Javier Cabral is an LA-based journalist who has been writing about food professionally since he was a teen. At 21, he became a restaurant scout for legendary ‘Los Angeles Times’ restaurant critic Jonathan Gold. Now, Cabral is the editor of the James Beard Award–winning food and culture website L.A. TACO, a coauthor of a cookbook about Mexican grilling, and a taco curator for Netflix’s ‘Taco Chronicles.’ Whether you’re after tacos packed with mesquite–grilled asada or slow-cooked tripe, he’s your guy. So when in search of the very best tacos in LA, we turned to Cabral to put together a guide.
This is perhaps the most exciting time (dare I say ever?) to love tacos in LA. There are so many different styles being cooked across the city, from regional classics to vegan variations—but it wasn’t always like this. Over the 18 years that I’ve been writing about food in the city, I’ve seen the taco scene evolve from the same five tacos (asada, carnitas, tripa, al pastor, and chicken), to tacos that now represent hyper-regional approaches honoring places such as Puebla, Sinaloa, and Oaxaca, to name just a few. The best tacos in LA right now include rich, saucy goat birria, smoky, mesquite-grilled asada, and tender, slow-braised cabeza.
There are a couple of factors that make LA’s taco scene more robust than Texas’s, New York’s, or even San Francisco’s. The first is the city’s immigrant population. LA has such a rich and diverse population of people who have immigrated from all over Mexico. That makes for a huge amount of regional Mexican cooking, and also a hungry audience for all of those different regional cuisines. There’s a lot more space to grow as a Mexican regional restaurant here because there are entire communities that fuel demand for it. LA’s taco culture also benefits enormously from its proximity to Mexico, via Tijuana—chefs here source everything from ingredients to ceramics from Tijuana, helping to complete the dining experience. The closeness of the border means a lot of culinary influences flow back and forth between the cities, which are about two hours away from each other on a no-traffic day.
There are a few boxes to tick if you’re hoping to find a memorable taco in LA. Seeing some kind of marker of regional pride—the state emblem of Sinaloa on a taco truck, for instance—is always a good sign. That often indicates that taqueros care enough to not homogenize the food they’re serving. I also usually look for a sense of connection and loyalty between taqueros and their customers. In Mexico, service is particularly important, so when I see that a taquero and their customer have a rapport and a sense of mutual loyalty, that’s a sign that the tacos are good enough to come back for.
Of course, tortillas are a huge part of what makes a taco great too. If taqueros can tell you where the tortillas are made, chances are they care enough about the final product to make a superb taco. Whether or not a shop makes its own agua fresca from scratch or uses concentrated syrups—rendering a watery version—also says a lot about a taquería’s general philosophy. If all else fails, there’s always the salsa test: Try a bit on the back of your hand to make sure it’s thick, flavorful, and not at all watered-down.
Over many, many years of eating across this city, I’ve put all of the tacos on this list through their paces. These 12 (including a vegan option!) represent the best of regional Mexican cooking in LA. Some of them may be familiar, while others might be completely new to you, but rest assured: They’re all worth the trip.Sonoratown
Downtown Los Angeles, multiple locations
If I had to choose one taco to best represent the LA taco scene, it would be from Sonoratown. The restaurant doesn’t have a traditional kitchen setup. Everything gets cooked over a mesquite grill, and instead of just using flap meat for asada, they use a unique rib cut that is extra juicy and crisp at the same time, as is customary in a lot of northern Mexican cuisines. Opened in 2016 by Teodoro Diaz-Rodriguez Jr. and Jennifer Feltham, this restaurant serves food in the style of San Luis Río Colorado, the small town in Sonora, Mexico, where Diaz-Rodriguez grew up. The region is famous for flour tortillas that are particularly thin. At Sonoratown, they’re made in-house, and they’re so paper-thin you can almost see through them. The cooks go through nearly 4,000 of those gorgeous tortillas each day between their Downtown and Mid-City locations.
The first bite of a Sonoratown taco feels different than any other taco in the city, because of those extra-thin, chewy flour tortillas. The meat inside has a slight crisp to it from the mesquite smoke. It’s deliciously delicate and a little fatty. Those big flavors are rounded out with a light, refreshing salsa and a bit of minced cabbage, which is the classic style of garnish in Mexico’s northern states—as opposed to onion and cilantro found pretty much everywhere else. Make sure you take a bite of the accompanying grilled green onion, which is customary in that part of Mexico to punctuate each bite of rich meat.