The taco is sacred in Southern California, as is all Mexican food, but particularly the taco. In that single folded up wonder hides myriad complexities: the dark history of both U.S. and Spanish colonialism; the beauty and resilience of immigrants; a worthy representation of Mexican cuisine in a single dish…
Long Beach—its name, the idea of it, its people—is also sacred.
So the boldness of a place that chooses to name itself the Long Beach Taco Company cannot be overlooked since the name is a statement: We’re here, we’re Long Beach, and we’re Long Beach’s tacos. That’s a declaration, implying it would seem, that their tacos, in the least, are attempting to reach for the glory of Amorcito or maybe even El Taco Loco #3.
The Company hits right in the middle. They are attempting to appeal to a certain crowd—the spray-painted mural, the constant flow of Maluma and Sean Paul music videos across three television sets—but that crowd remains unclear when it comes to the tacos as the Company never reaches the heights it hopes to or—thankfully—the lows it had during its initial weeks of being open.
That low I mention could be the growing pains of a restaurant in its first month. But there are clear hints of other things happening. The constant fluctuation in prices came week-by-week to the point of being questionable: one week, tacos jumped from $3 to $4; another week, buñuelos, a Latin American fritter-type dessert, skyrocketed from $7 to $11 and then completely disappeared off the menu to be replaced by $12 bread pudding. Then there was the constant fluctuation of the menu itself: one week, a disappointing conchinita pibil sat amongst alambre and chicharrón tacos only to find a far more common (albeit significantly better) list the following week, with the usual suspects of carnitas, al pastor, and asada.
I know they can do better or, at least, they want to be—or believe they are at a certain level which they are not.
The taco, first and foremost, has its base in the tortilla. Chef Thomas Ortega knows this; his tortilla lady, Maria Barraza from Sinaloa, has been with him since day one. Even Chef Jason Witzl of Ellie’s, when hosting a taco pop-up honoring his mother’s Mexican heritage, knows this; he hired someone special he has known for years just for that one popup night. And Los Compadres has been dishing out handmade tortillas since day one, a seemingly never-gets-cold comal so hot it that never seems to affect the hands of the woman constantly balling-flattening-cooking the masa with masterful fluidity.
Though Company boasts of house-made tortillas, it is squint-inducing when your tacos often arrive in a cold, pseudo-raw tortilla. The latest iteration, with the most recent menu, is the most impressive: yellower than its sad, older white siblings and actually warm; a massive step up. But the reality is this: While I know we are entering the Dawn of Pricey Tacos—some of which are noteworthy à la Tacos María, some which are not à la Trejos Tacos—one should expect astounding tacos at $4 a piece. Being bougie is one thing; being bougie and boring is quite another. (The best tacos in Long Beach, the ones at Amorcito, are $2.95, for a comparison.)
The initial fillings of the first two menus were, for lack of a more palatable description, goopy, as if trays of pre-made concoctions were thrown into the steam bath and allowed to sit there all day. They weren’t inedible—some even offered decent flavor—but seemed to become shredded meat, whether it was intended to or not.
It was an essential move to pare down the offerings and focus on offering a better version of a few rather than distasteful versions of many. But honing is still required. Their carne asada lacks salt and crisp. Their birria—traditionally made with goat, the Company goes for beef—is a bit too dry. Their rajas con crema is nothing but depressing lops of the mighty poblano that needs work on presentation and flavor. And while their vegan mushroom taco is one of their most flavorful—a garlicky layer of guajillo is perfect for the meaty mushrooms—it is doused with so much vegetable oil that the bottom of your tortilla becomes slicked in it.
And do not ask for salsa; you will be handed bottles of hot sauce. If you order three or more tacos, you will get a small side of a spicy tomatillo—an upgrade from their initial days—but will be charged if you request more.
If anything, I would suggest experiencing the tacos during happy hour—3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday through Thursday—where you can score two for $5 and explore from there, along with exploring some of their stellar Mexican craft beer.
And then there’s the non-tacos portion, the appetizers and what not. Where to begin…
The appetizer of six oysters ($15) from an undisclosed location sure look pretty: Topped pointlessly with pomegranate seeds—on the ice, on the oysters, who cares?—the excessively washed oysters are saltless balls of mucus that taste like a gulp of thick lake water when you really want to taste the ocean. (A shame considering The Big Catch and King’s, each around the corner, offer cheaper, brinier, tastier options and let you know where the damn things come from in the first place. When I asked the server where the oysters were from, he replied, without a hint of irony, “The ocean.”)
The ceviche ($12) comes with an undisclosed type of fish drenched in a sweet, tomato-y pool the size of a side of salsa. The carne asada fries ($12) are equally disheartening: a black bowl filled with uneven balls of melted cheese, pico de gallo and that undiscerning carne.
Ultimately, what’s missing from Long Beach Taco Company are details and consistency. And for a place with such a declarative name, those details, especially in their take on tacos, is absolutely essential. With restaurants like Playa Amor, Cheko El Rey del Sarandeado, and of course, Amorcito—all in their own way shining examples of SoCal’s Golden Era of the Taco—it is clear that this Company needs a lot more work before selling its stock.
The Long Beach Taco Company is located at 442 E. First St.
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