It might seem like an obvious statement: There's no city in the United States with better Mexican food than Los Angeles. One look at our recent 99 Essential L.A. restaurants list certainly seems to validate that theory. It's absolutely brimming with great places to find everything from street tacos al pastor to stunning shrimp aguachile to enchiladas sauced with mood-altering moles. We've highlighted some of our favorites below, but if you want to see the complete package — from a char-grilled carne asada stand in South L.A. to a Sinaloan seafood truck in Watts — head over to the full list and see what other Mexican gems are awaiting your visit.
Burritos La Palma
If your mental projection of a burrito involves a foil-wrapped behemoth the size of a newborn, then the svelte, almost dainty creations at El Monte’s Burritos La Palma might at first seem shocking. Flour tortillas are patted out by hand daily, filled with a spoonful or two of soft braised meats like beef birria or gooey curls of braised chicharron, then given a toast on the grill that lends the tortilla a subtle, golden-brown color. Each taco-sized burrito is a precisely calibrated package, a miniature essay on the joys of restraint, stewed chilies and high-quality lard. It’s not uncommon to order them four at time. Although La Palma is the first American outlet of a chain of tortillerias and burrito stands based in Zacatecas, Mexico, there are little splashes of Mexican-American influences here and there, including on the especial plate, which smothers twin burritos in melted cheese and chili sauce until they resemble enchiladas. Could the burrito be the new taco? Depending on whom you ask, a burrito is just a taco by another name. —Garrett Snyder
5120 Peck Road, El Monte; (626) 350-8286.
Chef Ray Garcia always seemed destined for more than the casual, upscale hotel cooking he’d been practicing for the last few years at Fig in Santa Monica. And who better to notice and recruit such a talent than Bill Chait, former head of Sprout Restaurants, the group that seems to own about three-fourths of L.A.’s hottest restaurants? My guess is that Chait met with Garcia and asked him what he really wanted to be cooking. And Garcia said, “Modern Mexican food.” At Broken Spanish, which takes over the former Rivera space, that’s just what Garcia is doing: upscale, modern Mexican that goes great with cocktails and showcases this chef’s considerable talent. It was a whole fish that won me over completely on an early visit: a red snapper served over “green clamato” (a jaunty green sauce with citrus tang and a whisper of the ocean) and accompanied by clams, avocado and soft leeks left in chunks large enough to showcase their sweet, vegetal flavor. Garcia is playing with the kind of inventiveness that feels natural, and he puts deliciousness first. This menu has a lot of comfort food that’s exciting as well as soothing. You can have tamales stuffed with lamb neck or with a delightful mix of favas, peas and Swiss chard. There are touches of true modernism, too, such as a beautiful jumble of snap peas, sea beans, black sesame and creamy requesón cheese. It’s heartening to see Mexican food take the forefront in the upscale-dining conversation, and also heartening to see Garcia take his rightful position as the guy to lead that conversation. —Besha Rodell
1050 S. Flower St., downtown; (213) 749-1460, brokenspanish.com.
La Casita Mexicana
For fans of Jaime Martín del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu who feared that the soulful Mexican cooking at their flagship Bell restaurant might languish after they opened their new concept, Mexicano, at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza last year, we have this to say: Don’t worry. The stellar cooking and rustic charm of one of the city’s most iconic and revered Mexican restaurants is as pronounced as ever, even as its chef duo rises to new levels of stardom. The heart of the menu is the lush moles, each as vivid and distinct as a Frida Kahlo portrait. But there’s a great deal of pleasure in less publicized dishes, too: meltingly tender beef shank in tangy guajillo chili sauce, unabashedly gooey queso fundido and smoky sheets of carne asada with grilled cactus. The hardest decision, though, comes at dessert, when you’ll be forced to choose between caramel-filled churros and ultra-rich flan. A trip to Bell without at least one seems unthinkable. —G.S.
4030 E. Gage Ave., Bell: (323) 773-1898, casitamex.com.
In recent months, Coni’Seafood has garnered national attention as the treat with which in-the-know Angelenos are rewarded in exchange for a ride to nearby LAX. Of course, we’ve been saying this for years — as well as telling any out-of-towner with an afternoon flight that this is by far the best gustatory sendoff L.A. can give you. Coni’Seafood is perhaps best known for its snook, or pescado zarandeado, a dish adored by devotees of chef Sergio Peñuelas. There’s no doubt the whole, split, grilled, tender whitefish is one of the city’s great seafood offerings. But really, it’s only the beginning of what this small, slate-gray restaurant has to offer. There are smoked marlin tacos, which are like the best tuna melt ever, only in taco form. There are all manner of cocteles, such as the ceviche marinero, a jumble of shrimp marinated in lemon, cucumber, cilantro and tomato, topped with hunks of sweet mango and bathed in a wicked, dusky “black sauce.” Then there are the camarones, giant, head-on shrimp that come in many different variations of sauce: diablo for the spice lovers; borrachos (in a broth made from tequila, lime, cilantro and crushed peppers) for the hungover. There’s brightness and complexity and pop to this food that makes all of it worth a trip to Inglewood — even when LAX isn’t on your agenda. —B.R.
3544 W. Imperial Highway, Inglewood; (424) 261-0896.
Corazon y Miel
Since opening in early 2013, Corazon y Miel has morphed from a strange little bar and restaurant in an unlikely location to a true neighborhood hangout. Chef Eduardo Ruiz has grown a lot as a cook since those early days, too, and now is presenting thoroughly modern takes on Mexican street food. You might find chilaquiles here scattered with tender shreds of wild boar, or a vibrant green aguachile made with bigeye tuna. Don’t be surprised, though, if you also encounter a chicken liver and foie gras pâté as rich and smooth as any Frenchman’s — this is a restaurant and menu without rules (except perhaps one: no tacos). The cocktails are almost certainly the best you’ll find within a five-mile radius, and the room is full of groups of friends passing around food and making merry. —B.R.
