Mexican food is a cultural icon in Los Angeles. Just as it’s important to see the Hollywood sign or take your picture on the Walk of Fame, you should have a real authentic Los Angeles Mexican food experience by tasting the best Mexican food this city has to offer.
Almost 100 years ago, Mexican food carts arrived on the streets near downtown Los Angeles and have continued to gain popularity ever since. Now with over 11 million Mexican-Americans living in California, it’s no wonder that Mexican food is not only thriving in Los Angeles but is reinventing cuisines in Southern California. From traditional corn tortillas to modern blends of salsas, Mexican food has become a staple of the SoCal diet. And it’s not just at the street level anymore; taco carts are still around but have gone onto inspire. Taco trucks and Mexican food stands have given rise to gourmet, five star restaurants.
Embark on a foodie tour that will take you through Los Angeles’ food history at one of these 7 must-eat Mexican spots, and awaken taste buds you never knew existed.
Combining flavors and inherited recipes from Mexico along with the Northern Italian style of focusing on simplicity in ingredients, the family at Hugo’s Tacos has created a menu that is uniquely authentic and yet somehow familiar. Using only seven ingredients and seven fillings, the eleven main dishes served here surpass the taste of any other taco stand in both their freshness and uncomplicated flavors.
With an attention to the source of their ingredients, a stop here will satisfy meat lovers, vegetarians and vegan friendly appetites. Do not leave without ordering the honey-chipotle salsa for your chips or tacos; the sweet and spicy salsa will leave the tip of your mouth tingling. With only a small outdoor seating area, this is a great place to grab the tacos and eat somewhere else.
Mixing traditional Central Mexico Valley spices and cooking practices with modern day menu items, Frida Tacos creates a high quality meal that is in honor of Mexico’s great food heritage. Located on trendy Melrose Avenue, the small restaurant adds to the eclectic vibe of the area with graffiti painted walls and simple outside patio furniture.
It’s open until 3am so pop into Frida after all the nearby bars have closed and you’ll be served a spicy meal that exceeds the typical late-night diner food. Try the more uncommon cochinita pibil taco and you’ll bite into a citrus and spicy shredded pork taco that descends straight from the Maya Yucatán Peninsula. Don’t miss out on the thick, limey and delicious guacamole alongside any of their entrees.
Tacos Por Favor
Taking a cue from health nuts in the area, Tacos Por Favor combines rich Mexican spices with healthy cooking styles. This small restaurant located in a strip mall might turn you off at first, but brave ahead and you will be rewarded with hearty and healthy tacos, burritos and tortas. Offering dishes free of trans fats, the menu here features items not typical of taco stands, including spinach burritos and sautéed mushroom tacos; this restaurant is satisfying even to a vegan palate.
However, any Mexican restaurant worth its salsa will have a heart-attack-inducing menu item or two, and Tacos Por Favor is no different, offering the ‘Monster’: a burrito so packed with meat that your doctor will thank the kitchen staff for cooking without lard. I like this place because the food is always fresh with high quality ingredients and doesn’t cost too much.
Read more local tips for eating in LA with our Insider’s Guide to Los Angeles
Opened by two world-renowned chefs and television stars from Top Chef Masters, Border Grill celebrates traditional Mexican cuisine and infuses modern pairings for a complex, gourmet Mexican menu. Current favorites include the plantain empanadas, Baja ceviche, caramelized Brussels sprouts with bacon, and poblano quesadillas.
In addition to the food truck, Border Grill also has a vibrant and quirky gourmet restaurant that is just four blocks from the Santa Monica pier and a great place to chill out with some sangria after a fun filled day in the sun. The dishes are all under $20 bucks, making this a busy spot weekdays during happy hour, especially among the locals.
This hipster-loved roving kitchen is the perfect example of how Mexican food has infiltrated other cuisines. Unlike the typical Mexican fare, the Kogi Beef Truck relies on a customer’s desire to taste outside the typical constrains of south-of-the-border cuisine and rewards curious palates with an added Korean flair. The truck’s signature dish is a Kogi beef taco, marinated with Korean spices and served with spicy cabbage and cheese. Other combinations include a sesame mayo, grilled onions, and cabbage-slaw with chili soy vinaigrette on top of sliders, pork quesadillas and tacos.
As the re-innovator of food trucks in Los Angeles, sparking the new and abundant high-quality mobile cuisine craze, the Kogi Beef Truck is set up to be tracked and monitored via Twitter, one of the first mobile food options to truly utilize social media.
Quesadillas and Taquitos
Located ‘over the hill’ in Studio City, this standalone shop serves fresh, made to order, Mexican food that won’t break the bank. What the quick service restaurant lacks in physical charm and character, it makes up for in the food with fresh flavors, perfectly seasoned meat and a huge salsa bar. The salsas are an eclectic mix of California-farmed fruits and Mexican favorites like spicy verde, pineapple, mango and habanero jalapeno.
Without a doubt, ordering a carne asada quesadilla is a must; juicy meat in a light flour shell with ample guacamole on the side, oozing Monterey jack cheese. The Salsa Bar also serves traditional Mexican cokes, Horchatas and flavored hibiscus teas.
Since 1934, Cielito Lindo has been preparing light, fried taquitos and serving them with a simple and fresh guacamole sauce on the corner of Olvera Street, one of LA’s oldest Mexican markets. The owner immigrated to the US in the late 1920’s with her two children and borrowed $300 dollars to purchase a food stand that is now home to her world famous taquitos. The preservative-free corn tortillas and fresh, made to order taquitos are her own special recipe.
Make sure to stand in line at Cielito Lindo for authentic taquitos and then take the food with you to sit and soak in the tourist-friendly atmosphere that mixes kitschy shopping with traditional Mexican culture; where it’s just as easy to buy fresh fruit ice drinks as it is an American flag sombrero.
No visit to Los Angeles is complete without a stop or two at one of the best Mexican restaurants. Explore the culture of each area of the city through the unique blend of Mexican flavors and California traditions.
Photos courtesy of Jade Broadus.
Sample some of Los Angeles’ best Mexican food on a Los Angeles Latin Food and Culture Walking Tour
- Jade Broadus