Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Mexicali Taco & Co.

My life has been defined by Mexican food. And for better or for worse, it all started with Taco Bell. By the time I had graduated elementary school, I had similarly graduated, again, for better or for worse, to El Torito. By high school, I was well into my one-thousandth order at Baja Fresh.

In college, where I was encouraged to voice my opinions, I proudly and confidently granted my coveted, one-of-a-kind award for "the like, best effing Mexican food, ever--I'm not even kidding" to three establishments over the course of one week: King Taco, El Taurino, and Patty's Mexican Foods.

One-and-a-half years of working in South Korea with plenty of soju and no trace of good Mexican food, I shocked my dead, Mexican taste buds to life with a visit to Mexico. Next stop, Seattle, and after three years, the only Mexican food I've found comfort in is Rancho Bravo. On short trips to L.A., I dutifully made my way to Ricky's Fish Tacos and tried some killer tacos at places like Guisados, Loteria Grill, and countless food trucks. And sprinkled throughout, of course, was the pseudo-Mexican, category-of-its-own Chipotle.

But then came the day. The day my life changed. For the absolute better. From one that simply enjoyed carne asada tacos to one that is shamelessly obsessed with carne asada tacos.

The day I put Los Angeles' best carne asada taco in my mouth.

Mexicali Taco & Co. started as a food truck. Literally. One red pickup truck wielding a light and a stereo blasting dance music. One grill smaller than a grand piano. One bucket of ice and sodas. One cross-section of a tree trunk to chop carne asada on. And one table to slather on some salsas and toppings.

And to top it all off, in the middle of an empty parking lot on the corner of First and Beaudry, Mexicali Taco & Co.'s humble beginnings showcased a stunning view of Downtown L.A.

My visits to Mexicali Taco & Co. were never too frequent, peaking at four gluttonous visits in one week. One of those visits even followed a twenty-two course meal at The Bazaar.

As is the occasion with most patrons, I quickly became friends with co-owners and head honchos Javier and Esdras. And the more friendly we became, the less embarrassed I was of seeing them more often than some of my close friends in L.A.

Unfortunately, Mexicali Taco & Co. had to temporarily shut down after some glitches having to do with the parking lot's managers. Their loss. On to bigger and better things.

After a painful and torturous set of months, Javier and Esdras opened a permanent space that was bigger, and most definitely better. The best part? They changed their hours to every day except Sundays, instead of only Wednesday through Saturday nights.

Some days they still play that nostalgic, parking lot dance music. But as their menu has expanded, so has their music selection, ranging from jazz standards to Latin pop rock.

The cashier is flanked by a delicious selection of Aguas Frescas and a salsa bar. The selection varies, and I've only tried these a couple times, but both times they've been ridiculously refreshing and delicious.

My favorite drink I've had is the Cebada. Like a cinnamon-infused barely-sweetened barley milk tea, the overall effect is rich, refreshing, and particularly useful in fighting against some of their spicier selections.

The salsa bar is plentiful and complete with a tangy and spicy tomato-based habanero salsa; a flavorful, more watery tomatillo-based salsa de arbol; a creamy, addictive guacamole sauce; a familiar, bright pico de gallo; smartly seasoned, thyme-infused pickled red onion; and fresh radishes and limes.

The selection can be overwhelming, but don't be afraid to experiment, mix, and match.

Enough. On to the main event. The tacos. These unassuming triplets come topped with a healthy portion of grilled green onions sprinkled with salt and a hearty cup of slow-cooked pinto beans.

The tacos come on either a corn or flour tortilla. I have to take a second to address just how delicious these tortillas are. Because these are not your typical tortillas. Javier and Esdras drive them up themselves from Calexico every week. And with your first bite, you fully understand what Javier and Esdras mean when they say that they can't find comparable tortillas anywhere closer. Both varieties are light and delicate on the outside, and rich and flavorful on the inside. They garner just enough chew and texture--almost crispy on the outside, al dente on the inside.

The Chicken Taco is perfect. Surprisingly juicy and satisfyingly charred with a savory seasoning. Just a tad bit of spice goes a long way in making this one of the tastiest chicken tacos I've had.

But the real, clear winner, if you haven't picked this up already, is the Carne Asada Taco. So. Effing. Tasty. So effing tasty that I was compelled to write a haiku.

So effing tasty.
Tender, rich, and tangy chuck.
So effing tasty.

Okay, not my best work. But still. Like the chicken, the carne asada proves that Javier and Esdras know their way around a grill. Charred edges, an undeniably savory meatiness, and a noticeable, yet quiet, citric aftertaste.

