By Gustavo Arellano, Edwin Goei, Charles Lam, and Dave Lieberman
You really want us to pontificate on the glories of tacos in Orange County as an intro? Fuck that: our Mexican in Chief wrote a whole book on the subject–find it! In the meanwhile, make this your bible for the rest of the year, starting . . . now.
ALL THE TACOS
Sure, there's the incredible prix-fixe dinner and the Sunday brunch, but let's not forget that Carlos Salgado started out with a lonchera, slinging tacos out the half-window to increasing crowds. At lunchtime and Tuesdays at dinner, you can get the O.G. tacos that won over the hearts of OC. While the mole de pollo is worth the time, it's the vegetable (jardineros) tacos and that unbelievable arrachera beef on handmade tortillas that steal the show. 3313 Hyland Ave., Ste. C-21, Costa Mesa, (714) 538-8444; www.tacomaria.com. Instagram: @tacomaria.
FISH OR SHRIMP TACOS
El Taco Nazo
OC's fish taco game is weak for a place so close to Ensenada, but El Taco Nazo carries the torch in faraway La Habra, where families take up the booths on weekends for crispy fish and shrimp tacos dressed just as they are south of the border. The secret? It's the batter, and the chiles güeritos are so popular the chefs had to start doling them out from the counter to keep people from eating the whole tray. 121 S. Beach Blvd., La Habra, (562) 690-8078; www.taconazo.com. Instagram: @taconazousa.
TACOS DE BIRRIA
Menudo? Eh. Pozole? Meh. When you're hung over, what you do is drive to El Cabrito, stagger up to the window, and order tacos de birria, pit-roasted goat soaked in a consommé made from its own drippings. And while the salsas at are good enough to spike the tacos, don't forget to ask for some salsa de aceite, an oily, burnt-black hell brew that ought to be sold by prescription for its curative properties. 1604 W. First St., Santa Ana, (714) 543-8461.
TACOS DE GUISADO
El Camino Real Market
Tacos varios or tacos de guisado are the portable way to eat the stew Mamí made for lunch. In Tijuana, they're sold at street stands to hungry drunk people. At El Camino Real, a dusty grocery store in Anaheim, cooks wait for you to come inside. Pick your guisado from the steam trays, and they'll spoon it into made-to-order tortillas. Offerings vary, from chicharrón en roja (fried pork skin in red sauce) to espinazo con verdolagas (pork spine with purslane) and more. 855 S. State College Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 520-9481.
HEAD CHEESE TACOS
Lindo Michoacán #2
Sometimes, a taco is just a taco: You just want grilled meat on a soft corn tortilla, without any fancy flourishes or bizarre interpretations. That's what Lindo Michoacán #2 is for: comforting tacos, done the way you expect them to be done, on homemade tortillas. But don't think they're boring; if you really want to strike out on your own, ask if they have any queso de puerco, the michoacano version of head cheese. 327 S. Anaheim Blvd., Ste. C, Anaheim, (714) 535-0265.
Mariscos los Corales
Why doesn't the taco gobernador get more love in Orange County? It seems like a natural match: the gabacho idea of a quesadilla, but with mozzarella or quesillo, stuffed with sautéed shrimp. During Lent, the wait for these tacos on Friday at lunchtime can last an hour, with every possible seating surface taken up by men in work boots and sturdy shirts. On Pine Street between Main Street and Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 713-1770.
MOLE POBLANO TACOS
Los Reyes del Elote asado
The mole strikes the right balance between heat and sweet, leaning more toward spiciness gracias to judiciously placed serrano slivers. The chicken is grilled just right, chopped into perfect nubs. Ask for it in a tortilla hecho de mano, and the resulting earthiness ties everything together as perfectly as a sheepshank. On the corner of Chestnut Avenue and Main Street, Santa Ana.
South County is starting to get its taco game on, but Perla's is the sleeper taquería, nestled away in Mission Viejo and serving up the best chorizo tacos in the 949. It doesn't hurt that the red salsa appears to be made with chiles and desmadre, as people slurp it by the ladleful. Slowly but surely, South County is converting from white bread to Pan Bimbo. 25222 Charlinda Dr., Mission Viejo, (949) 380-9604.
Ask any gabacho what the most popular seafood taco in Mexico is, and they'll tell you it's a fish taco. But Mexicans know better: Every seafood restaurant on the northern Pacific coast serves tacos de marlín, in which the sportfish is smoked and shredded into a canned-tuna-like consistency and tucked into tortillas. Mariscos Mocorito is the best place in OC to try smoked marlin–but here we are, mounting marlin on the wall. 320 E. Katella Ave., Ste. H, Orange, (714) 771-0050; www.mariscosmocorito.com.
