Art by Dave Shulman
La Luz del Día
The last place you'd expect to find a real Mexican joint is among the maraca vendors and befuddled German tourists of Olvera Street, but there it is (and has been for decades), La Luz del Día, serving cactus salad to the hordes. La Luz is a simple place, and most of what it serves are basic permutations of the two or three things it does best. So whatever you think you ordered — soft tacos, tostadas, whatever — you'll probably get at least one helping of carnitas, or the picadillo, the chunky Mexican beef stew that, with its carrots and potatoes, looks like a stew somebody's mother might have made . . . provided that somebody's mother has an industrial-size garlic press and a Thai tolerance for chile heat. 1 W. Olvera St., downtown; (213) 628-7495. Open Tues. – Sun. for lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $8 – $10. Beer only. Cash only.
Roast To Go
Downtown's Grand Central Market, that huge old place between Hill Street and Broadway, is famous for good prices on cows' heads, carp, and fragrant heaps of vegetables that tend toward extreme ripeness. Most notable, though, are the carnitas tacos at Roast To Go, what seems like a full quarter-pound of crisp, savory pork crammed with onion and hot salsa into a couple of tortillas barely big enough to contain the meat. Also Roast To Go's tacos of buche, pig throat. Their big, golden sheets of fried pigskin are terrific, too. Grand Central Market, 317 S. Broadway, downtown; (213) 625-1385. Open daily 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. Lunch for two, food only, $3 – $9. Takeout. Cash only.
Señor Fresh (formerly Señor Fish)
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 al 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. 4803 Eagle Rock Blvd., Eagle Rock; (323) 257-7167. Open for lunch and dinner Fri. – Sat. 11 a.m. – 9:30 p.m., Sun. – Thurs. 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $9 – $10. No alcohol. Takeout. Street parking. Cash only.
Tacos Baja Ensenada
Tacos Baja smells right, homey and oniony like a Mexican grandmother's house, without a hint of seafood funk, and the various seafood cocktails — octopus, shrimp, clam, though not the pata de mula — are fresh and good. But you've come, no doubt, for some of L.A.'s finest fish tacos: crunchy, sizzlingly hot strips of batter-fried halibut, folded into warm corn tortillas with salsa, shredded cabbage and a squeeze of lime, sprinkled with freshly chopped herbs and finished with a squirt of thick cultured cream, lightly done, delicately flavored. Entire religions have been founded on miracles less profound than the Ensenada fish taco — you could eat four in a minute and a half, and probably should, before they have a chance to cool. 5385 Whittier Blvd., East L.A.; (323) 887-1980. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $6 – $14. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only.
La Taquiza No. 2
The best Mexican antojito in Los Angeles may be something called a mulita — a sort of quesadilla on steroids, good enough to make a grown man yelp with joy — at the South-Central restaurant La Taquiza No. 2. Two thick corn tortillas, made seconds earlier, are slapped down on a griddle, glazed with jack cheese and fresh guacamole, sprinkled with a few grams of meat snatched off the fire, then welded together into kind of a sandwich. The tortillas, while bulky, have the illusion of great lightness and a fluffiness that comes only as the result of consummate culinary skills. There is a crisp, toasty brittleness where the mulita has rested against the griddle; this gives way to an almost puddinglike softness inside, the sweet smack of grilled corn, and (finally!) the paired richnesses of the cool avocado and the hot melted cheese, plus the chile-tinged chewiness of carbonized pork. 3009 S. Figueroa St.; (213) 741-9795. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $6 – $12. No alcohol. Takeout. Guarded lot parking. MC, V.
My particular favorite tacos come from the truck that spends its weekends parked behind the downtown Mexican restaurant El Taurino. Inside the truck, a gleaming column of marinated pork al pastor rotates on a great big stick before a simulated shepherd's fire, as 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. These tacos tend to get eaten before you reach your car. Truck operates on weekends behind 1104 S. Hoover St.; (213) 738-9197. Cash only.
Los Tres Cochinitos
Cecina de res is so good: flat slabs of Mexican dried beef, sliced thin as poker chips and fried until they are black and crisp. Two wide pieces cover nearly an entire plate and bubble like freshly cooked bacon. Each brittle mouthful — you don't really cut the stuff so much as snap off pieces with your fork — shatters into flavors of citrus and garlic and extreme well-doneness, a fugue of carbon and lime. As far as I know, Los Tres Cochinitos — the Three Little Pigs, don't you know? — is the only place in the Southland where you can get the crunchy kind of cecina, although El Porton in Montebello serves a pretty good version of the chewy kind. Los Tres' cecina tastes not unlike Thai fried dried beef. Cecina and a good fresh-tomato salsa make something close to the perfect taco. 803 W. Pacific Coast Hwy., Wilmington; (310) 549-0921. Open daily 24 hours. Dinner for two, food only, $8 – $15. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. AE, CB, DC, Disc., MC, V.