- Insider’s Joe Avella and Sydney Kramer visit four of the best places to get tacos in Los Angeles.
- They try tacos at Sonoratown, Mariscos Jalisco, Carnitas El Momo and Ricky’s Fish Tacos.
- The two hosts try each taco to determine which one is the best of the best.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Joe Avella: Oh man, that’s so good!
Sydney Kramer: We’re here in Los Angeles for the best of the best tacos.
Joe: Syd, if I had to guess, I’d say there was, I don’t know, about a million taco places in Los Angeles. So we went through “best of” lists on Thrillist, Eater LA, Infatuation, Yelp.com.
Joe: And also we reached out to Bill Esparza, the Los Angeles taco expert. Bill Esparza is a James Beard Award-winning writer who literally wrote the book on LA’s Mexican food. With his help, we whittled the list down to four of the best tacos in this city.
Bill Esparza: Tacos are important to Los Angeles ‘cause Los Angeles is a Mexican city. We’re in a Latino city, tacos are one of those foods that stand out.
Joe: Syd, we got the best carne asada, we got the best carnitas, we got the best shrimp taco, and, of course, the best fish taco.
Sydney: So, isn’t comparing all of these different proteins and tacos kind of like comparing apples to oranges?
Joe: Great point. We wanted to make sure that we well represented the variety and cultural depth of tacos that LA has to offer.
Sydney: Sounds delicious. Let’s get started.
Joe: Our first stop is Sonoratown in downtown Los Angeles.
Sydney: They make the most amazing flour tortillas, I’m really excited to try them. They drive to Mexico at least twice a month to get special flour to make them.
Joe: They also cook the carne asada over a mesquite grill. Which is actually pretty unique for Los Angeles.
Jennifer Feltham: We serve tacos estilo Sonora, which is to say from northern Mexico rather than central or south. It’s a little different style. We do tortillas de harina, made by hand fresh every day with flour that we bring from his hometown in Mexico, in San Luis Río Colorado. And we grill over a fire, a mesquite wood fire. We use charcoal, and that adds the sort of, like, signature flavor to all of our food.
Bill: Sonoratown is a game-changing restaurant because they really introduced northern-style tacos. Carne asada, the verb, “asar,” means to roast, and you don’t roast meat on a flattop. What Sonoratown did, by investing and putting a grill and a hood inside their restaurant, made it possible for them to cook the way people do in the north.
Customer: We’ve been here before, we went, my mom’s actually from Sonora, so this is the only place that has tacos like back there, and they’re amazing. The tortillas are the best. Tortillas, they’re homemade, you can taste the difference from store-bought, flour tortillas.
Jennifer: We use short ribs, instead of, just, sort of, like, a cheaper cut, because Sonora reps really hard with their carne asada and we have to do it right. It’s a very expensive choice to make, but it’s worth it when you taste the flavor. When you cook over a fire, too, you end up with crispy fat, instead of sort of, like, gummy or chewy fat, which is beautiful in a taco. We’re slicing the short rib up and putting the steaks onto the grill. And we’re waiting to see a little bit of bubbling in the fat, and we’re cooking it all the way through ‘cause it is a true carne asada. And then we’re dicing it up very fine so that every bite that you have has a little bit of fat and then a little bit of meat, a little chew to it. We’re dressing it with a spicy chile de árbol salsa and an avocado puree and cabbage, and then we dress it with grilled green cebollitas on the side and rábanos. Twice per month, I travel five hours to Sonora to cross the border and bring over as many sacks of flour as I can. Sonoran wheat is known to be a little softer, and it makes a more delicate, airy tortilla.
Joe: You can smell that meat cooking down the street. Walking up here, I was like, “I think I’m close.” The tacos are flying off of that grill, line’s still out the door.
Sydney: I mean, you can hear it.
Joe: Yeah. Sydney: Yeah.
Joe: So great. They got the loudest chairs possible, which I think was a smart move. Is this us?
Employee: Yes, here we go, two steak tacos.
