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The almighty taco is arguably the quintessential food of SoCal, spanning economic and social strata to fulfill the desires of multiple folks through a single Mexican dish—and the culinary worthiness by way of ranking said tacos is one that is, admittedly, purely subjective.
With this, I’ve also decided to avoid overtly popular joints—Taqueria La Mexicana and Los Compadres immediately come to mind—because there’s no need to advertise them; this list is about a very specific type of taco at a very specific place.
With that, I have been delving into Long Beach’s taco scene in order to grasp what is best, what is most unique, and of course, what is most delicious.
In no particular order…
Tripas Taco at El Taco Loco #3 (1465 Magnolia Ave.)
I’ve talked about this taco before and I will never cease from talking about it because it is a representation of the classic taco at its finest, served with a part of the pig all-too-often dismissed by boring appetites.
In the picture above, you’ll see two tacos—and surely the buche [pictured left] is legit but when it comes to the best tripas I’ve ever had, it’s shoved into that little tortilla pocket on the right in the picture above.
Handmade tortillas—not too small, not too thick, and plenty of room for a meaty filling—come with a healthy dose of clean tripe, marinated and wonderfully charred to a perfect crisp, slathered in salsa and topped with onion and cilantro.
Even better? The joint is open 24/7—just make sure when you get to the counter after waiting in line, you’re not the one holding up the hungry folks behind you.
Taco al Vapor at El Bukana’s (306 W Anaheim St.)
El Bukana’s is a definitive diamond in the rough.
Tucked on the very northern edge of DTLB on Anaheim between Pine and Magnolia, its a space that has no seats, solely a counter, and legit tacos—especially the taco it is known for: taco al vapor.
Roughly translated, it basically means a steamed taco. In the case of Bukana’s, layers of handmade, extra-soft tortillas and filling are put in a tamale steamer and steamed for hours. The result are pockets of tenderness that make you come back for more.
(And given that the food truck that is Tacos Al Vapor La
Beer-Battered Avocado Taco at Seabirds Kitchen (975 E. 4th St.)
Vegans and veggie lovers were beyond ecstatic when food truck pioneer Seabirds Kitchen opened its first brick-and-mortar just west of Retro Row.
After all, Long Beach is undergoing a vegan/vegetarian food revolution—and Seabirds leads the way in terms of tacos with its utterly decadent, savory, creamy beauty that is its beer-battered avocado taco.
Located in a sense of irony directly across from McDonald’s—scoring extra points for Awesome Dichotomy—it is very easy to shove one of these folded wonders into your mouth, one after the other, laughing at the drive-thru across the street.
Smoked Marlin Taco at Cheko el Rey del Sarandeado (343 E. Market St.)
I will never stop singing the praises of this taco, created and served in a tiny, off-the-grid seafood joint dedicated to the Sarandeado-style preparation of fish, where it’s cooked over the high heat of simmering coals.
What makes Cheko—one of Long Beach’s most underrated joints—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.
Short Rib Taco at Playa Amor (6527 E. Pacific Coast Hwy.)
Playa Amor is, unquestionably, one of Long Beach’s best restaurants—and, even more important, it is Chef Thomas Ortega’s very personal love letter to Mexico. And like any great confession of love, it comes with challenges to the status quo-definition of love. This is modern, intellectual Mexican cuisine for which Ortega is unapologetic about—and he is unapologetic because his homage to Mexico is not lost but simply cascading a new light on a cuisine that has become a direct part of California culture.
Expect nothing less with his tacos—specifically his short rib tacos, topped with caramelized onions, cotija cheese, and a brightly colored, outright addicting ají rojo sauce.
Cabeza Taco at Pacific Tacos (146 W. 10th St., Ste B)
I think, particularly as of late, meat is beginning to find its way out of daily human diets due to both the havoc we’re extolling on the environment with our animal farming and the outright ugly, unethical way many farms treat their animals.
And when it comes specifically to the American consumption of meat, we are the most egregious, disposing of massive portions of animals because we deem those parts “inedible,” including, say, the head of a cow or pig. I, being Italian, never understood until I was older that my love of head-cheese—an Italian cold-cut comprised of pig head—was “lowly.”
Sorry. If you’re going to skip out on personally killing an animal with your own hands, leaving that to the slaughterhouses, the least you can do is respect by the animal by leaving nothing behind and consuming every bit you can.
And Pacific Tacos is a way to do that with their stellar cabeza taco. While not quite on the level of Tacos Estilo Guadalajara in Lynwood or the Tacos El Güerro truck in Boyle Heights, this is a prime example of how things we oddly dismiss as inedible create some of the most delectable foods.
Al Pastor Taco at Lola’s (2030 E 4th St. and 4140 Atlantic Ave.)
If you ever have the chance to visit Jalisco, you’ll find the pockets of every plaza from Guadalajara to Jalos filled with a giant slab of pork, layered with pineapple and spices, spinning on an upright stick, massive sources of heat surrounding it while a talented knifesman slices and dices away as slivers of succulent meat fall into a tortilla.
This is al pastor—and it’s a wonder of a meat to add to a taco.
Lola’s has long had a stellar Taco Tuesday with massive, meaty tacos for the cheap at a quality that is hard to dismiss. And while I always suggested the birria, made with veal and pork instead of goat, and carnitas, my new love is their new al pastor taco offering.
Get it and get it now.
The Standing Outside a Restaurant Taco at El Sauz (1616 E Anaheim St.)
El Sauz used to be a Brite Spot before all of them closed, outside the questionable one on PCH (including the one further east on Anaheim, which is now the mediocre Cañadas Grill).
And it was all for the better.
El Sauz has quickly become a cult favorite and it goes beyond its taco window in the parking lot. (Yes, a taco window.) It’s the fact that its tacos are genuinely solid, all the while creating a street atmosphere that is unquestionably unique.
