When the Southwestern thing was hot a few years ago, we tasted foie-gras tacos with honey-lime sauce and radicchio tacos stuffed with crab; blue tacos and red tacos; Jamaican tacos and Pilgrim tacos; tacos filled with parts of the pig we’d rather not talk about right now, thank you. Still, we prefer traditional taco stands, if only for an excuse to gnaw on muddy radishes at 3 in the morning. You have your rabbit food, we have ours.
In Los Angeles, good carnitas are common, great carnitas rare. Denise’s is a small, sweet taco stand whose customer base consists largely of people waiting for the MTA at the bus stop right in front. A caricature of Denise is painted on one wall, and if you poke your head into the takeout window, there’s Denise herself, chopping meat, working the register, folding her special burritos. In a land dominated by carne asada, Denise’s is where to go for pork, a bagful of one of three or four different kinds of house-made chicharrones (fried pork rinds), the pickled pigskin called cueritos, or a pound or two of roast pork. If you have a buck for a taco, you can taste the carnitas, among the best in East L.A., dense-textured, with the full, almost gamy flavor of slow-cooked pig. Also good are the tacos with chicharrones stewed in spicy tomato sauce — numbingly rich, a 1,500-calorie taco. 4060 E. Olympic Blvd., East L.A.; (213) 264-8199. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $7–$10. No alcohol. Parking lot. Cash only.
El Gran Burrito
Grilled beef, snatched from a big fire, chopped — thwack! — into gristly nubs with a big cleaver and swept into a gray pile. From the pile, still hissing, the grill man tips the meat onto a juxtaposition of two thick corn tortillas that have been briefly toasted with oil, splashes it with a bit of the stand’s tart, green tomatillo salsa, dusts it with chopped onions and a little cilantro, and slides the taco — or four — onto a thin paper plate in less time than it takes you to fish a couple of dollars from your jeans. This is a grand taco, sizzling hot, oily, glowing with citrus and black ä pepper, the kind of taco that can for a fleeting instant seem like the best thing that ever happened to your life. 4716 Santa Monica Blvd.; (213) 665-8720. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $5–$8. Outdoor grilled tacos served evenings and weekends only. No alcohol. Parking lot. Cash only.
King Taco No. 2
Situated in the no man’s land between the freeway interchange and the pulsing heart of East L.A., King Taco No. 2 is really more of a taco metropolis than a mere taco stand, and on weekend nights it seems as if half of Latino Los Angeles is crowded into the parking lot. There are a lot of different kinds of tacos here, including tongue tacos (which are actually sort of delicious) and brain tacos and tacos made with spicy chile verde, but the thing to get is King Taco’s famous tacos al pastor, which are made with crisp bits of marinated pork hacked off a rotating grill that looks like those things you see at gyros stands. Do what the locals do — order them to eat here, then use the roof of your car as a picnic table. The red sauce can be murder on crushed-velour seats. 4504 E. Third St., East L.A.; (213) 264-4067. Open daily 24 hours. Dinner for two, food only, $2–$6. No alcohol. Takeout. Guarded lot parking. Cash only.
Here are spicy fried-fish tacos like the ones they serve on the Ensenada waterfront, burritos filled with fat scallops, and plates of sautéed shrimp mojo de ajo so powerfully seasoned that you can almost feel the garlic vibrate in your teeth. The famous seafood quesadilla, widely copied, is exemplary, a large flour tortilla filled with stretchy cheese and a garlicky panful of sautéed fish, shrimp and scallops, griddled to a browned crispness and brushed with a smoky chile salsa, the sort of trashy, irresistible mess you might throw together for an impromptu dinner at a rented beach house, knowing everybody will ask for seconds. The whole, deep-fried snapper, all crunch and salt and steamy, fragrant flesh, is cooked with the sort of finesse you might expect from an expensive Hong Kong–style fish house at three times the price. 4803 Eagle Rock Blvd., Eagle Rock; (213) 257-7167 (also 618 S. Mission Ave., South Pasadena, 626-403-0145, and 422 E. First St., downtown, 213-625-0566, lunch only). Open for lunch and dinner Tues.–Sat. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $6–$16. No alcohol. Takeout. Street parking. Cash only.
Hurtling east on Olympic from downtown, you can smell Tacos Leovis two blocks before you see it, from the sweet whiff of roasting meat and burnt chiles that blasts through the internal-combustion fumes on this heavily trafficked stretch of road. There are a lot of gypsy taquerías grilling meat over open sidewalk fires late on weekend nights, but this is the place to come in the afternoon, a battered metal cart where vertical spitfuls of pork rotate before a roaring fire in the al pastor style. I’ve seen stakebed trucks make screeching U-turns when their drivers spot the grill. Order a few tacos with grilled onions, grab a cold Mexican apple soda from an ice bucket, and garnish the tacos yourself from a buffet-style salsa bar — the tart green salsa is better than the lackluster red. 3120 E. Olympic Blvd., East L.A.
My particular favorite tacos come from the truck that spends its weekends parked behind El Taurino, an otherwise undistinguished taco stand on Hoover. A gleaming column of marinated pork al pastor rotates before a simulated shepherd’s fire; nubbins of the outside layer of meat caramelize and drip juice. Somebody hacks off a few slivers, slivers you know are meant for your very taco, and rushes to anoint the pork with finely chopped onion, cilantro, and a stupendous, dusky hot sauce that perfectly accents the sweetness of the meat. There are also decent stewed tongue, carnitas and carne asada — about as beside the point as the hot dogs at Tommy’s. Truck operates weekends behind 1104 S. Hoover St.; (213) 738-9197.
Tito’s, a Culver City taco stand near the fast-food corner of Sepulveda and Washington Place, is a high-volume place where chips go from the fryer to giant galvanized trash cans that serve as storage bins, where freshly fried tacos are stacked in long rows and salsa is made in a drum. People eat at long picnic tables, either inside or out, gray cardboard takeout cartons forming tabletop Stonehenges. In years gone by, while my mom’s dog liked Apple Pan Hickoryburgers, Patio Chicago Dogs, Gelson’s rare roast beef, Oat Thins, kosher salami and basically anything from Jerry’s Deli that wasn’t coleslaw, what the dog liked best was a hard-shell taco from Tito’s, stripped of salsa and the mantle of shredded lettuce. When Mom went for tacos, she always got them with extra cheese. Dogs love the taste of cheese. As do I. 11222 Washington Place, Culver City; (310) 391-5780. Open daily 9:30 a.m.–11:30 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $2–$6. No alcohol. Takeout. Cash only.