Last May, an electrical fire took out Carnitas Los Reyes in Orange. It didn’t wreck the restaurant à la the Anaheim White House, so its fans figured the tiny spot—whose carnitas drew people from across the state and whose chorizo I once described as “grated until it’s as fine as salt, then cooked in oil that looks and feels like transmission fluid but tastes like a thousand spicy hogs”—would reopen within weeks. But weeks turned into months, and months turned into more than a year. I even had the Los Angeles Times‘ great digital editor Tenny Tatusian ask me a couple of months ago when Carnitas Los Reyes would reopen.
Tragically, Tatusian passed away from cancer earlier this month, so she’s not around to read what she and so many others waited to hear: It’s back, though now renamed Tacos Los Reyes. The only changes are cosmetic—nice tile on the floor and walls where worn paint once was, plus a flat-screen television to entertain the kiddies. But the mountains of meat in steam trays have returned. And back and better than ever is the restaurant’s ongoing symphony: the thud of cleaver cutting through meat on its way to meet a chopping block, its 4/4 beat better than any “Despacito” for this summer.
Is it the best taquería in Orange County? It ain’t even the best in Orange. But what I always loved about Los Reyes is how it deftly marries the past, present and future of Mexican food. You can still order the spectacular hard-shell tacos here—as thin as a Communion wafer and buried under a snowpack of cheese. Or you can get a straight combo plate of enchiladas or ribs, accompanied by better-than-average refried beans and that red salsa that doesn’t sting one bit yet remains irresistible. Or side with tacos that, while a bit costly at $1.75, are huge and worth it. That’s why Los Reyes is packed, yet again, with day laborers, Chapman kids and retirees alike. And that’s why I’ll always eat here—to remember Tatusian, who knew great food the way Kobe knew his way around a clear lane.
Tacos Los Reyes, 273 S. Tustin St., Orange, (714) 744-9337.