I’ve eaten tacos from propane-fired griddles outside my apartment near downtown Los Angeles, and from the street grills off Garibaldi Square while mingling with mariachis between sets in Mexico City. I’ve partaken of the ubiquitous taco stands of Texas and the cozy Mexican diners on the north side of Chicago. It doesn’t make me an expert, but it does establish some frame of reference within which to evaluate well-prepared al pastor wrapped in a perfectly pressed and grilled corn tortilla.
If I am qualified at all, it may be because I have for years subsisted, in more cities than I can recall, on a budget that would make a college freshman struggle with the choice between a month’s supply of Ramen noodles or Xeroxing the pertinent chapters of an essential textbook from the school library’s reserve copy. But I’ve always tried to get the most panang for what was often my last buck, so to speak.
At the Saturday City Market, Mexican Tacos serves impeccably prepared steak (spiced with the guajillo chili), pork, chicken, chorizo, and vegetarian tacos at the corner of Water and First streets, for $2.75 a pop. There’s a lady deftly hand-flattening and grilling corn tortillas one by one, staying only a few tortillas ahead of the incoming orders. The chorizo—the spicy, loose-meat, Mexican pork sausage—they blend and grind at home. Someone is steadily pan-searing chicken on site. They top these beauties off with pico de gallo, and lettuce with a sprinkling of queso fresco, a soft, moist cheese. Then there’s perfectly mild but tasty green sauce on each one, if you choose. The City Market’s last day is the Saturday before Christmas, but it returns in early April.
Over on East High Street is La Michoacana. Edgar Gaona, eldest son of the family operation, reckons they have been at the present location for four or five years, but started out in a food truck more than 10 years ago, back when he was a lad of 10 or 12.
“The health inspector said we were the first taco truck in town,” he said. Gaona’s mother, whose family recipes fuel the operation, is a native of Michoacán, a province west of Mexico City. Similar in style to Mexican Tacos, La Michoacana makes its own tortillas as needed and makes the chorizo from scratch. It offers a broader range of options for $2.25, including tongue, tripe, and barbecue tacos. The kicker here is the restaurant’s three sauces. The milder red and green sauces are jalapeño-based, but the hot green sauce packs its punch with the chili de arbol. There’s also a very spicy, stoutly-pickled carrot, onion and jalapeno garnish, which is not for the faint of tongue.
As good as those tacos are, I would still opt for La Tako Nako, a neon-belighted trailer parked alongside Hydraulic Road near Commonwealth Drive. The tortillas may be store-bought, but you don’t pick your burger joint because it bakes its own buns. Plus, it’s good to double up the corn wraps to absorb the savory grease from the carne asada and pork tacos. Hey, where there’s fat, there’s usually flavor. Tako Nako lays grilled onions you might expect to come on an Italian sausage over each $2 serving, along with cilantro and some solid homemade salsas. You can feel the tangy, meaty juice hit the back of your throat before you even chew the first couple bites. It’s the kind of savory you just want to drink down in shots, not wanting it to end as the last bits of meat are making their way down your gullet. Plus, there’s a certain charm about eating two or three of these succulent masterpieces among the banter of the almost exclusively Spanish-speaking clientele in the neon glow of a damp chilly night.