“I think I'm the only white guy here,” said the famous OC chef as we patiently waited for our order at Taqueria Ayutla Oaxaca around 11:30 on a Sunday night.
“Nah, you're not white,” I cracked. “You're Italian.”
And the guy laughed.
I was with a group of OC's best chefs, their lonchera Virgil for a journey through SanTana's late-night taco truck scene. We had started at 10 p.m., at Tacos El Zaga, home to the best al pastor and condiments in Orange County. And I told them about the glories of Ruben's Tacos y Mulitas and Alebrije's, which we'd try another night. But I wanted to show them the phenomenon that is Ayutla Oaxaca. For the past year and a half, it's been OC's most popular lonchera by far. Not since the days of Kogi and The Lime Truck has an OC taco truck inspired such a fanatical following as these guys—all with no social media accounts whatsoever, in an industrial part of SanTana on Main Street just north of Dyer Road not far from homeless encampments, and fueled only by word of mouth. The shortest wait you'll get is 15 minutes in line; come Friday or Saturday night, no mames.
So why hadn't I written about it, the chefs wondered? Because I had never been impressed with Autlya—the tacos were good, but not wait-in-line good. All that said, it was a spectacle worthy of a trip, so off we went.
“Be prepared to park far,” I warned the guys, but I was wrong. It was a slow night for Ayutla, so we found parking within reasonable distance. The party was already raging, though. Even though it was approaching midnight, families had set up lawn chairs in a patio area next to where Ayutla parked. Ice cream vendors were hawking nieve out of their car trunk. Another lonchera parked a football field away, desperately, unsuccessfully trying to leach off customers.
The line was short—just about 15 minutes this time, with all of SanTana's raza represented: men and women just off of work, their T-shirts showing off the hotels they just came from. Cholos. Paisas. A Jaguar that parked illegally on the street, surrounded by men in suits who didn't say a word as one of the guys got everyone's order. A handful of Asian hipsters, Snapchatting their adventure in the barrio.
“So why is this spot so happening?” another chef asked, and I had a couple of answers. Ayutla ingeniously parks in a the perfect spot: on Main, near the 55 Freeway, near the Delhi barrio, near Irvine (to grab all the wabs getting off the late shift), and in an area where the only night competition around is a Del Taco. Crowds are inevitable given this perfect storm, and crowds beget crowds. You could serve sawdust, and people would still line up.
But more importantly, what Ayutla serves—as I pointed out before—is good. All they do is tacos, burritos, and quesadillas, featuring seven of the classic taqueria meats (yes on buche and tripas; no suadero, alas). The tacos are rather big for just being a buck or so, and they they also give out a free bean tostada with every order—BOOM. What bothers me most about the spot, though, is that it's false advertising: if the folks running Ayutla really are from Oaxaca, they should be serving Oaxacan food—memelitas, tlayudas, mole negro, chapulines, and all the other highlights of that wondrous cuisine. We are past peak taco in OC, and it's time loncheros start cooking the food of their homeland, you know?
But such arguments were lost on the chefs I was escorting that night, all of whom were marveling at the scene that their line cooks constantly raved about but which they were finally privy to, given everyone in our group works minimum 120 hours a week.
“Look at how shiny the arms are of the taqueros,” another chef noted, respecting how the guys barreled through order after order even though sizzling grease kept splattering on them. The chefs quickly gobbled through the meal, declaring Ayutla better than El Zaga. I'll admit: the lonchera has upped its game since opening, and the chorizo and chicken were the best.
But I'll stick to El Zaga (which, interestingly enough, mostly drew workers from other restaurants that same night—industry people know what's great food, gentle cabrones). That said, all OC foodies should do their pilgrimage to Taqueria Ayutla Oaxaca, because it's currently the king of OC's food truck scene. And if you don't? Donald Trump wins #fucktrump