Dueling Dishes: Long Beach Taco Showdown

Just a few blocks east of Long Beach's hip, vintage store-driven Retro Row, Taquería la Mexicana sits on the corner of 4th Street and Coronado, a small window for orders, a covered outdoor seating area–all
strangely tacked on to one of the small Craftsman bungalows that are scattered
throughout the neighborhood. The blocky add-on does some brisk business, with
parking at a premium during lunch hours, serving up tacos, burritos and a
variety of other taco stand standards that have garnered praise from the editor
of our sister blog–LA Weekly's Squid Ink–Amy Scattergood, and nearly 200 reviewers
on Yelp, who give it an average of 4.5 stars. But is it the best in the LBC?

For this episode
of dueling dishes, we're matching up Taquería la Mexicana with the El Taco Loco #3, another highly
regarded Long Beach Mexican place, for a battle of tacos. With both spots
offering an impressive array of pig and cow parts–from cabeza and seso to
tripas and buche–standards were in order to make for a fair duel, so the
somewhat pedestrian if not consistent crowd pleasers carne asada and carnitas
were chosen as the bellwether tacos. But we may have sampled a few others–only for
purely scientific, research-related purposes.

The double corn
tortilla-wrapped tacos at Taquería
la Mexicana con todo came doused with
a pleasantly fiery tomatillo-based salsa, along with the requisite diced white
onion and a casual scattering of cilantro. The asada had a good bit of char on
it, giving the cubed beef nearly burnt edges, resulting in a deep and
satisfying steak flavor, even if the extra bit of time on the flattop rendered
the bits of meat slightly dry. Carnitas were of the shredded variety, more
braise-like in texture than the tender/crunchy contrast found in the most
expertly prepared versions. But the pork flavor ran deep through the pulled
strands, the salsa running through to add some needed moisture to the somewhat
dry filling.

Taquería's best showing came in the form of one of their
more unique menu items: a chile verde taco filled with small, tender chunks of
pork swimming in their tomatillo-based braising liquid, its flavor similar to
that of their salsa verde, but more subdued thanks to a long simmering and an
infusion of pork flavor. With a hit of the more assertive salsa and a squeeze
of lime, these exceedingly wet tacos are a must-try.

Open 24-hours a
day and boasting a sprawling menu that runs from fresh squeezed fruit and
vegetable jugos to breakfast to seafood to tacos, El Taco Loco #3 could keep
you eating for months if not years if you were driven to try everything on the
menu. But know that you won't be short changed on your dining experience if you
just stick to tacos: quite simply, they are fantastic.

Even if the carne asada
is more uniformly gray rather than well-browned, but with freshly made
tortillas wrapped around it, small missteps are easily forgiven. Each tortilla
starts as a ball of raw masa pinched off of a giant mass, deftly pressed flat
and fried up on a comal, small black blisters of char crisping bits of each
side. Compared to the commercially produced disks found at Taquería la Mexicana, these thicker, more
pliable, more flavorful tortillas are promising foundations for any filling
they might have stuffed into them.

Each taco–the
aforementioned grey asada, the crisp-edged carnitas–comes wrapped in a square
of deli paper, the small tubes stacked into pyramids on paper plates, quartered
radishes and a tangle of pickled onions and jalapenos tossed on the side.
Bottles of Tapatio–and a paper towel dispenser–can be found at every table,
which additional onion, limes and an orange-red salsa whose heat (see all of
those chili seeds?) is balanced by a unique nutty flavor. Your tacos want this
salsa on them, so please do comply.

The winner is
clear in this round of dueling dishes and we feel its safe to say, with
conviction, that El Taco Loco #3 makes the best tacos in Long Beach. Beg to
differ? Offer up a challenger in the comments.

Taqueria la Mexicana: 3270 E. 4th St., Long Beach; (562)

El Taco Loco #3: 1465 Magnolia Ave, Long Beach; (562) 437-6228

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