If you follow @RidingshotgunLA on Twitter, you may have noticed Roy Choi being a little more ornery than usual recently. For a few days, the Kogi king was prodding back at a New York Times piece that lauds the Big Apple’s taco scene. The opening line — “New York has great tacos, tacos that can go mano a mano with the best of Los Angeles” — was more than enough to get Choi fired up. Now it’s our turn.
Those tried-and-true bicoastal food topics (Pizza in L.A.? Pshaw!) never cease to draw a crowd of angry commenters looking to defend their turf. But what if we took the conversation up a notch, and pulled in every corner of the Union? What foods does Los Angeles do better than the entire rest of the United States? Tacos, obviously — better luck next time, Borough dwellers — but also certain street foods, American classics and lots of delicious pitstops in between.
Here are ten culinary delights that Los Angeles does better than anywhere else in America, with a few local examples to help drive the point home.
Lots of great stuff on OverOverUnder.com today, like hot dogs and churros and cochinita pibil tacos and all sorts of other tasty stuff.
Mexican food in Los Angeles knows no boundaries. Of course, neighborhoods east of the LA River deservedly get the most attention, but there are quality tacos, burritos, gorditas and fajitas to be had all over this gigantic city. The San Fernando Valley neighborhood of North Hollywood is no exception.
Thanks to a large working-class population that surrounds the hip NoHo arts district strip, cheap and delicious Mexican food can be had all over the neighborhood. And while there may not be as many taco trucks crawling the streets at night, North Hollywood’s ample space gives lots of room for small taquerias to thrive, supplying late night crowds and daily diners alike with all manner of great meals.
We’ve seen puffy tacos before in Los Angeles. Classy casual chef Josef Centeno’s downtown spot Bar Amá offers them as a near rite of passage for anyone looking to break into LA’s Tex-Mex game. But after Bar Amá, the next best place to get crispy, fried puffy tacos around town is…where? Anywhere?
One place: Arturo’s Puffy Taco, in Whittier. Aside from Bar Amá’s upmarket version, Arturo’s is virtually the only place you’ll find the decidedly Texan fried delight. In fact, Arturo’s prides themselves on doing a lot of things in the supposed Tex-Mex tradition—with varying levels of success.
The soft barbacoa tacos arrived first, drenched in a red chile arbol that left the whole thing tinted red, but lacking any semblance of its chile-laced heat. Instead, the tender meat inside provided all of the needed flavor, with plenty of juice and stewed spices to go along with a handful of crisp white onions. The tortillas, which had softened considerably from their splash with the salsa, had been warmly griddled and laced with tasty, fried edges with every bite. For basic barbacoa tacos, the high execution is readily apparent.
Next in line on the menu board are the tacos dorados de papa, or fried potato tacos. Rather than drenching them in a thin salsa and lots of guacamole, you can actually order these with a heap of carnitas right on top. Soft and salty, you won’t find much crispy pork to speak of. Instead, the whole thing is swamped up with a thin tomato-based salsa, some shaves of cabbage and slices of raw white onion. The idea is to grab a little bit of all the ingredients in every bite, for a starchy, meaty, crispy, slightly spicy forkful.
Clarita Trujillo may not be a household name anymore, but she certainly enjoyed a dose of small fame after her cooking caught the attention of an L.A.-based Spanish language morning show a few years back. And while patrons used to flock to the Boyle Heights version of Clarita’s, a leasing issue forced the restaurant to close up shop in 2010, according to an L.A. Times article on Trujillo from 2011.
Now, Clarita’s is up and running again in El Sereno, a few miles from the original location, but often with a fraction of the customers. Still, Trujillo floats around the sparse dining area and outside, haranguing passersby into trying a tamale or coming in for a sip of horchata. Truth be told, a lot of folks walk on without taking Trujillo up on her offers, but they’re missing out. Tacos Clarita is serving up some of the tastiest handcrafted Mexico City tacos you’ll find in the area.
Metro Balderas is a well-known taqueria in Highland Park. Actually, you might as well just say “it’s a taqueria in Highland Park”. The concentration of high quality tacos that come from this sliver of land northeast of downtown Los Angeles is remarkable, from the fantastically fried fish at Via Mar Seafood to the permanently parked La Estrella lonchero. What Metro Balderas is said to do exceptionally well, though, is carnitas.
Paul Bartunek is a food photo master.