Taco heaven manifested itself on earth this past Saturday thanks to LA Weekly’s, Tacolandia. Curated by our own Bill Esparza, over 100 masters of the tortilla congregated at the historic El Pueblo de Los Ángeles to pay homage to the humble taco. Over 8,000 people attended this year, proving again that while Southern California might have many squabbling tribes, we all unite under the language of Mexican food.
Some of taco-dom's heaviest hitters were in attendance like Tacos Puntas Cabras, Aqui es Texcoco, Coni' Seafood, Burritos La Palma, Cacao Mexicatessen and our very own hometown hero, Taco Maria. Big shout-out to Chef Carlos Salgado for personally manning his taco station and dropping bombs. His taco de esturion (smoked Passmore Ranch sturgeon in a crispy handmade heirloom blue corn tortilla, pickled cucumbers and chili oil with toasted peanuts), rivals— if not surpasses—the legendary smoked marlin taco of Coni’Seafood.
As for me, you can just call me an acolyte and +1 judge on behalf of the Weekly's Mexican-in-Chief. Gustavo was tasked to oversee the Vendy Awards, a healthy battle for supremacy amongst the various taco houses in attendance from California all the way to England (!). There were four categories: Best Street Taco (12 entries), Best Traditional Taco (26 entries), Best in Taco Innovation (26 entries), and People’s Choice. Along with my fellow judge, acclaimed author (and Gustavo's Chapman U classmate) Ryan Gattis, we taco'd through more than 20. Here are the winners:
Best in Taco Innovation
Taking home the W for the city of Lynwood was Balam Mexican Kitchen, helmed by chef Manuel "Kornie" Bañuelos from Guadalajara. Most taco purists would scoff at the sight of his “Caribbean Taco Bomb”; most taco purists are self-entitled pendejos. This taco sported a delicately crisped beer battered coconut shrimp, tangy mango pico de gallo and pops of roasted pumpkin seeds on top of an hibiscus-infused jicama cut that had been cured overnight so that it became a "tortilla." Don't laugh: not only did the jicama become pliant, the whole thing was a refreshing eye-opener. According to Bañuelos, when you make the trek to Balam, ask for the special off-menu tacos like these if you’re looking for a twist on tradition. Shrimp al pastor, anyone?
Balam Mexican Kitchen, 11700 Long Beach Blvd., Lynwood, (424) 338-6762. Instagram: @balamtaco
Best Traditional Taco
Top honors in this category were given to La Calaca. Osca r and Dora Mejia knocked it out of the pueblo with their fish taco. The beer batter was crisp, light and airy while still maintaining the integrity and juiciness of the earthy tilapia, so much so that everyone at the judge’s panel couldn’t stop raving about that batter. Add in a griddled blue corn tortilla, fresh Mexican slaw, salsa de cacahuate y chile de árbol and a hit of lime and it scored an upset win over many more established taquerías in this category. La Calaca doesn't have a brick-and-mortar right now, so you’ll have to crash the Coliseum during a USC game or wait until the Rams are back in town for the meanwhile
La Calaca, (323)205-0728
The fan favorite of Tacolandia went to Puesto from San Diego. Chef Luisteen Gonzalez presented an immaculately manicured taco of wispy filet mignon wrapped in a hammock of his signature crispy cheese. Throw in a creamy slab of avocado, pistachio-jalapeño salsa and watermelon radish on a homemade blue corn tortilla with a splash of lime, and one could respect the public for their choice. Puesto will be opening up a location soon at the Los Olivos Marketplace near Irvine Spectrum. Stay tuned...
Puesto, 789 W. Harbor Dr., San Diego, (619) 233-8880; www.eatpuesto.com
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Best Street Taco
The most prestigious category, the Street Tacos, came with the massive Vendy Cup. The finalists were the al pastor masters Tacos Tamix, and birria de res savants Burritos La Palma. The dozen or so judges were evenly split between the two: while Tamix's al pastor came straight from the spit and accompanied by pineapple (all of which, btw, came in just two slices by the taquero), La Palma's slow cooked beef birria and spicy stewed chicharron burritos were dopamine in burrito form and came on their handmade flour tortillas. The swing vote went to Gustavo, who heeded the words of legendary cartoonista (and fellow judge) Lalo Alcaraz regarding Burritos La Palma: "I usually don't like soft chicharrones, but these were GOOD."
Wait, a burrito won a taco competition? Well, burritos are technically tacos, according to Esparza Chief, and if you want to find out why you’ll have to go pick up his book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. BOOM. Great job, all, and see you next year!
Burritos La Palma, (626) 350-8286. Follow Burritos La Palma on Twitter @burritoslapalma