TWO TACOS FOR A BUCK
Tacos el Chavito
The headline for this blurb kinda says it all, doesn't it? One of the last places in OC to get this special–don't be afraid of the Slater Slums (and call it Oak View, pendejos) and swing on by. On Morgan Street between Speer and Slater streets, Huntington Beach.
Tortas Ahogadas los Primos
Los Primos dishes out some of the county's best tortas ahogadas, carnitas sandwiches drowned in spicy chile de árbol. But they also sell tacos dorados, which are the same idea, except rolled in corn tortillas and fried before being doused. If you've got taste buds of steel, order them bien picosos. The best part is when the sauce drips through the holes left by the toothpicks that held the taco closed during frying. On the corner of Fifth Street and Hawley Avenue, Santa Ana, (714) 488-5609.
TACOS AL VAPOR
Tito's la Especial N Tito's la Familia
A taco that comes wrapped in a square of plastic, similar to the sheet you use to pick doughnuts with? Yes! This trio of taquerías specializes in tacos al vapor (steamed tacos). While there are several fillings, the traditional one is actually beans, which makes the tacos miniature bean-burrito purses. If you go to the Harbor location, they're perfect for staving off the effects of too much cerveza at El Fracaso Bar next door. Tito's La Especial, 701 N. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 554-9871; also at 503 W. 17th St., Santa Ana, (714) 543-2900. Tito's La Familia, 1948 N. Tustin St., Orange, (714) 602-9831.
What kind of taco would Jacques Derrida eat? A deconstructed taco, of course, which at Anepalco's means an appetizer of perfectly cooked pork belly, radish, onions, cilantro and lime spread out in a jumble on a wooden board, with homemade tortillas lined up alongside. "We are all translators," Derrida said; a taco deconstructed is still a taco. 3737 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 456-9642; www.anepalcoscafe.com. Instagram: @anepalco.
Tacos el Zaga
Few things beat a straightforward suadero taco, and the perfect one is at El Zaga: large, spilling over with juices, enlivened by furious salsas and the pickled onion-habanero relish that has been the rage among loncheras for the past couple of years. It's only open at night, and the scrolling marquee is a beacon of hope for those speeding up and down Main Street. On the corner of Main and Wilshire streets, Santa Ana.
Taqueria el Zamorano
Freshly fried potato tacos are a staple of Mexican kitchens during Lent, but ask for them at El Zamorano so they become a year-round menu staple. El Zamorano provides the dish's traditional golden shell and silky mashed potatos, but the kitchen goes for an artistic touch with the crema and repollo, placing them on top of the tacos, accentuating the freshness of the cabbage and spiciness of the salsa. 925 W. Warner Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 442-3670.
CARNE ASADA TACOS
Baja Fish Tacos
You should avoid the eponymous fish tacos at Baja Fish Tacos; they're inexplicably dry and nongreasy, everything a fish taco shouldn't be. Insist instead on the carne asada ones, speckled with bitter bits of char as though they just came off a barbecue. But the best reason to come to Baja Fish Tacos is for the incredibly fresh salsa bar. It's always complimentary, constantly replenished with spicy pickled onions, buckets of just-made pico de gallo as bright as California sunshine, and a roasted-tomato salsa so perky it could be used as an antidepressant. bajafishtacos.com.
At Deborah Schneider's proletariat sister outlet to Newport Beach's uppity SOL Cocina, the tacos are cradled in exquisitely delicate, yellow-hued corn tortillas the size of your palm. For filling, there are 13 meat and non-meat options–everything from battered shrimp to a chorizo-bacon-and-sweet-potato mixture to a chile-and-garlic-rubbed tofu. And if you choose one described as "wood-grilled," it will taste smoky and flecked with char, as though a crackling campfire was responsible. 7631 Edinger Ave., Ste. 1508, Huntington Beach, (714) 894-2792; www.solitatacos.com. Instagram: @solitatacos.
Victoria's Bakery makes custom-designed cakes for weddings, quinceañeras, baptisms and birthday parties. But the tacos here (yes, the place is also a taquería) are consistently great. The tortillas are patted down to discs by hand, then cooked from scratch as you order. The fillings are generous: your choice of carne asada, shredded white-meat chicken or crumbled chorizo–all of which taste as though cooked by the same caring hands that made the tortillas. 709 N. Bristol St., Santa Ana, (714) 420-2464.
Kaya Street Kitchen
The tacos at Kaya Street Kitchen aren't tacos. The tortillas are actually Indian rotis and the meat tucked into its folds is rendang, an Indonesian dish of beef stewed in coconut milk and spices. But the rotis are fresh-pressed, and there's sambal to smear on them that's hotter than the spiciest salsa. An even better filling is the chicken satay with an authentic Indonesian peanut sauce so good it'll make you say, "Tacos schmacos! Whatever these are supposed to be, they're great!" 26731 Aliso Creek Rd., Ste. A, Aliso Viejo, (949) 415-7773; www.kayastreetkitchen.net. Instagram: @kayastreetkitchen.
