This past weekend I guided members of my cycling club, the Pork Pedalers, along with several friends on a personally crafted adventure through the streets of L.A. with the specific goal of sampling some of the city’s best tacos. You might think you’ve tried a great taco before, but unless you’re lucky enough to live in a community with a large and culinarily-discerning latino community, there’s a pretty good chanced you’ve been missing out.
Several years ago, celebrity chef Rick Bayless opened a fancy restaurant on Melrose Avenue and proclaimed it to be some of the first authentic Mexican food in Los Angeles. I’d like to say a couple things about that. First, Rick Bayless is very talented when it comes to creating latin cuisine that’s inventive and out of the ordinary. Second, he’s full of shit. Los Angeles is rife with authentic Mexican cuisine, but he just didn’t take the time to find it. Maybe he should have hopped on a bike. That’s what we did, and we tried out four of L.A.’s best places to grab a taco in the process. Here’s the rundown of our 42-mile adventure.
It’s important to build up an appetite before you start stuffing yourself full of tacos, so we started our ride in West Hollywood and made our way east through Hancock Park and Koreatown into Downtown for our first stop, Mas Malo, at 7th Street & Grand. Mas Malo is the sequel to the original Malo restaurant in Silverlake but has a much less claustrophobic feel on the inside. The menus are pretty much identical between both restaurants, which was great since I was on a mission to sample two of their signature creations: The mock beef & pickle, and the squash blossom tacos.
When eight hungry cyclists showed up on their doorstep shortly after they opened at 11, the staff couldn’t have been more hospitable: They even invited us to bring our bikes into the restaurant and park them right by the bar! Our server was generous with the water, which we all appreciated as it was an unusually humid (though not unusually warm) August day in the city. When she took our orders, we decided to indulge in one of Malo’s most decadent appetizers: chewy chips. Imagine if somebody only fried tortilla chips half as long as they should have by accident. Now imagine how freaking amazing that creation would be with some habanero salsa and you’ll begin to form a picture of the rapturous expressions which slowly spread to every face in our group. I’ll be honest, I was nervous at first by the decision to order these chips because we had three more taquerias to hit after this place and it felt foolish to fill up on chips this early in the game. But trust me, these were worth every carb and frankly, were probably an ideal snack for a cyclist since they were salty and full of corn (and fat).
Before we knew it, a solid 45 minutes had passed. We had to bid the Mas Malo crew adios and ride up Main Street for a quick loop around the warehouses North of Chinatown and into Boyle Heights. Boyle Heights is home to Carnitas Uruapan, which has been making fresh masa for Los Angeles restaurants since 2006. Next door is Guisados, a taqueria with a tiny kitchen and a huge following of locals who flock to the corner of Caesar Chavez & St. Louis avenues to sample their homemade braises simply prepared atop the freshest corn tortillas you will ever eat. At the start of our ride I warned the lads to save space in their stomachs for the Guisados taco sampler, because the six and a half mile trek from Mas Malo wouldn’t really be enough exercise on its own to work up a fresh appetite. Luckily, they were all paying attention. But even more lucky was our arrival time. We rolled up around 12:30 to find the place still fairly chill. But less than ten minutes after we’d placed our orders, people were lined up out the door.
The sampler is a fantastic deal when you consider that Guisados normally charges 2.50 per taco a la carte. For only $6.99, they’ll hook you up with six different tacos, usually four from the regular menu and a couple specials of the day. If you still manage to have room after tossing those back, you can’t go wrong with their quesadilla which features a thick slab of queso panela (similar in texture to kasseri) that’s been slathered with a mild chipotle sour cream and grilled to perfection. Whether you go for the tacos or the quesadillas, the tortillas are the true comfort food here: Slightly thicker than average and loaded with the flavor of fresh sweet corn straight off the cob. But trust me, the cochinita pibil (my favorite), the mole and the tinga are delicious adornments you’d be a fool to pass up. Guisados is so popular these days that they’ve opened up satellite “distribution centers” in Echo Park and Downtown proper, but all the braises are still made at the original Boyle Heights restaurant. So are their aguas frescas, which we cheerfully poured into our water bottles before we climbed back onto our bikes.
