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  • The Anonymous Hungry Hippopotamus

Taco Bout It: Los Angeles, California


This is my third installment in the "Taco Bout It" series. The previous two posts were about great tacos in San Diego and the Bay Area. This post is dedicated to delicious tacos in the City of Angeles. I'll kick it off with the oldest, Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles.


El Cholo

The iconic, El Cholo restaurant (originally called "Sonora Café"), opened over 100 years ago, and has since been a L.A. institution. (Incidentally, El Cholo shares its anniversary with the famous, Hollywood sign.)


In 1927, the original El Cholo changed its name to "El Cholo Spanish Cafe," even though from day one, the restaurant has served nothing but Mexican food. The motivation behind the name change was to combat the racism that made it impossible for restaurants to identify as Mexican, and survive at that time.


El Cholo Cocktail Napkin with a 1935, L.A. Times Personal Ad

After opening the original El Cholo, the restaurant expanded, and now has six locations in Southern California, and one in Salt Lake City, Utah. After all this time, it is still a family affair, run by the descendants of Alejandro and Rosa Borquez.

Not only that, more than ten percent of El Cholo employees, across all locations, have been with the restaurant for over 20 years. That's pretty impressive considering the high, turn over in the restaurant industry.


The flagship El Cholo location, is still the most popular, and has always been packed with locals, athletes, tourists and celebrities, from Clark Gable and Nat King Cole, to Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro.


You are also certain to find college students, from the University of Southern California, filling the tables and the bar. For Trojans, El Cholo is a staple of the USC experience, and for El Cholo, "the University of Southern California became part of the restaurant’s DNA."


Louis Zamperini Dining Room

In the Louis Zamperini dining room, you can find a plethora of USC memorabilia and a dedication to Zamperini. You may recognize the name Louis Zamperini from the book Unbroken and its 2014, film adaptation, directed by Angelina Jolie.


Zamperini was a USC Trojan, Olympian and World War II hero. During the war, Zamperini was in the U.S. Army Air Corps. While flying a mission, he and his crew crashed into the Pacific Ocean. He, and two survivors, stayed alive for 47 days on a life raft, only to be captured, held and tortured by the Japanese military for two and a half years.


By the time the war ended, and he was released in 1945, Zamperini was thought to be dead. He was able to prove his identity by showing his USC Silver Life Pass. Louis Zamperini has three Purple Hearts and a Prisoner of War Medal. In a letter to El Cholo restaurant, he wrote, “One thing that kept me mentally strong in Japanese prison camp was wanting to come home and enjoy a #1 at El Cholo.”


Chicken Taquitos

Now, on with the tacos ... The restaurant serves traditional tacos, but I have always had a penchant for their rolled and fried tacos. You can enjoy these chicken taquitos as an appetizer, or order them as a meal. Either way, gobble them up quickly because they are best when they are hot and crispy.


Rolled Beef Taco

The ingredients in this taco are straightforward - seasoned, shredded beef and a corn tortilla. The output of this simplicity is a crispy shell, stuffed with flavorful beef, that is tender and delicious.


Cheese Enchilada

I know this is a post about tacos, but I had to highlight the El Cholo enchilada because it is probably their most famous menu item. (Well, that or the nachos, which are rumored to have been introduced to Los Angeles via El Cholo staff member, Carmen Rocha, in 1959.) You can get the enchilada stuffed with various meats, including crab, or none at all. Whatever you choose, the enchilada will come to you oozing with melted cheese and slathered in El Cholo's signature enchilada sauce.


Combination Plate

And if you can't choose, try a little bit of everything.


Guerilla Tacos

Wes Avila started Guerilla Tacos as a two-person, food cart back in 2012. Today, the restaurant has a brick and mortar location in the heart of L.A.'s Arts District. The restaurant has been recognized by everyone from Jonathan Gold to Michelin, as a destination for modern, Mexican tacos using local, gourmet ingredients.


Baja Fish Taco

Fried Rock Cod, Lime, Crema, Baja Salsa, Cucumber Radish Slaw, Habanero

The Baja fish taco is listed under "OG Tacos" on the menu. It is one of the original tacos that Avila opened his taco cart with.


