Photos by Brian Addison.
Make no mistake, Long Beach: Mexican food is becoming more and more legit as our foodie culture becomes more and more legit—but part of that culture remains largely hidden not just because we’re geographically expansive but many of the best spots are drive-by-and-you’ll-miss-it type places.
Surely, most taco lovers know of Los Compadres and Taqueria La Mexicana, Lola’s and El Sauz (with their always-enchanting taco window that makes the parking lot one of the best post-drinking taco spots ever). These are Long Beach staples and still deserve applause, but the time has come to shed some light on five places slingin’ incredible tacos that you most likely haven’t been to.
In no particular order:
Cheko El Rey del Sarandeado - 343 East Market Street
This tiny, off-the-grid seafood joint is dedicated to the sarandeado-style preparation of fish, where it’s cooked over the high heat of simmering coals. What makes Cheko so special is that the SoCal chef responsible for introducing us northerners to the style is Chef Sergio Peñuelas, who developed a cult-like following at his former place, Coni’Seafood.
Now, his work is right here in Long Beach inside the most unassuming of places creating Long Beach’s best fish taco: Cheko’s marlin taco. Yes, Long Beach's best fish taco is found in this tiny-but-mighty North Long Beach restaurant.
It’s smoky, salty, downright spectacular, and even minimalist with just smoked marlin that is then heated over hot coals, cheese, and a single avocado slice smudged inside a wonderfully hand-crafted tortilla.
And do not forget to get down on Peñuelas’ tostaditas locas, the ultimate appetizer that heaps shrimp and octopus ceviche on top of marlin “pâté” raw and small fried tortilla rounds.
El Taco Loco No. 3 - 1465 Magnolia Avenue
There’s many things about El Taco Loco—this particular El Taco Loco—that proves it is one of the most legit taco joints in the region, let alone Long Beach. It’s not just that the place is open 24/7. It’s more than the fact that the parking lot is always full and its tables, showing their wear’n’tear with a humble charm, equally filled with Latino families of all sizes or loner workers wanting the comfort of solid comida.
It’s their taco de tripas. Their buche. Their cabeza. But especially their tripas.
Handmade tortillas—not too small, not too thick, and plenty of room for a meaty filling—come with a healthy dose of tripe, marinated and wonderfully charred with a slight crisp, slathered in salsa verde and topped with onion and cilantro. This is the classic taco at its finest, served with a part of the cow all-too-often dismissed by boring appetites.
Tepechi Birrieria - 1430 Santa Fe Avenue
This West Long Beach hangout—a giant, Los Compadres-like space that hosts live mariachi on the weekends and is perpetually filled with families—is well-known amongst the Hispanic and black families living near the area but to the vast majority of Long Beach, sits on a stretch of road known for two things: 18-wheelers and Santa Fe imports.
But as any person of color with good taste shows us, good food makes the world a better place—and this joint does so by serving up the city's most spectacular birria de chivo. Tepechi is the place that serves birria in the most unadulterated, classic way possible: goat and goat alone. From traditional birria to shanks of goat to goat ribs, Tepechi creates such tender, incredibly flavored dishes with goat that it will be hard going back to another form of birria.
While there aren't tacos de birria directly on the menu, that's because you make them yourself. Order a large bowl of birria or a birria combination and it comes with a generous side of onion, cilantro, lime and serrano peppers along with tortillas for you to fold up and eat until you're done.
For the more adventurous, the birria con macho adds goat heart and liver, creating a slightly coppery flavor to your dish.
Los Reyes del Taco Sabroso - 2345 East Anaheim Street
Hidden on the northwest corner of Junipero and Anaheim, Los Reyes offers one particular form of the taco that is hard to find: tacos de canasta, or “basket tacos.” While called tacos de canasta in Mexico City, other regions refer to them as tacos sudados—an unappealing translation of “sweated tacos”—tacos al vapor, or tacos mineros, referring to the miners who often brought the food for their lunch.
These soft, moist tacos come with fillings you barely have to chew—and Los Reyes’ chicharrón version is wonderful. A steamed tortilla-wrapped package of long-stewed-after-being-fried pork comes on a plate with perfectly pickled carrots and onion, cabbage and a side of spicy, dark red salsa.
This isn’t to mention that (not on the menu), they serve quesadillas and tamales stuffed with huitlacoche, the much lauded corn fungus that is widely considered a delicacy. Charcoal in color and earthy in flavor, it is a hard-to-find addition to Long Beach’s growing culinary scene.
Las Delicias De Michoacan - 755 Magnolia Avenue
It is easy to miss this tiny but mighty taqueria on the west side of Magnolia between 7th and 8th—and therefore miss out on one of Long Beach’s best carne asada tacos—if not the best. Surely I wouldn’t leave you hanging without giving you a prime example of one of Mexico’s greatest staples—and Las Delicias serves up carne asada to perfection.
Tucked in the small Willmore District in DTLB, you can score four of these bad boys with a drink for $5.50. That’s right: a plate with four handmade tortillas, filled with marinated ’n’ grilled carne asada, topped with onions, cilantro, radishes and lime. In other words: an almost perfect example of the perfect food.
Don’t forget the fire: their red and green salsas are nothing short of spectacular and will leave your tingling lips and tongue wanting more.
Other hole-in-the-wall joints that deserve honorable mentions: Tacos Chapala, Rivera's Tacos, 3 Brothers (formerly Tacos La Mira), El Torazo, Canterito and La Frida.