Great Mexican food is abundant in Southern California, but as a few million McMansion in the suburbs will attest, so is bad taste. And deciding where to eat, in a city with thousands upon thousands of options and some of its best restaurants hiding in mini-malls, can devolve into a special kind of hell. Who can you trust to steer you toward the perfect taqueria? Yelp? Friends? Danny Trejo?
Fortunately, dear food vagabond, like Virgil guided Dante through the Inferno, we shall light your path to the seven best taquerias in the Los Angeles area (Long Beach included). Why seven? Because shoehorning a Divine Comedy reference into the intro of a food article is just what your Mexican food search requires. And what could possibly be funnier than 14th-century Italian narrative poetry?!
Nothing. Now let’s get hungry.
Al and Bea’s Tacos — 2025 E 1st ST, Los Angeles CA
Al and Bea’s is a cute little establishment in the heart of Boyle Heights. Despite its outdoor seating, one order window, and small kitchen crew, this tiny place is packed with flavor. They have a friendly staff who are more than happy to make suggestions. The Combination Burrito — consisting of tender shredded beef, authentic refried beans, cheese, and a hot green salsa — is so delicious it’ll have you babbling between bites like a certain President.
“This burrito [chomp] people are telling me [chomp] terrific beans, I’m really very [chomp] the best [chomp] and cheese? [chomp] Al and Beas!”
And if that isn’t enough to convince you, they have their own merch, so they’re obviously doing something right.
El Rancho Grande — E 17 Olvera St, Los Angeles
El Rancho Grande has the most ironic name of any eating establishment. Located right in the middle of Olvera Street this tiny taco shack literally seats, at most, 15 people, has about six tables, and the only thing between the cook and the guests is a small crack in the sidewalk. A big ranch, this place is not. But “Tiny Outdoor 4th Generation Taco Eatery Located in an Always Crowded Tourist Street” doesn’t have a great ring to it.
With beans, time equals flavor, and the beans here are second only to your Grandma’s homemade variety. Deliciously slow-cooked, they compliment everything on the menu. The Taquitos are that perfect balance of crunchy outside and moist inside, and the shredded beef burrito and potato tacos melt in your mouth in a way that generally seems reserved for desserts. NOTE: Be careful when grabbing a bottle of salsa at this place, the green is easy enough to spot, but the red salsa and the habanero salsa look almost identical, so feel free to ask if you can’t handle your spice.
If you’re not in the mood to explore LA’s oldest street, it’s the second taco shack you’ll find if you’re entering from Cesar Chavez Avenue. Be sure to check out David Alfaro Siqueiros’ restored “La América Tropical” mural if you have the time.
Taqueria la Mexicana — Various locations in Long Beach
If you’re ever in the Long Beach area (and chances are you will be, as downtown LA’s rent prices continue to rise), you simply must go to Taqueria la Mexicana. Although the salsa isn’t very spicy and the guacamole is a little heavy on the tomatoes and onion, what Taqueria La Mexicana lacks in condiments it makes up for in the quality of its meat. They use only USDA choice steak and have hands down the best carne asada you’re likely to taste in the US.
No clever little jokes to spin, this is simply a superb place to get Mexican food. Go there, get the carne asada fries, squirt some lime on ‘em, and promptly thank us for changing your life forever… just as soon as the savory flavors have finished their dance in your mouth.
Guisados — Various locations in Los Angeles
Initially, we were skeptical to add Guisados to the list. It’s on the pricier and more gourmet side and people often resist that with tacos. But this East LA success story deserves every bit of its shine. Guisados has thick handmade tortillas that soak up all the juices and flavor of their homestyle braises. Their entire menu is gluten free, and every taco has a spicy kick to it (grab an horchata if you can’t handle your spice).
Speaking of spice, their Chili Toreados taco is a suicidal mix of habanero, serrano, jalapeno and thai chilis. Don’t order it, even if you think you can handle it. You can’t. Two bites in and you’ll discover yourself in an altered state, ears ringing, unable to hear, taste-buds totally freaking out. An hour later you — like our author — may foolishly touch your eye while driving and have to pull over to avoid certain death. Eat their other specialties and save the chili toreados for your greatest enemies.
Holé Molé — Various locations in Long Beach
If you know anyone from the Long Beach-area, surely you’ve heard a legend or two about this small chain. Holé Molé is very affordable, and on taco Tuesdays most of their tacos are only $1.19. The tortillas are packed with so much meat so you could easily turn one into two and thereby have six tacos every tuesday night for under $5. That’s not cheap, it’s just common-sense resourcefulness.
Holé Molé has a small salsa bar and, due to the high volume of customers, it’s always fresh and packed with roasted chilis. Parking is a headache at all three Long Beach locations, so don’t naively drive over on a tuesday hoping to get lucky. Long Beach is considerably more walkable then most of Los Angeles so grab a few friends and show up on foot.
If you’re really into fish, Holé Molé has got you covered. People love the tender shrimp ceviche and they make a fish burrito (often a tough find at small taquerias). If you like value, freshness, and fish, Holé Molé is some of the best Mexican food Southern California has to offer its hungry Angelenos.
Tacos el Gavilan — Various locations in Los Angeles
Tacos el Gavilan is almost identical to another popular chain in LA, King Taco. You may have heard of King Taco from the native Angelenos who tout this massively overrated chain’s wonders. Tacos el Gavilan, although much smaller, is superior in every way. They have an open salsa bar offering two different types of red and green salsa, roasted chili peppers, radishes, cilantro and onion, limes, and beans. YES, FREE BEANS!
King Taco charges you for extra salsa, those monsters. With its late hours, Tacos el Gavilan is the perfect place to stumble into between parties, or the best place to recover after a long night out.
Chema’s Tacos — 11527 Whittier Blvd, CA, 90601
Chema’s is a little bit out of the way, but if you find yourself in Whittier antiquing or visiting Marty Mcfly’s high school, Chema’s deserves a spot on the itinerary. Do you want life affirming tacos that will redefine your understanding of flavor? Go to Chema’s. Are you a salsa connoisseur looking for that perfect spice that not only compliments, but causes the mouth to water in slack jawed ecstasy? Go to Chema’s! Do you want a robust menu of Mexican food staples? Well… don’t go to Chema’s. They only sell tacos. They got meats, cilantro, onion, and salsa, period. They don’t even have cheese, that’s how authentic they are. They’re like a less gourmet Guisado’s but what they lack in creative combinations they make up for in price and flavor!
Chema’s serves the type of tacos that pop in your head when someone says “should we get tacos?”