Joe: Just in time. This is the first time, Syd, that I’ve been served tacos with a side of charred scallion.
Sydney: Really? Joe: Yes, really.
Sydney: I mean, that’s kind of one of my favorite parts about getting tacos, like, good tacos, that they should come with a side of charred scallion. That’s, like, a big part of it for me.
Joe: No onions, no tomatoes? Sydney: No onions, no tomatoes. Joe: No cilantro?
Sydney: I would never put a tomato on my taco, ever, ever, ever. But we need lime, obviously, we need lots and lots of lime. We got the radish. Which I also love.
Joe: No, thanks. Sydney: Really?
Joe: I don’t like radishes.
Sydney: This guy is so from Chicago it’s, like, not a joke.
Joe: These also don’t have cheese on them, I want to point out. Sydney: Who wants cheese on a taco? Joe: See what I’m dealing with over here?
Sydney: It’s the carne asada and the tortilla, I don’t want anything to get in the way of that. Joe: OK. Sydney: All right, let’s take a bite.
Joe: All right, do it.
Joe: That’s so good.
Sydney: That’s very good.
Joe: The char on that meat is so flavorful.
Joe: And you can taste the difference in those tortillas. I don’t think I’ve ever had a tortilla like that.
Sydney: Yeah, if you don’t like flour tortillas, it’s because you haven’t had a good flour tortilla. These are absolutely amazing. They’re soft, they’re a little doughy, and almost, like, cake-like. And it melts together with the meat, and the salsa adds, like, that much-needed acid from the richness of the meat and the tortilla. It’s really, really good. I can see why they’ve won the LA Taco Best Taco in LA award. So two times. Not once, twice.
Sydney: Now let’s head over to Boyle Heights to check out Mariscos Jalisco.
Raul Ortega: Mariscos, it translates as, in Spanish, as “seafood.” And our name actually is Jalisco. My state in Mexico, where I am from. We do nothing but seafood.
Joe: The most popular is the taco de camaron, a deep-fried shrimp taco. It was recently featured in David Chang’s “Ugly Delicious.” And Chrissy Teigen had them come to her house.
Raul: What I can let you guys see is when we just deep-fry the taco. Not the process of making it before that. That’s what I can show you guys.
Raul: Top secret, sorry.
Joe: He starts with a prestuffed taco ready for the deep fryer. What’s in them? Look, I asked him five times, but he wouldn’t say. All I know is there’s shrimp. You can try asking him yourself, but my guy was pretty tight-lipped. Once they come out of the fryer, they get topped with avocado and their housemade salsa.
Joe: Whatever, you know what I mean.
Sydney: A side of lime, and they’re ready to eat.
Raul: I tell everybody: Be careful when you try these tacos. They’re very addictive.
Customer: I’ve been coming here 20 years.
Joe: I’m ready for some tacos, ah! They’re a bit heavy, I mean, they packed whatever’s in here, they packed it in here, so.
Sydney: Yeah. Should we try it?
Joe: Let’s take a bite.
Sydney: All right.
Joe: Good. Right? Were you expecting that?
Joe: Did you expect, when you heard seafood taco, you’re just gonna be like, “Yeah, I got an idea of what that’s like.”
Joe: I’ve never tasted a seafood taco like this.
Sydney: Sweet Lord, it’s so good.
Joe: And throw the toppings on.
Sydney: I think they fry what’s inside the taco and then they fry it again. ‘Cause you see, like, the breading? Like, on the top? That’s my guess. It’s really good. It’s almost like, if you made, like, a fish-and-chips taco.
Joe: Whatever he’s doing with the seafood and mixing it in there and frying it, how he is presenting it, is unlike any other taco that I’ve had. Certainly any other seafood taco that I’ve had.
Sydney: I think this is the perfect thing to give to somebody that says they don’t like seafood. Because if you eat this, you’re gonna be a seafood person.
Joe: He was telling us that people come from San Diego, they come from San Francisco, they drive several hours just to come right here. And I can say, absolutely worth it.
