Not long ago, a friend from out of town asked where to get the best tacos in L.A. Hours later, abs aching from laughing so derisively for so long at her naiveté, we answered that question with one of our own, the question that always follows such an absurd inquiry: “Well, what kind of tacos are you looking for?”
The L.A. taco scene is so diverse, and so regionally driven, that asking for the best tacos is like asking for the best beer in San Diego. Tacos here are divided by style, meat and region of origin, enumerated most successfully by Bill Esparza in his incredible Tacopedia. Each style of taco has its own champion or ideal – the fish tacos from Ricky’s, the asada at Mexicali, the carnitas from El Momo, the al pastor from Tacos Leo.
Any movement or news that comes out of these boss taqueros, then, is a relatively big deal, and so it is with great joy that we noticed that in recent weeks Tacos Leo, the unquestioned king of al pastor, has set up a satellite stand just south of Echo Park Lake.
There's nothing quite like good al pastor, marinated pork impaled upon a rotating vertical spit called a trompo and crowned with a wedge of pineapple. The flavor manages to be both porky and citrusy, juicy and rich, with a pop of pineapple and dotted with occasional little crispy bits of char, the taco equivalent of a Crunch bar.
It's sometimes reminiscent of shawarma, with which it shares some ancestry, but al pastor is fatty and citrusy where shawarma is earthy and garlicky. The al pastor at Tacos Leo, most famous for its truck in a gas station at Venice and La Brea, is all of this and more, sliced in thin little segments from a massive trompo, the pineapple artfully flicked right from the top of the spit. A single al pastor taco from Tacos Leo is perhaps the finest food item you can get for $1.
The newest outpost of Tacos Leo is a stand in a car wash at the corner of Temple and Glendale. It falls squarely in that amorphous area south of Echo Park but north of downtown, past the 101 but not quite to TiGeorge’s or Bob Baker Marionette Theatre, the part of town vaguely referred to as Historic Filipinotown.
At first glance it may be hard to tell exactly what connects this stand to Tacos Leo – there’s no truck, the trompo is significantly smaller, and the massive crowds have yet to descend upon it – but when you receive your tacos, there can be no mistake. The al pastor is instantly recognizable, fragrant and flavorful and perfect, so addictive and easy to eat that before you know it, you’ve wolfed down your first three and have already received three more, and not long after that you find yourself haggling with the kind and lovely and very understanding woman at the cash register over the price for the whole dang trompo.
It’s beside the point, but the salsa bar is excellent as well, complete with pickled onions and habañeros and the same stellar lineup of salsas as the location further west. And, yes, the tacos are still just a buck flat.
This part of town has long been taco-rich, with several quality trucks and a few brick-and-mortars, but the arrival of Tacos Leo makes it truly outstanding. The trompo has of late returned to the El Flamin’ Taco at Sunset and Alvarado, so we may soon be looking at a Magic and Bird type of al pastor showdown – yet another notch in the belt of Hipsteropolis.
Tacos Leo, in the car wash on the southwest corner of Glendale and Temple; Historic Filipinotown; nightly.