Tacos y Birria el Güero
Stick with their birria, cooked so long it nearly drips off your fork. But better yet, order the tacos de birria and ask for a side of the consommé, the goat's drippings enlivened with oregano, chile de arból, onions and cilantro. Dip your tacos into the cup–who needs a French dip after this? 2330 W. Edinger Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 241-8226.
FISH TEMPURA TACOS
Fins Poke Fusion
First, come for the made-to-order poke bowls. Then come back again and again for the fusion-y tacos with Korean spicy chicken or the shrimp tempura. Both are excellent, each taco topped with shredded cabbage and salsa, and dripping sauce that's somewhere between Thousand Island and Asian ginger dressing. Even more exemplary are the white fish tacos–delicate fingers of fish encased in an ethereal tempura batter so light it melts. 28251 Marguerite Pkwy., Ste. A, Mission Viejo, (949) 542-7466; www.finspokefusion.com. Instagram: @finspokefusion.
Who says vegetarians can't enjoy some taco time? Lola Gaspar holds it down with its buzz-y, crispy buttermilk-battered avocado taco. Joined with a simple, lemon parmesan slaw, the avocado taco manages to deliver a meat-like savoriness. Just make sure you don't accidentally eat your fingers once it's gone. 211 W. Second St., Santa Ana, (714) 972-1172; lolagaspar.com.
Approach El Amerikano's tacos as you would Panda Express' orange chicken: with plenty of leeway given for "authenticity." The chef at this Latin-leaning gastropub owned by Greeks uses chimichurri in its tacos instead of salsa and gilds them with portobello mushrooms instead of onions and cilantro. But the skirt steak is just as good as carne asada–even if El Amerikano doesn't call it that. 100 S. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 525-2126; elamerikano.com. Instagram: @elamerikano.
Tacos y Carnitas Sahuayo
Pig-snout tacos. Called trompa, they are jellied cubes of porcine wonder. Available only weekends–start starving now. 155 W. Pomona St., Santa Ana, (714) 547-6031.
Carnitas los Reyes
Carnitas Los Reyes taqueros move at whiplash speed. Their cleavers hack hunks of pork into pieces so fine they're almost vapor. Blink and you miss them filling another taco with meat and onions, rolling the edges into a tube, tucking one side into the other, and then wrapping everything in paper and foil. You go home with a sack crammed with chips and some pickled carrots balled up in Reynolds Wrap–all of which you gobble up with tacos at the same speed at which they're made. 273 S. Tustin St., Orange, (714) 744-9337.
Swing by this SanTana standard at 1:55 in the morning, just as it's about to close, and you will see the city at its finest: cholos, paisas, pochos, hipsters, working-class heros, transvestites, all lined up to eat cheap, filling, alcohol-absorbing tacos. Which ones should you order? Does it really matter when you're standing among saints? 202 S. Bristol St., Santa Ana, (714) 972-9115.
DULCE DE LECHE WALNUT SHRIMP TACOS
This might be the best first bite in Orange County right now. It gives texture-lovers a little bit of everything: pop and meatiness from the shrimp, veg crunch from the cabbage and onions, more crunch from the walnuts, creaminess from the glaze, and pillow-y-ness from the corn tortillas. It's no wonder a version of it won our Summerfest Taco Contest; it'll win your heart, too. 201 E. Fourth St., Ste. 139, Santa Ana. Instagram: @doschinos.
SOHO Taco has been one of Orange County's top contenders since its lonchera beginnings, and it's thanks to food such as its shrimp taco, which manages to make a petite-looking seafood taco absolutely decadent. The secret is the tortilla base made up of two lovely rounds of masa glued together with a little bit of melty cheese. The shrimp, simply done on the grill, are great on it, but the base is so solid you could put anything on there, and it'd still be good. Twitter: @sohotaco.
The tacos at Taqueria Zamora are simple, and that's one of the greatest things about it. Each one is little more than a corn tortilla piled with meat, but the tortilla's still warm from the press, the meat's piled as high as your fist, and the tacos are as big as your face. Speaking of your face, you won't want to stuff yours with more than two, unless you want to end up taking a midday nap that turns into a five-hour sleep. 3121 S. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 557-0907.
El Toro Bravo
Costa Mesa's hip eating scene has been expanding lately with the additions of SOCIAL and Boathouse Collective, but when you're stressed out and just want to eat a home-cooked meal, there's no replacement for El Toro Bravo, the storied tortilleria that sits just blocks from both. Sure, maybe you didn't grow up in a house with every manner of home-cooked Mexi cuisine, but the tacos and the treatment will make you feel as if you did. Now why don't you give your abuelita a call? 745 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 631-4464.
