Whether you call them gringo tacos, gabacho tacos or Americanized tacos, everyone has an opinion on those pre-fab hard shells filled with ground beef, shredded lettuce and yellow cheese like mom used to make. Are they authentic Mexican food? No way, José. Are they delicious? Yes. Sometimes.
Part of our country's long tradition of bastardizing other cultures' cuisine, the gringo taco gave rise to chains like Taco Bell and Del Taco in '60s and in the ensuing decades became an icon of Mexican-American culture in L.A. and across the U.S. They also made Taco Tuesday an actual thing.
But it seems the gringo taco's days are numbered. We've had real, authentic al pastor and carnitas for a while now. Like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland, these meat-filled cultural relics are sustaining on pure nostalgia.
So in honor of Cinco de Mayo — a holiday that is as dubiously authentic as the hard-shell taco — we’re paying tribute to a few remaining L.A. masters of the crunchy taco. Don’t forget the hot sauce.
5. Taco Lita
If this list were ranked by coolest design, Taco Lita #15 in Arcadia would easily be number one. The sign is awesome. The red brick flooring and neon yellow tables are awesome. Even the sauce packets are awesome. If Paul Thomas Anderson were to need a Mexican restaurant as a movie location, this would be it. Taco Lita, a remnant of the '70s-era chain, doesn’t skimp on the cheddar cheese. The shells are shatteringly crisp, if a bit thin, and the meat is generously seasoned. They also give you almost a million sauce packets, presumably to stockpile for the coming tacopocalypse. 120 E. Duarte Road, Arcadia, (626) 445-2889.
4. Bobby’s Place
Before it was bulldozed for condominiums, the best place for gringo tacos in Pasadena was Rick’s Drive-In, a squat little hut that had been slinging burgers on Walnut Street since 1964. A few years ago, a former employee opened Bobby’s Place, which ended up serving the same artery-hardening food in a slightly less charming location. One can overlook the razor-thin slice of tomato on top because the meat inside Bobby’s crunchy taco is pleasantly, surprisingly spicy. (Actually, it’s more like zesty. No gringo taco should ever be called spicy.) They also offer something called a Spuderito, which is enchilada sauce, cheese and soggy french fries stuffed into a bulging flour tortilla. Not recommended. 140 N. Lake Ave., Pasadena, (626) 844-3510, bobbys-place.com.
3. Henry’s Tacos
The ballad of Henry’s Tacos is well known to Studio City locals. It involved a greedy landlord, an “historic landmark” status dispute and an eventual takeover by a far less historic taco chain. The loss of an underrated piece of Googie/Mid-Century architecture was tragic, but Henry’s Tacos quickly found a new and equally cramped strip mall location a few blocks away. As was the case at Bobby’s Place, the best thing to say about Henry’s tacos are the shells taste fresh and the cheddar cheese is sharp, which cuts the greasy beef wonderfully. The house-made hot sauce, which kind of resembles ketchup from afar, is tart and smoky. 4389 Tujunga Ave., Studio City, (818) 769-0343.
2. Taco Fiesta
Every food writer has a secret spot they covet, Gollum-like. This is mine. In the parking lot of a Mount Washington supermarket, wedged into a small kiosk next to Yum Yum Donuts, is Taco Fiesta. In addition to tacos, Taco Fiesta also sells lotto tickets and cigarettes. And they somehow stuff a bewildering amount of well-seasoned ground beef into their tacos, testing the upper limits of taco shell structural strength. Thankfully, blow-outs are uncommon. Instead of chopped tomato, they place a single, thick-ass wedge on top, which acts as a gasket to seal the overflow of shredded lettuce and cheese. 4501 N. Figueroa St., Mount Washington, (323) 223-5478.
1. Tito’s Taco
No one wants to hear about how you don’t like Tito’s. Just stop. Tito’s has reached a plane of existence beyond good or bad — it just is. Tito’s calls its beef shredded, but “pre-chewed” might be a better description. The salsa recipe, I’d wager, involves only underripe tomatoes and an industrial-sized blender. But through some unexplained alchemy these tacos work their greasy magic on an empty belly, a combination of crunch and softness brought forth by juicy stewed meat and Day-Glo colored cheese. Tito’s is a high-volume operation; fried shell tacos are constructed in long rows, dozens at a time, with the efficiency of a World War II shipyard. The whole place smells of hot oil and refried beans. And then there are the lines: fast-moving but always crowded, populated by as broad a spectrum of Westsiders as the DMV. Everyone loves Tito’s. 11222 Washington Place, Culver City, (310) 391-5780 or titostacos.com.