From Guisados it was pretty much a straight shot along Caesar Chavez into Silverlake, where we diverted to Griffith Park, Los Feliz and Hollywood boulevards towards our next destination in the heart of Tinseltown, Loteria Grill. I’ve been a fan of Loteria’s original location at the Los Angeles Farmers Market for over a decade because their take on the SoCal breakfast classic, chilaquiles rojos, is both delicious and big enough to easily feed three people (or two cyclists). But as I always go to the market right when it opens in the morning in order to avoid the throngs of tourists, this was my first time trying out their tacos.
We rolled into Loteria just around 2:30pm and even though it wasn’t yet Happy Hour we all decided it was definitely time for a margarita. As the lads sipped on ginger margaritas (which were amahhhhzing!) and I dove into my pint of Pacifico, we kept getting distracted by the people stopping to stare at our bikes in front of the patio. At first we all thought people were pondering whether or not to steal them, but then we realized we had parked them on John Ritter’s Walk of Fame star.
Now that we could relax, it was time to eat! Feeling that I should stay true to our team spirit, I went with two from the pork menu: Chicharrón En Salsa Verde, which was basically like eating an herbaceous citrus pork croissant because it’s so rich, and the Papa Con Chorizo, which had a great smoky flavor and subtle crunch that was quite satisfying.
As we were putting our helmets back on and donning our gloves, a very friendly man in chef’s uniform came outside to say hello and find out who we were. When I told him about our themed ride and what our cycling club’s name was, his eyes lit up. “Did you try the Tacos Los Tres Cochinitos? It’s carnitas and bacon with Morita salsa and topped with pork rinds. I’ll make you some right now to go if you want!” I thanked him and said that while it sounded like an incredible pork party in my mouth, it would probably be messy to eat while riding and we had to be on our way to the next taco stop. He insisted that I return and try the tacos at a later date on the house. He scratched a few words on one of their business cards and thanked us for coming by. As it turns out that really nice guy was Jimmy Shaw, Loteria Grill’s founder and executive chef! I’ll definitely be coming back to try the Tres Cochinitos.
From Hollywood we turned South on Highland and rode eight miles to the corner of West Street and Adams Blvd, where our last taqueria waited for us: Los Anaya. It was now 4:00pm and we were… getting full. Everyone agreed the pineapple agua fresca was a must, but only a couple of us were still ordering tacos at this point. I of course, was one of them. A creature of habit, I went in for one carnitas and one pollo mole taco. Don’t go letting their $1.95 price fool you into thinking they skimp on flavor here. The handmade tortillas were white corn and a totally different beast from the thick yellow masa at Guisados, but I promise they were no less delicious. Thinner but quite durable, they had a great chew to them. The chicken mole had an exceptional savory warmth with cinnamon at the forefront that reminded me of one of my favorite Greek dishes, Kapama.
There was only one last place to stop at before turning for home, Grand Casino bakery in Culver City. We rolled along Venice Boulevard (a little more lazily by this point) until we hit Main Street and this fantastic Argentinian bakery that basically puts their homemade dulce de leche in everything except the empanadas. The bakery has been around for ages and the adjacent cafe makes a killer brunch on the weekends. And few weeks ago while testing out the TdT route, I indulged in an incredibly refreshing basil lemonade slushie that they had just added to the menu. If you pass by Grand Casino on a summer afternoon, you’re a fool not to buy this icy treat.
Churros were eaten. Horchatas were drunk. Dulce de leche cookie sandwiches were purchased and carefully packed into our jersey pockets for safe transport back home to our significant others. And then, we climbed aboard our bikes one last time to ferry ourselves back North to West Hollywood Park. I invited everyone back to my place for one last round of margaritas, but it was nearly 6:00pm by this point and everyone was already fat, happy, and exhausted. It was a long day of riding (43 miles) and eating (12 tacos, 1 quesadilla, 1 churro, two cookies), and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. Heck, I’ll have to do this ride at least five more times if I want to work my way through the menus of all the places we visited. Guess I’d better go tune up my bike…