VEGAN FISH TACOS
If you were blindfolded and served Vegan Nirvana's vegan fish taco along with one from Rubio's, you'd likely say the one with the fake fish was better. The texture is spot-on, falling apart into flakes as though actual cod; the two huge, battered clubs of the faux fish are nestled in a soft corn tortilla with the proper amount of cabbage, pico de gallo and vegan white sauce. Even better: It holds the moral high ground over real fish tacos made with sustainable seafood. 7862 Warner Ave., Ste. 110, Huntington Beach, (714) 847-4080. Twitter: @vegannirvana.
ULTIMATE FISH TACO
You can get Slapfish's fish taco grilled, but why would you when you can get it battered and fried, as all seafood should be? Crunch and crema (or in this case, avocado purée) were made for each other, after all, and Slapfish's fried "ultimate" fish taco is a worthy placeholder when you don't want to drive all the way to Ensenada. www.slapfishrestaurant.com.
Fuji's Famous Burgers
Fuji's has been doing Asian/Mexican/American fusion since before Vietnamese were in OC, but you don't see it getting a movie despite its on-point musubi, burgers, tacos and burritos. If you're in a taco mood, try the char siu variety. Be forewarned: It doesn't really taste much like Chinese barbecued pork. But put traditional flavors out of your mind for a minute and dig in because it's still some bomb meat in a fine tortilla–and sometimes, that's all you need. 15885 Gothard St., Huntington Beach, (714) 891-6066; fujisfamous.com.
You can get a lot of things at Fantastic Café: some hotcakes with eggs and bacon, a rib-eye or maybe a chorizo-and-egg burrito. Or you can get one of the prettiest carne asada taco/tostada salad things you've ever seen. Just don't plan on doing anything else for a bit afterward, as your body churns through the gargantuan tostada pocketed full of carne asada, avocado slices, tomato and lettuce. 1727 E. 17th St., Santa Ana, (714) 541-7997; fantasticcafe.net.
FISH TACOS WITH SECRET SAUCE
If you ate the golden-brown, white-fleshed fish Los Cotijas fries in hot grease by itself, you'd have half of what a British pub serves with chips. But wrap it in warm corn tortillas, top that with crunchy shredded cabbage, mound on a spoonful of spicy pico de gallo, then squirt some of the secret sauce–tangy, milky-white mayo–and congrats! You have the best OC rendition of the greatest Mexican invention since tequila. 11951 S. Euclid St., Garden Grove, (714) 636-3944; also at 642 E. First St., Tustin, (714) 832-7681; loscotijastacoshopoc.com.
Eating the legendary taco acorazado (a.k.a., the battleship taco) at Alebrije's is a war you cannot win, so start surrendering early. First, surrender your pride and grab a fork because no one has ever successfully eaten an acorazado without one. Then surrender your humanity as you turn into a beast and dive into the pile of food you have in your hand. Follow your instincts and devour the pounded milanesa, the crisp-yet-charred nopales. Be thankful for the rice and handmade tortilla and the avocado and everything else that serve as life vests as you continue overboard. If you're lucky, you'll finish in one piece, and just as in combat, you might be a little confused afterward. How, exactly, did you manage to make it through? Who cares? Just get ready for the next one. On the corner of Cubbon and Main streets, Santa Ana, (714) 655-3253. Twitter: @alebrijestaco.
If you're going to serve a taco with a hard shell, it better be a showstopper, and the ahi tacos at the Beachcomber Café nail it. Served on a stainless-steel rack, the quartet arrive at your table with posture perfect for entertaining. The tacos, which are really pre-hype poke piles reassembled, are more Asian than anything else with the slaw, requisite Sriracha mayo and fried-wonton-esque shells, but just because they're straight out of the '90s is no reason to not love them. 15 Crystal Cove, Newport Beach, (949) 376-6900; www.thebeachcombercafe.com.
Kogi's revolutionary Korean tacos are set on smooth-textured corn tortillas and topped with sesame seeds, shredded cabbage and wilted scallions. The short rib is a confluence of the fatty, the beefy and the sugary sweet, dripping grease all over, as all good tacos should. The spicy pork glows red, and everything is tangy, as if a pineapple or some other acidic fruit were juiced into the marinade. And because the Kogi craze is now as dead as the once-nascent luxe lonchera scene, getting some these days is easier than ever. Twitter: @kogibbq.
Taco Mesa's chicken tacos are wrapped in two kinds of colored tortillas and taste halfway between a deep-fried taco dorado and one that uses comal-warmed tortillas–all delicious. But the point of coming to Taco Mesa is that you stuff whatever taco you order with all the free escabeche you can eat–razor sharp and explosively colorful pickles that contain the best application of cauliflower you'll ever witness. www.tacomesa.com.