet entirely new. The most original of the bunch is the shrimp taco, with a thin slice of jicama standing in for the tortilla. The dos gringas (named for the choice of flour tortilla) also bursts with flavor from the spit-roasted pastor and avocado salsa. Top them with the house salsa, redolent of roasted garlic, and don’t forget to order a blood orange or cucumber margarita. 1416 Fourth St., Santa Monica; 310-526-7121, mercadorestaurant.com/santa-monica.
Crickets in Santa Monica? Open since the end of 2014, Tacoteca is intent on bringing indigenous Mexican flavors to the somewhat staid city by the sea. The tacos feel slightly dangerous. They're packed with tons of flavors, spices and unique combinations that make you want to down another mezcal cocktail (try the Spanish Style with grapefruit and rosemary). The grilled octopus taco, with serrano chile-peanut sauce and micro cilantro, will wake up your mouth and do a little dance on your tongue. Equally delicious is the lamb barbacoa with onion and mint-garlic salsa. 2460 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; 310-828-2115, tacoteca.com.
5. Border Grill
The first of the nouveau Mexican restaurants to hit the Westside, Border Grill opened in Santa Monica 25 years ago and is still one of the best. Chefs and co-owners Mary Sue Miliken and Susan Feniger pay close attention to the complexity of Mexican food — and the food is as good as ever. The happy hour is an especially good value (at least for these parts), with tacos for $3.50. There are eight kinds to choose from, including a few veggie options. With $5 margaritas, the wise choice is to go early and stay late. 1445 Fourth St., Santa Monica; 310-451-1665, bordergrill.com.
4. La Isla Bonita
While not quite possessing the street chic of L.A.'s more popular taco trucks, La Isla Bonita’s mobile restaurant still exudes plenty of authenticity. Parked on the corner of Rose and Fourth in Venice — a block that is gentrifying at an alarming rate — the truck owned by Antonio Gonzalez frequently sports a line down the sidewalk. The eight kinds of tacos reveal Gonzalez's keen sensitivity to balance and ingredients — and will only set you back $2 a pop. The al pastor is tricked out with tender white beans, a side of caramelized onions and perfect crispy-tender pork. Eat it standing up and pretend Venice isn’t being transformed into a town accessible only to the 1 percent. Corner of Rose Avenue and Fourth Street, Venice; 310-663-6603.
3. Taqueria Chihuahua
Buche, lengua, cabeza. Offal aficionados can rejoice in Taqueria Chihuahua’s taco selection. At this small counter-service eatery, options include meats, fish, chicken or potato and come simply dressed with chopped onions, cilantro and an especially good variety of salsas. The double shell can split each taco into two for a remarkable 79 cents each. Get the combination of three tacos, rice and beans for $6.75, and then norteño-style them with guacamole, sour cream, jack and cheddar cheese for another $1.40. You won’t leave hungry, especially if you indulge in carne asada fries. 505 Washington Blvd., Marina del Rey; 310-827-8775, taqueriachihuahua.com.
2. La Playita
A line of men in tool belts, weightlifting belts, neon road-worker vests and painters’ whites usually spells good eating. La Playita serves up tacos of all stripes to the Westside's working class day and night. Shrimp, fish, carnitas, al pastor, cabeza, buche, chicharrones, pollo, carnitas and veggie tacos all make an appearance on the cash-only menu. In addition to tacos, this little stand offers seafood cocktails and tostadas with abalone, crab and octopus. For 25 cents you can add salsa, and the two jugs on each table — one of ketchup and one of Tapatìo — let you control the amount of flavor and heat. 3306 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica.
1. Sonoritas Prime Tacos
Trendy enough to serve an organic baby kale salad yet autentico enough to offer a mean carne asada taco, Sonoritas Prime Tacos is part of the foodie mecca that is Little Osaka on Sawtelle. The concept focuses on dishes from Sonora, the Mexican state that borders Baja, Arizona and New Mexico and is known as the country's meat capital. The focal point of the eatery is a charcoal grill that cooks meats such as filet mignon and rib-eye and adds a hint of smoke to the house-made salsas. Homemade tortillas and other examples of attention to detail (guajillo vinaigrette, chimichurri) make this recently opened cafe a welcome addition to the Westside. 2004 Sawtelle Blvd., Sawtelle; sonoritas.com.