The strip of Sunset between Mohawk St. and Elysian Park Ave., more or less the beating heart of Echo Park, has become a destination for drinking. One can, with a series of walks not long enough to raise your heart rate, hop from craft beer palace to dimly lit record spinning mini-lounge to classic dive bar to cop bar turned hipster dance party and beyond. As excellent as its cluster of bars is, though, it is the other component of a great night out that really makes Echo Park shine — tacos.
That stretch of Echo Park is home to three well-established taco trucks, Tacozone, Tacos Arizas, and El Flamin' Taco, and each has its own loyal following. After hearing years worth of fanboy chatter and taco trolling we decided it was time to perform a truly unbiased scientific experiment, and for the good of the neighborhood we set out to determine and weigh the strengths and weaknesses of each truck. What follows is your Echo Park taco truck guide.
3. Tacozone: Alvarado and Montana
Tacozone is undoubtedly the most popular of the three trucks, and — not coincidentally, we suspect — it also has the best location. The Vons parking lot on Alvarado where Tacozone sits is massive, well lit, and features convenient access from both Alvarado and Glendale Blvd. It is the ideal location for late-night tacos, safe, easy and visible. It also happens to be about as picturesque an urban parking lot as we've encountered, surrounded by the hills of Echo Park and the finest collection of trendy kids around.
The truck itself is in fact a trailer, decorated by what looks like decades worth of band stickers and logos. The meats come in a decent variety, with all of the usual favorites and some more interesting options, including suadero, tripas and buche. The salsa bar features the standard salsas rojo and verde, pico de gallo, limes, and onions and cilantro, as well as a nice creamy avocado salsa, and the price is similarly average — though it has been known to vary at the cashier's whim.
Your tacos will arrive ridiculously fast, almost suspiciously so, going from bucket to flat top to tortilla in seconds. Though the tortilla is obviously plucked straight from a store-bought package, it is also dunked in some unknown vat (lard or maybe oil) and pressed momentarily onto the cooking surface before it receives your meats. When examined closely, it is obvious why your tacos were ready so quickly — the meat is chopped to the finest possible shreds. This means that it heats practically instantaneously, but it also makes the meats largely indistinguishable. The primary beefs, asada and suadero, are essentially identical, the pastor is dry and bland, and the rest of the meats meet a similar fate at the overzealous knifework of these taqueros. But Tacozone makes up for all that it is lacking in carne quality with the strength of its salsas. The rojo is lively and hot, the verde is perfectly tangy and bright, and the creamy avocado is smooth and rich. If you're the type who eats tacos as a salsa delivery method, this is the truck for you.
2. Tacos Arizas: Sunset and Logan
Just a few short blocks away, Tacos Arizas feels like the bizarro version of Tacozone: It also faces a supermarket parking lot just off Sunset, but instead of bright lights on a major street, Arizas is on a dark side street that feels more like an alleyway. It is also a trailer instead of a full truck, but there are no brightly colored band stickers adorning the windows; it is a no-nonsense truck and their food reflects that attitude. There is a slightly above average meat selection, an interesting tub of pickled vegetables at the salsa bar, and there are three salsas instead of the usual two, a rojo and two different types of verde.
It takes noticeably longer than Tacozone for your tacos to arrive, an encouraging sign, and from the moment you first lay eyes on them it is clear that the meats are a cut above. The asada is juicy and delicious, without a piece of gristle in sight, but the real standouts are the buche and especially the carnitas. The carnitas is not at all like the usual indistinguishable cubes gesturing at porkiness, it is a full on piggy spectacle, clearly cooked properly, full of flavor and just the right texture. It is the kind of carnitas for which a sit-down restaurant with 'world famous margaritas' and weekend mariachi performances would charge $12 per plate.
The salsas are the perfect foil to the pork's richness, the muscular rojo, the tangy and spicy verde, and the grassy, citrusy thicker salsa verde too. In fact, this truck has only one noteworthy misstep, their lengua, which is chewy and bland where it should be tender and strong. Aside from that one meat, though, Arizas does just about everything well.
1. El Flamin' Taco: Sunset and Alvarado
The third Echo Park truck, El Flamin' Taco, is the newest and the most garish. It has a twitter handle (though it is little used), a (similarly barren) facebook page, a 4/20 menu, and a snazzy paint job complete with flamin' decals. It is also on perhaps the most prominent local intersection, on the southeast corner of Sunset and Alvarado, just steps from Mohawk Bend, American Apparel, and the new PETA headquarters, among others. The truck parks in a brightly lit but awkwardly shaped car wash parking lot that is easily accessible but often forces the hungry, occasionally less than sober diners into an unfortunate game of automobile tetris.
The menu options are more varied than at other trucks (mostly thanks to that 4/20 menu), but the meat options are largely similar. Suadero, cabeza, lengua, and the usual unusual cuts are all available, and the salsa bar is mostly straightforward, with the notable addition of a truly flamin' mixture of pickled onions and habanero. Aside from the wild cosmetics, two things stand out at El Flamin' Taco. The first, and likely the more subtle of the two, is that all of the tortillas are made right there in the truck. There is a woman grabbing, balling, and then flattening masa right in the window, just next to the flat top. Handmade isn't always better (some high school pottery classes come to mind), but in this case the tortillas are a noticeable upgrade over the bagged versions at the neighboring trucks. True, these tortillas may not quite reach the heights of Guisados and its ilk, but both the effort and the result are worth appreciating.
The second feature of El Flamin' that stands out literally stands out: Just behind the truck, near where clean cars leave the wash, there is a spinning cone of meat cooking on an open flame, topped with a healthy heap of pineapple. Yes, El Flamin' has their own massive stand-alone trompo, and yes there is a dedicated pastor specialist manning it, and he is as skilled as any we've come across, right up there with the legendary Tacos Leo.
The meat is skillfully cut directly onto your tortilla, and it somehow ends up both perfectly crisped on the outside and supremely tender, almost literally bursting with bright citrus and spice flavor. It is a revelation, the first meat we've ever met that makes both salsa and lime superfluous. Sure, if you want some variety the lengua is excellent, tender and fragile in that long-stewed way, and the other meats are better than adequate, but really, why stray from something so stellar as the al pastor? The salsas are passable, though the most mild of the three trucks, and the spicy pickled onions are a nice addition, but if you're coming to El Flamin' Taco, you're coming for spinning pork.
Our Conclusion+ a Recommendation
These three trucks are well known and popular for a reason, and each truck has its own merits. In the end, we would be comfortable recommending any of them to the casual late night eater, though we do have some simple suggestions to make sure you end up at the right one for your taste. If you're in it for the people watching, the location, and the salsa, Tacozone is your spot. If you want carnitas and the best combination of meat and salsa quality, and if you don't mind the dark, then Tacos Arizas is for you. And if you are in search of the single best thing you can get from a truck around here, El Flamin' Taco and their al pastor is your jam. Between the three of them, you're sure to find something to suit your fancy, and if you can't, then we have one final suggestion for you: get a carnitas taco at Arizas, an al pastor at El Flamin', and then go to Tacozone to dress and eat them.
Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. Ben Mesirow rarely tweets, but you can follow him @SemNeb if you're into that sort of thing.