Are there people out there who don’t spend their days wondering about Missed Taco-nnections? People who don’t think for a second about which rare cut of pork they could have found if only they had walked another half block, the joy they might have known if they had pulled over at the crowded taco stand glowing like a Miami nightclub on an empty street, where mesquite-fueled flames lick marinated meats and smoke drifts out into oncoming traffic? Perhaps there are such people, but this is not a post for them.
If you feel the pain of every mediocre taco, daydreaming idly about what might have been, the life you and those carnitas would have shared had you just picked the right truck, then you will find safe harbor here, and take comfort in this, a thorough run down of all the taco trucks on York Boulevard in Highland Park.
These are the trucks, tables and stands — organized west to east — that haunt the stretch of York between Avenues 50 and 57, in the heart of the buzzing Highland Park community. Because of the nature of these establishments, their hours are inconsistent and locations are prone to slight shifts. We’ve tried to describe when and where to find them as accurately as possible, but this isn’t an exact science.
Location: Within smelling distance of York and Avenue 50, lately in front of the new York Park
Hours: Every night, from 6 p.m.-ish to pretty late
Charlie’s Tacos is relatively new on the scene, and that fact is pretty clear from their truck – it’s well lit and well maintained, clean and bright without a scratch on the logo or a rogue punk band sticker anywhere to be found. They’ve also made a point of establishing a presence: they’re almost always there, camped out somewhere in the immediate vicinity of York and Avenue 50 from before dinner until right around last call. There's a pretty straightforward selection, save one unusual choice – trompa, a cut of meat that the taqueros at Charlie’s billed as beef cheek. It is supremely tender, pillowy soft and richly bovine, a welcome change of pace from your standard far-out cuts like tripas or buche. The salsas are of good quality and mounted on the edge of the truck as they should be, the chipotle red and tomatillo green as usual.
That stand between Johnny's Bar and The York
Location: Between Johnny’s Bar (5006 York Blvd.) and The York (5018 York Blvd.)
Hours: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, from after dinner to after the bars close
It’s almost predatory, the way these guys set up – waiting until late on a weekend night and then ambushing the hordes of drunken overdressed Occidental students and under-dressed scruffy hipsters with an impossibly fragrant spread of sizzling meats right in between Johnny’s and The York, two focal points of York Blvd. drinking. Yes, you’d almost hold it against them, their ability to hit us right at our weakest, if they weren’t so dang friendly, or if the tacos weren’t so damn good.
The al pastor is our favorite, salty and citric and tasting of the grill instead of the soggy shreds that are all too common in non-trompo al pastor. The tortillas are great, cooked in the grease on the flattop long enough to absorb just the right amount of oil without disintegrating. The house special is the potato taco, a lump of seasoned mashed starch folded into a tortilla and then fried in a pan full of oil until it is molten hot, crispy, and irresistible. Yes, this is a stand fully devoted to the greasier side of things, but sometimes – like, say, after a long night of drinking at Johnny’s – that’s exactly what you need.
Location: In the parking lot of On the Spot car wash at Avenue 53 (5320 York Blvd.)
Hours: Pretty much always
If you happen to stumble out onto York after midnight on a Tuesday, perhaps after an IPA (or four) at Hermosillo, El Pique will be there. If you find yourself in need of tacos after picking up some weird sodas at Galco’s on a Saturday afternoon, El Pique will be there. And even though there are more richly flavored meats on York, and even though there’s no outside salsa bar (you have to order tacos con todo), there’s a lot to be said for dependability. They have a good selection of meats and that salsa is nice, a sharp little red. The pastor in particular is satisfying, even though it’s not of the trompo-roasted variety.
Location: Just past El Pique, wedged miraculously into the parking lot of Joanna’s Snacks (at Ave. 54)
Hours: Mid-day to midnight Sunday to Thursday; mid-day until 2 a.m. Friday & Saturday
It's hard to eat anywhere else in Highland Park when La Estrella is open; the siren song of their glorious smoky asada echoes all up and down York. Yes, the menu is very simple – you can get either tacos or burritos – and the selection of meats is relatively basic – asada, pastor, carnitas, lengua, or cabeza – but damn if they aren’t just about perfect (it's no wonder they're the only Mexican taco truck to make our 99 Essentials list). It is another truck with no exterior salsa bar, where you order your tacos with everything and they come out fully dressed. The asada is spectacular, perfectly complemented by the spicy red chipotle salsa, and the pastor is wonderful too, saucy and tender and bright. Yes, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the thrill of a new find, or the excitement of an unusual cut of meat, but take one bite of a La Estrella taco and you’ll remember exactly how they earned their impossibly tight parking spot at the top of L.A.'s taco mountain.
Tacos El Pelon
Location: On Avenue 56 just south of York, facing the parking lot of El Super
Hours: Most nights, from around 7 p.m. until midnight
There’s always a crowd at El Pelon, and between the flame-singed letters on their new trailer and the single giant speaker kicking out all sorts of Spanish-language jams, getting tacos here often feels like a mini block party outside of the Mexican supermarket El Super. They have only recently upgraded to the trailer, but there has been just one noticeable change from their days as a stand: they now make tortillas by hand to order. That change is more cosmetic than substantial, but it is a nice touch. The tortillas are good, more flavorful and texturally valuable than thin store-bought discs, though they do have a tendency to crumble under the weight of the heaping piles of meat that El Pelon dishes out. Not that that’s a terrible thing – the tacos at El Pelon come stacked high with meats cut into thicker slices than just about any other truck around, and when you add onions and cilantro and chopped nopales and lime and salsa a little bit of breakage is understandable.
And the quality of the ingredients negates any of that inconvenience anyway, outstanding smoky asada cut the way you might cut it at a family barbeque on a summer Saturday, excellent (though again trompo-less) pastor that is powerfully infused with the caramelized onion with which it is cooked, and chorizo that is spicy and smoky and greasy in the perfect way. Hell yes. This is our kind of block party.
Location: The tire shop on the northeast corner of York and Nolden Street
Hours: Nightly from about 6 p.m. until midnight-ish
It may seem weird at first to order birria from a truck, but the giant smiling picture of a goat just below the pickup window at El Pariente provides as much reassurance as one could desire. And it’s a good thing, too, because the birria is fabulous, juicy and gamey and rich, accompanied by a generous cup of goat consomé, perfect for moistening your tacos while you have them and good enough to be sipped on its own when your tacos are gone. It helps that the tortillas are outstanding too, made by hand to order in front of your very eyes, flavorful enough to be memorable and sturdy enough to support all the consommé you can spoon onto them.
The salsa bar on the side of the truck is nice too, with a pickled onion and habanero blend and good, if a little ordinary, salsas. And as a bonus, tacos are just $0.75 on Wednesday and Thursday, so you can eat real food and also pretend to be onto this bone broth thing for under $2.
If you’re looking for street food on York before 10 p.m. and (for some insane reason) you don’t feel like tacos, you’ve got two other excellent options – pupusas at Eat 'N Run on the north side of York between Avenues 55 and 56, and some very good Armenian barbecue, either chicken or short rib with hummus, cabbage and mint salad, and flatbread, at Papi's in the auto body shop at York and Avenue 57.