Lomo Saltado

This, as well as the next taco, are part of the restaurant's rotating menu that reflects the season and its freshest ingredients. The chef based this taco on a Peruvian dish consisting of rice, and the ingredients nestled in this flour tortilla -- marinated steak, aji verde, roasted potatoes, tomatoes, red onion and cilantro.


Sunchoke

This vegetarian taco is stuffed with herb-roasted sunchokes, mole amarillio, pickled green beans, and sunchoke chips to add crunch.


Pepino Paradise

The selection of mezcal and tequila at Guerilla Tacos is impressive and the cocktails are delicious. This drink consisted of Real de Valle tequila, cucumber, basil, lime and pineapple.


Pansy Dropper

This one, was made with rosaluna, ancho chile, tamarind, falernum and lemon. Rosaluna is a beautiful mezcal that I first tried in Mexico City. It is made in Oaxaca and reflects citrus and tropical fruit notes. Falernum, which I was not acquainted with previously, is a liqueur from Barbados made from a sweet, lime base and spices including clove and ginger. The sweetness of the falernum was balanced so nicely with the spice from the chili and the tartness of the tamarind.

Guelaguetza

When you first pull up to Guelaguetza, in the heart of L.A.'s Koreatown, you may wonder if you are in the right place for Mexican cuisine. From the outside, you'll see a giant, Chinese pagoda, splashed in orange paint.


Inside this James Beard Classics, award winner, is some of the most authentic Oaxacan food you will find outside of Oaxaca, Mexico.


Guelaguetza, opened three decades ago by Fernando Lopez and Maria de Jesus Monterrubio, is now run by their grandchildren. Over the last 30 years, it has become a L.A. institution, recognized as one of the 101 best restaurants by the late, great, Los Angeles Times, restaurant critic, Jonathan Gold.


Chips con Mole y Queso

The name of the game at Guelaguetza is mole, which becomes obvious from the moment you enter. Whether you order a dish featuring one of their fabulous moles or not, you will still get a taste of the mole coloradito, which they drizzle over their complimentary chips.


Especial de Carnes

When you think "tacos," this plate might not be exactly what you had in mind. This however, is one of the ways that tacos are served at Guelaguetza. Let me break this dish down further.


Handmade, Corn Tortilla

It is probably hard to decipher from the picture, but this tortilla is extremely large - probably the equivalent of four, regularly sized, corn tortillas. It is the palette on which you will "paint," or personalize your taco, with the rest of the ingredients below.


Nopales

The cactus was flavorful and provided a nice texture contrast in the taco.


Quesillo

The Oaxacan, string cheese, with its mild and earthy flavors, complements the variety of meats on the platter, which include the following:


Pollo Asado or Grilled Chicken


Chorizo or Oaxaca Sausage


Carne Asada or Grilled Beef

All of these ingredients, plus beans and rice, are provided with this plate. It's up to you to arrange the proportions to your liking and then, enjoy.


Garra De Tigre

If you want to taste some mezcal, Guelaguetza is the place to do it. The restaurant has multiple, mezcal, tasting flights. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to partake on this trip. Instead, I ordered this blissful cocktail that incorporates mezcal with their house syrup, freshly squeezed lime, and Oaxaca salt.


Taco Nazo

Taco Nazo opened its first location almost 50 years ago. The restaurant started as a lunch truck. Since then, it has been serving up authentic, Baja-style, fish tacos at its five locations.

Baja, is a style that was birthed in Ensenada, Mexico. Baja or Ensenada-style fish tacos involve a beer-battered and fried piece of white fish, snuggled between corn tortillas and topped with cabbage, crema and pico de gallo.


Fish Tacos

One picture suffices because I stand by these words: this is the best, Ensenada-style, fish taco, I have tasted on this side of the border. Taco Nazo gets every element right. The beer-battered fish is flakey, fluffy and crispy all at once. The cabbage and pico de gallo are always fresh, and the crema is a perfect blend of tangy, creamy and cool.

Top all of that with a squeeze of fresh lime and some of their house-made salsa for a little bit of heat, and you have the perfect bite. The tacos are served with a seasoned and grilled chile guerito. The chilis are a spice lottery. I have had some that lit up my mouth like dynamite and others with a slow burn; both versions were so delicious, I gobbled them right up to the stem.


I hope you enjoyed this post highlighting some of L.A.'s, great tacos. If you have other, favorite, taco spots in Los Angeles, or elsewhere, feel free to share.

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