Joe: I’m dying for some carnitas, and I know just the spot: Carnitas El Momo.
Christopher Posada Rangal: We specialize in anything pork, whether it’s ear, pig feet, snout, whatever you guys want pork, we can cook it however you want it. We’re trying to become a staple as other carnitas spots have been here, but we feel we’re just way much above than they are. We just feel our taste is better, we feel we’ve just outgrown them, and just been more advanced with our technique of cooking. Which is old-school, eight hours, all the way through, no rush, and no heat lamps.
Joe: Carnitas are made by slow-cooking pork in oil or lard for several hours until it’s nice and tender. It’s usually pork shoulder or butt because those are the fattiest cuts and make for the most tender and juicy carnitas.
Christopher: We don’t put our carnitas under heat lamps, so it never gets dried out, it’s always juicy. We serve three different types of cuts, which is buche, pork belly; pork skin, which is cuerito; and then pork shoulder, which is maciza.
Bill: Romulo has been doing carnitas for more than half a century. He’s a master. I can go right to Boyle Heights, get the same quality carnitas that I’ll have in Mexico. And really with his wonderful regional touch of Guanajuato, where they just take the carnitas and they put pickled chilies on top. Maybe just a little salsa. And it’s just beautiful when that pickling juice blends in with the fat, and the sweetness of the carnitas, it’s like, it’s perfect.
Customer: We live pretty close by. Chris is the man.
Joe: I’m looking at this carnitas, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a carnitas like this. What do you think?
Sydney: This is piled high. Like, I’ve never seen a taco with so much filling in it before.
Joe: They have so many different varieties of carnitas that they have here. This is, I think, like, a blend of everything, they say?
Joe: I think I heard shoulder…
Sydney: The mix.
Joe: The mix, they got ear, shoulder, probably some butt, skin, all the good stuff.
Sydney: Oh, my God, they weigh, like, it’s the size of a newborn baby.
Both: All right.
Joe: Oh, man! That’s so good! Oh, my goodness!
Joe: Thank you.
Sydney: It melts in your mouth.
Joe: Thank you for doing this. Wow. The onion and the cilantro with this pork, perfect. If anything else was on it, it would be taking away too much of it.
Sydney: Mm-hmm, yeah.
Joe: I’m just…this is incredible. You can taste this crispiness in the texture, the burnt little crispy ends with the fat that’s in here just coming together, it’s like, mmm. It’s just delicious.
Sydney: The fat melts in your mouth, and I added some of their salsa, which is really bright and acidic, that I love on my tacos. And the tortilla stays together, which is super important when you’re putting this much meat inside of a tortilla. There’s a lot of fat in these tacos, because they dip the tortillas in what I assume is some kind of fat.
Sydney: It’s excellent. Dip everything in fat, always.
Sydney: For our final stop, we’re getting an authentic taste of Ensenada at Ricky’s Fish Tacos.
Customer: I’ve been here more times than I can count. I’m from London, I come here every time I’m in LA. This won best fish taco.
Ricky Piña: It all started with the need of an Ensenada fish taco with a authentic recipe, and I thought I could do it. So I asked for Grandma’s and Mom’s recipe and put it together. I brought the recipe from Ensenada authentic, I started doing it with Mexican oregano, the flour, all the ingredients imported from Mexico. It’s very simple, it’s just a five-ingredient recipe for the batter, and water to it. We use just lots of good old American mustard, oregano, salt, baking powder, and wheat flour. We get the 22-pound box of swai filet, it’s a type of catfish that is very lean. We just have to add a bunch of garlic powder and salt and brine it overnight. Strain it, pack it, and have it ready to throw it into the batter and deep-fry it on lard.
Joe: Now, we’ve already had, technically, a fish taco already for this.
Joe: But these are completely different.
Sydney: Well, the Mariscos Jalisco was shrimp.
Joe: Yeah, that’s also a fish. Right?
Sydney: No. Absolutely not, it’s seafood.