Chorizo is the third option (chorizo picture below), but the toothsome, smoky, and lightly-spiced chorizo really fares best in the Zuperman (not pictured, unfortunately), a wonderful concoction of meat (chicken), meat (carne), meat (chorizo), and cheese sandwiched between two crispy flour tortillas. So, so good.

My favorite taco? Carne asada on a corn tortilla, guacamole, pickled red onions, and pico de gallo with a tiny spritz of lime. A handful of heaven.

My taco-monster friend, Steph C., mentioned two, very good strategies for topping your tacos. First, do up your tacos one at a time. Unless you're going to inhale all three in three minutes, which is completely possible. Second, if you are saving a carne asada taco for last after eating their other selections, make the small effort to order your last tacos separately so that you can enjoy them fresh.

If you're anything like me, though, and giggle with over-excitement every time you go to Mexicali Taco & Co., you might find yourself ordering everything on the menu without remembering either of these strategies.

The other treats will never taste better than the carne asada taco, but they're often just as delicious. I could eat the Gueros (Cantonese-Baja style peppers) all day every day, if only they didn't set my mouth on fire with each bite. The extreme spice of the blistered pepper is balanced with a sweet, salty, peppery, and citric soy-based sauce that renders the experience one of inadvertent masochism. Super delicious, but tongues, beware.

If movie theaters or ball parks served Nachos like the ones at Mexicali Taco & Co., maybe box office sales and attendance wouldn't be declining. Especially when they're topped with some of that tasty carne asada.

The salsa is addictive, and the rich sweetness of the roasted peppers balances itself with the tempered brightness from the onions.

The chips are thick and crunchy, not subject to the typical symptom of wet flaccidity. The mix of cheeses makes each bite pop with different proportions of creamy goodness. Some guacamole and pico de gallo doesn't hurt either. Be careful, though. One order can easily be your entire meal.

The remaining two game-changers at Mexicali Taco & Co. in particular make an order of only three tacos seem like an ungratefully dismissed opportunity.

The Vampiro would make even the most conservative vampires contemplate imminent death by eating this garlic-infused quesadilla. A generous and toothsome portion of cheese, a golden and delicately flaky shell, and a punchy garlic sauce are essential to my inability to forego ordering this every time. Again, don't even think about thinking twice. Order it with carne asada.

While the Gueros, Nachos, Zuperman, and Vampiro are all amazing, after the tacos, the next best thing at Mexicali Taco & Co. isn't any of the above. It's the Cachetada. A beautiful, crispy, grilled corn tortilla topped with your choice of meat (chorizo pictured here), a gooey Mexican cheese, and a smokey and balanced chipotle aioli sauce. And if you're going to make one of your selections Ranchero Style (adding an egg on top), the Cachetada is the one to do it on.

The Cachetada goes best with carne (again, no surprise there), and does just fine on its own, but I like to make this even more difficult to eat by topping it with the holy trinity of their guacamole, pickled red onions, and pico de gallo.

The first bite is a kind of magic. The pleasant snap of the tortilla opens up to a chute of juicy carne accompanied by a strand of thyme-spiced pickled red onion; a kick of chipotle is tempered by the cool, creamy guacamole; and subsequent chews are bookended by a bright pico de gallo and a hearty easy-fried egg.

When the yolk breaks, don't dwell on that brief feeling of panic. If a golden stream of egg yolk doesn't dribble down your chin by your third bite, you're eating it wrong. Or you just have an insane ability to eat this without things getting messy. Or you inhaled the whole thing in one bite. No judgment. Use those God-given fingers and tongue to scoop up any wounded soldiers.

There's no way to think about Mexicali Taco & Co. for even a second without ravenous hunger pangs. Every time I visit L.A., that first bite into a cachetada or taco makes my eyes sweat with unadulterated happiness. I went twice in the past week on my most recent trip to L.A., but to nobody's surprise, I'm already itching for my next fix. Thanksgiving couldn't feel further away.

Esdras. Javier. I know I always joke about you guys FedEx'ing some carne asada to Seattle. But seriously. Help.

Mexicali Taco & Co.
702 N Figueroa St
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 613-0416

GET: Carne Asada Taco; Carne Asada Cachetada Ranchero Style; Carne Asada Vampiro; Cebada.


  1. WANT IT ALL. Also, I never remember to order smart. Always think to stagger the order after my third taco goes cold...

    1. Seriously! Next time....next time...... ....eh, probably not.


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