Simple, to-the-point, no frills, and accommodated by sides of salsa that are drool-worthy, El Sauz is El Shi…
Tocino Taco at Tux & Chucks Street Food (1916 W. Willow St.)
This West Long Beach treasure is smushed between two dive bars off of Willow in what was once a Samoan joint by the name of Island’s Best. (A place which is sorely missed for some.)
But what once started as a catering gig in 2013 between three friends soon became a full-fledged culinary affair with a humble brick-and-mortar dedicated to their obsession with fusion grub.
Like their solid tocino taco.
Tocino might mean “bacon” in Spanish but for Filipino families, it is a rich, sweet pork dish that is deeply steeped in tradition, from being an essential part of their breakfast routines to always showing up at family gatherings. Chunks of pork are marinated in a Sprite-meets-pineapple-and-ketchup concoction—or something along those lines, usually with garlic, soy, and pepper—and then cooked until the chunks begin to crisp.
It might be served over garlic fried rice in the Philippines, but on the Westside, it’s folded up in a tortilla like any great thing should be.
The Taco-in-Someone’s-Yard at The Yard Taco (1112 E. 72nd St.)
This is the kinda place you only know about because some cousin of a friend was driving with her friend and they went to a dude’s house on a Friday night on the very northern edge of North Long Beach, and that guy said, “Let’s go to Yard Taco tonight.”
And that’s because it’s in the middle of someone’s yard in the middle of many people’s neighborhood—and they serve everything from classic asada to alambre to gobernador tacos.
Typically, a gobernador taco is a shrimp taco with cheese—but the Yard adds some carne asada, a rich, homemade cream sauce that you want to put on everything, and a pickled cabbage that isn’t too tart but just right. Add some of their habañero salsa and you’re in for a wonder.
Shrimp Taco at Aguas Way (5248 Long Beach Blvd.)
This North Long Beach gem is, somewhat oddly, known for its funnel cake and carne asada fries. (Yes, you read that right and, another odd-but-cool note is that it has a tiny but dog-friendly patio in the back.)
Its popularity lies in, of course, the reason for its moniker: the plethora of aguas frescas it offers. (Get the blueberry—it’s nothing short of awesome.)
But its shrimp taco should be up there as well in popularity. Battered and deep-fried, it might not reach the echelons of taste that its Ensenada counterparts do—no one does—but with a dollop of crema, come pickled onions, and cabbage, it definitely gets the trick done. Feelin’ healthier? Get the shrimp ceviche tostada, pictured above.
Vegan Pastor Taco at Top Shelf Tacos (21312 Alameda St.)
Photo courtesy of Top Shelf Tacos
This Carson-based taco joint decided to launch its taco truck endeavor in Long Beach this year, parking itself everyday at 6 p.m. at Madison and Alameda Street in West Long Beach.
While the tiny-but-mighty truck delivers solid tacos with carnivore-centric offerings like birria, cabeza, and al pastor, it provides a special vegan pastor taco made with jackfruit that doesn’t make vegans feel like they’re left out in the cold on warmest of Taco Tuesdays.
Jackfruit is meaty in weight and meaty in texture—so it is growing in terms of its popularity as a meat substitute, especially in tacos. Top Shelf, which has long catered to vegans, is one of the more thoughtful versions of vegan pastor, filled with the rich smokiness one would expect from its meat-based sibling.
****Carne Asada tacos made by Memo at Los Potros. Photo by Calvin T./Yelp!
Carne Asada Taco Made by Memo at Los Potros (1901 E. Pacific Coast Hwy.)
My old favorite asada joint, Las Delicias de Michoacan, sadly shuttered its windows and closed its doors to allow Leo’s Mexican Grill to open a second location in DTLB. That means I have resorted to Los Potros, a Central Long Beach staple that is nothing but a small window and a few tables, to fulfill my carne asada needs. (That and the all-too-popular Taqueria la Mexicana on 4th or El Taco Loco or Bukana’s or…)
Here’s the thing: Memo has to be working.
This mini-legend of sorts is the guy who creates carne asada masterpieces and you will get a perfect plate of classic, unapologetically simple, forthright tacos should the man be working the grill. And the meat? You’ll get tenderness mixed with a rendered-fat crisp that is undeniably good.
Just make sure Memo is working.
Ensenada-Style Fish Taco at Baja Fish Tacos (5224 E. 2nd St.)
When it comes to “Ensenada-style,” that ever ubiquitous term used on this side of the border at almost every single fish taco joint—hello, Holé Molé!—the blunt reality is that no one compares to Ensenada itself. As in not even near.
It’s a harsh truth but a truth nonetheless.
Is it the ocean from which the locals draw their fish? The subtleties in which they operate out of a food cart? The endless traditions passed on through equally endless generations? I don’t know. But I do know that I have never had a fried fish taco as good as the one I had at Tacos Castillo in Ensenada.
However—and I know I will get some flak for, heaven forbid, writing about a chain—there is a wonderful consistency at Baja Fish Tacos in Belmont Shore that drives me there more than once.
It’s not so much as its authenticity or lack therefore—I honestly can’t stand that word because it’s culinary and cultural tomfoolery at its finest—but just the fact that they serve a solid fried fish taco.
Potato Taco at Linda’s Mexican Delights (951 Redondo Ave.)
I’ll be the first to admit that my introduction to potato tacos was through Holé Molé—and I have no shame in admitting this because I still stand by those folded little treasures.
But Linda does it better.
Like her chain counterpart’s version, her shell is fried and she tops her potatoes with generous portions of lettuce, tomato, and jack’n’cheddar cheeses.
But her potato mixture—creamier, tastier, and more generous in its dollop than Holé Molé’s tater tot-like stuffing—is where it’s at.