Joe: Shrimp is fish.
Sydney: Can we like, do a check on that? Is shrimp fish?
Sydney: The tortilla doesn’t look like it’s gonna be my favorite. I’m not the biggest fan of corn, and, like, it feels a little dry.
Joe: OK, fair enough. But we were in there when we watched him make this batter. and fried his fish.
Joe: And it just looks incredible. When that fish came out and he dumped it, I was like, “I want that so bad,” so….
Sydney: It feels like there’s a lot of fish in here.
Joe: Yeah, yeah, yeah. He did not skimp on the fish, which I like. Most fish tacos, they are kind of light on the fish.
Sydney: Yeah, and then I got all the toppings, no lime here, funny enough.
Joe: All right.
Sydney: And it smells spicy.
Joe: Let’s bite.
Sydney: Let’s do it.
Joe: Wow. This is incredible, man.
Sydney: Mmm. It is, like, can you see, like, how much fish is in this taco? That’s a lot.
Sydney: You know when you get, like, fish and chips, like battered fish?
Sydney: That’s what this is like. You get a big piece of fish.
Joe: He would take them out of the fryer occasionally to stab them, to, like, get the heat in there faster.
Joe: Yeah, because the pieces are so big.
Sydney: Yeah, it’s, like, super tender, nice and flaky, almost, like, tempura-like.
Joe: Mm-hmm. Sydney: Really, really delicious. And honestly, I used the mild salsa, and it’s still kinda spicy. How are you doing?
Joe: Mind is kinda spicy. Incredibly flavorful. His blend of veggies and the salsas that he make together make this thing incredible.
Sydney: It is incredibly flavorful, that’s true.
Sydney: So we’re here at Salazar, and we’re having a couple of cocktails, and we’re gonna talk tacos.
Joe: Now, Sydney, we went to four of the best taco places in Los Angeles, and now we must decide together which one was the best taco. I’ve never made a decision this hard in my entire life.
Sydney: Between your wedding,
Sydney: moving to LA,
Joe: No question.
Sydney: this is the hardest one?
Joe: The hardest. But we have to do it for you guys, and I wanna see what was your favorite, so let’s do it right now.
Sydney: All right.
Joe: OK, ready. In a count of three, we will reveal to each other and to the world our favorites. One, two, three. Really? Sydney: Really? I’m actually shocked by that.
Sydney: I just…I don’t know. That wasn’t even like…I mean, it was delicious, but not, like, on my list.
Joe: Oh, no way. This one, like, totally blew me away. So, obviously, we have a disagreement, so it’s taco-talk time. With these guys, that carnitas was, like, something I’ve never had before in my entire life. And after we did these four taco tastings, this is the one that I have, like, thought about, and, like, when I think of tacos, I think of this one. And I already have, like, planned to go back to get more.
Sydney: I mean, it is very good, it’s, like, fatty, it’s greasy, it’s rich, it’s delicious, it’s filling, but I think as far as, like, what I want to eat, like, regularly, what I want to go get and, like, feel good about eating and maybe have, like, one or two and not feel, like, heavy and sleepy.
Joe: That’s funny, ‘cause we’re thinking two different things. I’m thinking, like, what’s the best one I’ve ever had, you’re thinking of the one you would want to have frequently.
Sydney: Yes. I think the time and effort put into Sonoratown, like, all in, is so different and unique compared to everything else you can get in LA. Like, I’ve had, like, lots of good carnitas. But as far as an all-around taco, the tortilla, the meats, the way they chop it, the way she goes to Mexico to get the flour,
Sydney: I think, like, overall, this is my favorite, and the best one in LA.
Joe: Fine. I change my mind.
Sydney: Did you really?
Joe: Sonoratown’s the best.
Sydney: Sonoratown’s the best.
Joe: Can we just get graphics to put Sonoratown across there instead? OK, well that was fun.
Sydney: All right, that was easy. Sonoratown, winner.
Sydney: This guy, are you freaking kidding me? They don’t know who he is.