6626 Atlantic Ave., Bell, (323) 560-1776, corazonymiel.com
There’s so much to love about Guelaguetza, the long-standing Oaxacan restaurant in Koreatown, it’s hard to know where to begin. The restaurant was honored by the James Beard Committee last year as part of its America’s Classics awards, which should give you some idea of how important this place is to its neighborhood, its community, our city and the country. The thing we love most, though, is the feel of the place on weekend evenings, when the sprawling restaurant fills with families, mainly sharing the giant platters of memelas, chorizo, tasajo and cecina, fried pork ribs and more. An ancient-looking man may be playing the marimba onstage with his band, with kids and grandparents bouncing appreciatively in their seats to the music. There’s a lot of bang for the buck in those platters, but you’d be remiss to leave without trying the mole. You’ll want the negro, and you’ll be rewarded with a dark, bitter, gloriously slick mole — get it with chicken or chorizo. The estofado, made with tomatillos, chilies, raisins and olives, is a worthy alternative — it’s utterly seductive in its sweet and funky depth. You can get goat barbacoa on weekends, swimming in a deeply rich chili sauce and served with giant, homemade tortillas, and there are fruity, smoky mezcal cocktails to toast the restaurant and the celebration happening around you. —B.R.
3014 W. Olympic Blvd., Koreatown; (213) 427-0608, ilovemole.com.
If you had to show someone what it’s like to live and eat in Los Angeles and you had only an hour to accomplish it, you probably could get the job done with a visit to Guerrilla Tacos. Here’s where you come to eat from a truck, which parks in front of the city’s best coffee (and sometimes wine) shops. It’s a taco truck that started as a cart but likely one day will end up as a restaurant, a place where you might get a waffle with mascarpone and berries to go with your roasted pork belly taco. The tostadas are made with the freshest local seafood, maybe ahi tuna poke with white miso or sesame-crusted salmon with sea urchin. These beautifully made creations from chef Wes Avila defy our expectations of what an incredible meal should be made of and where we should find it, mixing street food with fine dining in a way that’s totally uncontrived. It’s as L.A. as a dining experience gets, in all the best ways. —B.R.
Location varies; guerrillatacos.com.
The little Boyle Heights taco shop that could just never seems to lose steam: After expanding in 2013 to Echo Park and setting up shop downtown in 2014, Guisados also recently opened a store in West Hollywood, serving beautiful tacos on handmade tortillas. Some detractors say that all this expansion has somehow made Guisados less legit, but the proof is in the pibil: These tacos are as delicious as ever. The star of the show remains the guisados, and in particular the sampler plate: six smaller tacos, a collection of greatest hits that touches on all the smoky, spicy, saucy goodness this place has to offer. Each vibrant meat (tinga de pollo, cochinita pibil, chicharrón and more) gets its own thoughtful topping — a dab of avocado here, a draping of pickled onion there. It’s a thing of true beauty, and perhaps the world’s cheapest tasting menu. We’d take it over the soignée kind most days of the week. —B.R.
2100 E. Cesar Chavez Blvd., Boyle Heights; (323) 264-7201, guisados.co.
Don’t be fooled by the imitators, the lesser producers, the many other tacos dorado de camaron in L.A. The version at Raul Ortega’s Mariscos Jalisco, the Boyle Heights mariscos truck, is far and away the king of fried tacos, in this city and perhaps in the country. Don’t be confused by the crowds surrounding the other trucks nearby. Go directly to this corner of Olympic Boulevard and wait as they fold the shrimp into a tortilla and fry the whole thing in hot oil, pulling it out at the perfect point of golden crisp, then coat it with creamy slices of avocado and pert red salsa. If you’re in the mood for a feast, the Poseidon tostada, loaded with a jumble of ceviche, octopus and shrimp aguachile, will have you feeling like a god of the sea yourself. For that, and for the crispy tacos, our loyalty will never waver. —B.R.
3040 E. Olympic Blvd., Boyle Heights; (323) 528-6701, twitter.com/mariscosjalisco.
Rocio's Mexican Kitchen
Rocio’s Mexican Kitchen is a modest affair. The small wedge of a restaurant from renowned mole queen Rocio Camacho operates mainly as a takeout place where you order at a counter, and it’s possible to pick up a burrito and never get wind of the more exciting possibilities of eating here. But there’s way more to this place than meets the eye. It wouldn’t be a Camacho restaurant without a focus on moles, and the Oaxaqueño, in particular, is fantastically silky and has a depth of flavor that’s downright profound — this is mole that might be cast in the starring role of some magical-realism novel, the dark sorcery used to seduce a young lover. Camacho’s touch with more standard menu items makes them utterly memorable. The empanadas are so light and crispy they’re almost ethereal in their shattery crunch. The aguachile has fat shrimp bathed in a scarlet sauce spicy enough to alter your consciousness but also so tangy and balanced that it will have you coming back for bite after excruciating bite. If this food were served in some fancy room somewhere, the salmon would be cooked a little more gently; the ribs under a sticky, spicy, aromatic glaze would perhaps be more tender. There would be wine as delicate as the flavor of the musky huitlacoche sauce you get ladled over mahi mahi. But the wonderful thing about Rocio’s Mexican Kitchen is right there in the name. This is Camacho’s kitchen, and it’s not built on any premise other than showcasing the cooking of an incredibly talented chef. —B.R.
7891 Garfield Ave., Bell Gardens; (562) 659-7800.