While we don’t really need an excuse to eat more tacos, celebrating Latinx culture and cuisine in the name of Hispanic Heritage Month is certainly a good one. And Southern California is home to some of the best—from roadside taquerias just north of the border to more formal restaurants where chefs take creative liberties with the contents of their tacos. Most of these restaurants are small, family-run spots with short and sweet menus. Many are known to excel at one particular kind of taco or have staple signatures and it’s generally best to go along with popular wisdom. But how you eat your taco—standing up, sitting down, in your car or hovering over it—is entirely up to you.
Here are nine picks for tacos across Southern California:
Chef Carlos Salgado is known for his exacting approach to cooking and the tacos at Taco María are a fine example. The masa for the tortillas is made from heirloom varieties of corn grown throughout Mexico that is nixtamalized in-house (a process that helps to transform cornmeal into a pliant dough). The restaurant is in Orange County, and for those lucky enough to live nearby (or willing to drive) they are offering a takeout menu during the pandemic. There are two tacos on this menu (bacon and frijoles or grilled fish), which leaves plenty of room for everything else. Dessert, jars of house-made salsas, beer and wine are all available to-go.
There are nine tacos to choose from at Amor y Tacos in Cerritos. Carnitas and al pastor are familiar favorites while a short rib taco with burnt habanero crema or a queso-stuffed version with onion jam are cheffy riffs. Chef and Co-Owner Thomas Ortega uses his Chicano childhood as inspiration for his cuisine, which celebrates the unique Mexican-American culture that was born, in part, right here in LA. As a result, enchiladas sit next to a chile relleno burger and hatch chile spaghetti on the menu. The restaurant is only doing takeout now and orders can be placed via ChowNow. Consider the family dinner or a margarita kit for a crowd.
Gracias Madre in West Hollywood (also Newport Beach and San Francisco) is probably not what you expect a Mexican restaurant to be. The menu eschews the carnal pleasures of meat for the creative pleasures of vegan, plant-based cuisine. Everything here is made from Mother Earth, hence the name (it means ‘thank you, mother’ in Spanish). The tacos ‘al pastor’ replace achiote-rubbed pork with roasted mushrooms and juicy carnitas are made from jackfruit, which is tucked into a burrito with beans and rice. Though vegan Mexican food is earning more attention these days, Chef Mario Alberto has been cooking this way since the restaurant opened in 2014. Outdoor dining on the restaurant’s attractive patio is available.
In Mexico and throughout its diaspora, guisados are comforting stews eaten with tortillas or rice and to some, the essence of nostalgia. At Guisados, the restaurant that specializes in tacos de guisados, these braises are ladled atop supple, hand-pressed corn tortillas and garnished with some combination of crema, pickled or raw onion and crumbled fresh cheese. There is nothing but tacos on the menu but there are over 10 to choose from (and more if you count the breakfast menu). Fillings include simmered flank steak, diced pork chop in chile verde, mole poblano and cochinita pibil. There are seven locations scattered throughout Los Angeles from Burbank to Boyle Heights and all are currently open for takeout and delivery.
Owner Frank Vizcarra is a Tijuana native and intimately familiar with the excellent, informal taquerias of his home state. At his restaurant in San Diego, which reopened for dine-in service two weeks ago and also offers takeaway, Vizcarra and Executive Chef Andrew Bent are offering a different kind of taco experience. Here, tacos are filled with charred meats from the wood-burning grill such as smoky mesquite-grilled chicken and come topped with a creative array of hand-crafted sauces from chorizo-tomato vinaigrette to avocado mousse. Corn tortillas are freshly hand-pressed to order and tacos go very well with a signature cocktail.
Established in 1933, this family-run taqueria has about five things on the menu and nothing costs over $10. The corn tortillas here are deep fried—either folded in half, fried and stuffed with seasoned meats or tightly wrapped around a juicy braised pork filling before a plunge into hot oil. Shredded iceberg lettuce, crema and crumbly cotija cheese are the perfect cooling-crisp and salty accents. Hot sauce is pre-packaged in plastic tubs and comes free with every order but the family recipe is a valuable treasure in itself. The restaurant continues to fulfill takeout orders in the pandemic though it remains cash-only.
Literal steps from the beach in Pacific Beach, Oscar’s Mexican Seafood is a taste of the sea in the folds of a tender corn tortilla. The popular Baha fish tacos—some of the best in a town known for the style—offer golden battered fillets topped with cabbage and a smoky chipotle crema. Other fillings include smoked fish, shrimp with chorizo or grilled octopus; everything comes with a signature haphazard smattering of toppings. It may look messy, but every element is essential. Takeout is available at both Pacific Beach outposts, while the third location in Hillcrest is closed during the pandemic.
The signature blue corn tortillas at this family-owned restaurant in La Jolla hold myriad fillings. Traditionally braised carnitas tacos or a garlic butter-roasted Maine lobster taco gives you an idea of the breadth of this menu. In addition to tacos, there are also small snacks and ceviche. Thirsty? The restaurant has you covered with a wide selection of spirits and specialty cocktails, as well as a house label beer (the restaurant recently expanded with a Cerveceria in Mission Valley). The La Jolla dining room is open for dine-in service, takeout and delivery.
Tacos El Gordo started selling its Tijuana-style tacos over 40 years ago in Chula Vista. Even though it has since expanded into a mini chain with six locations across California and Nevada, the restaurant remains a family-run business. It is counter service only here (they are currently open for takeout and delivery) but service runs continuously from day to night. The uniformed (and masked) staff dole out corn tortilla rounds topped with achiote-stained spicy pork adobado, sliced from the trompo, or the popular grilled and chopped steak topped with a dollop of creamed avocado—a signature Tijuana touch. Bulbs of crisp radish, wedges of lime and fistfuls of cilantro and chopped onion accompany every order.