The second greatest pleasure of moving to Northeast Los Angeles is the amount of delicious and affordable food in the area. (The greatest pleasure being affordable housing.) Plenty can be written about the various restaurants in the neighborhood, but I want to spend a moment only looking at those where you’re allowed to eat standing up. Below are my top ten street food vendors in Highland Park/Eagle Rock/Glassell Park. Criteria for inclusion are taste, cost, hours of operation, taste in conjunction with alcohol at 2am, and intestinal damage the next day (the worse it feels, the better it tasted).
10. Frutas Cart – 57 & Fig (In the WaMu parking lot)
Mexicans know how to do fruit. Cut it up fresh and then cover it in salt, lime juice, and chile. My only qualms with this place are that it’s not open late (not that I blame him), and that I rarely want fruit after a few drinks. Choices include coconut, cucumber, mango, watermelon, pineapple, cantaloupe, and orange.
9. Champurrado and Tamales Woman on Ave 57
Every Sunday morning, my Racer 5 Hangover Sleep is interrupted by a raspy female voice calling out “Tamaleeeeees……Champurrrrrrrradoooooooos”. One day I caved and went out and bought a few tamales. At $1.25 each you can’t go wrong and although the cheese tamales were a little masa-heavy, the pork tamales were good. Points for her Dodger Stadium-esque Hawker sales pitch and for delivering to my front door. Drawbacks are waking me up and only being around once a week.
8. Corn Cart Guy on Ave 57
Unlike Tamale Woman, his sales pitch is a bit less abrasive. I only hear the tinkling of a bell on his corn cart. He sells two kinds of elotes (corn on the cob served on a skewer) with options of mayonnaise, salt, cheese, and chile. Prices are good and they taste excellent. Drawbacks are that I don’t know where this guy is except for 5 pm during the week, and my dog always wants a piece when I get home.
7. Rambo’s Tacos (Between El Paso and York on Eagle Rock Blvd.)
Now we’re moving up to taco trucks that serve red meat. In my opinion, Leo’s is better, but if you’re in a rush, Rambo’s has less of a crowd (and a cooler painting of Hollywood’s most famous Vietnam Vet on the back). Open late.
6. Tacos Sinaloa – Monte Vista and Ave 54
I stopped here once on the way back from Eagle Rock and was pleasantly surprised. I can only speak to the Carne Asada, but it was tasty and the prices were good. Oddly enough, it’s only a trailer but the quality doesn’t seem to suffer.
5. Esquites – 57 & Fig North Side (In front of Fashion 21)
I’m pretty sure that when the Surgeon General wants me to get my veggies, he doesn’t want them drowning in a soup of cream, cheese, and chile. Still, if the Mexicans know how to do fruit, they do even better with vegetables. He’s not open late but I like this version of corn taken off the cob and served as a kind of soup. There is almost always a line.
4. Verdugo Bagels Meat Market – 4169 Verdugo Road
Ate here recently with a friend who lives in Glassell Park. According to her, this place is a fairly recent addition to the neighborhood. Verdugo Bagels is one of those places that always looks closed but apparently serves a pretty mean sandwich. Someone (the owners?) briefly flirted with serving funnel cake out on the street before settling on tacos and quesadillas. While the selection is a little spartan, (asada and tripa head the menu) the people there are super friendly, the food is good (especially the salsa bar), and the tortillas are made fresh. The two of us had two quesadillas, two tacos, and two drinks for less than $10. We could have eaten standing up but managed to grab some of the limited seating on the sidewalk and shared it with a nice middle aged woman who was slowly enjoying her quesadilla. (This being notably juxtaposed against my eating strategy whereby about 10% of the food ends up on my shirt.) The meat is grilled right on the street under a few bare light bulbs, someone’s dogs are wandering around in the alley, and everybody seems to know somebody there. In short, it feels like Mexico with slightly better infrastructure. Still, this place is a neighborhood gem.
3. TakiTacos – 5100 N. Figueroa (by the Food 4 Less)
TakiTacos (or is it Tacos Jalisco?) has to be the best deal in the neighborhood. Tacos are 75 cents and excellent. Tripa, Asada, Lengua, Cabeza, Pollo, and Al Pastor fresh off the spit are available. They also make burritos but no one I saw was eating them. Bring your Spanish A game as the owner speaks Spanish like he’s giving a legal disclaimer (i.e. fast).
2. Leo’s Tacos (El Paso and Eagle Rock Blvd)
Please allow me to poach a bit from another of my reviews as I think it sums this place up nicely. It has excellent meat, is open after the bars close, and is affordable, yet something leaves it just short of the top spot on my list.
Problem 1: What taco truck has a website? What’s next, a valet?
Problem 2: Vegetarian food? This seems patently un Taco Truck. First, simply the fact that they market it as vegetarian smacks of pandering to gentrified hipsters. Call a bean and cheese burrito what it is: a bean and cheese burrito. Second, are you really that concerned with health food if you’re eating between 10pm and 4am? Taco trucks are about greasy unhealthy food that, when mixed with beer, create a gastro-intestinal weapon of mass destruction.
Problem 3: I know Leo and his wife speak English, and I know they speak it better than I speak Spanish, but is it really so tough to let me practice my language skills? I like NELA because you can hear English, Tagalog, and Spanish and people are usually pretty friendly if you’re making the attempt to improve on your second language. Leo’s is never rude, but they affect the vibe that they don’t have time to humor me. Tacos La Estrella does and I appreciate it.
These problems really only serve to defend my ranking of Leo’s as NELA’s #2 taco truck (in our version of the Coke/Pepsi debate). I’ll always have a special place in my heart for a man who worked at ungodly hours to sustain me through drinking Reibenbach and Natty Light, living in a house that should have been condemned, and sleeping hours that the Red Cross wouldn’t allow for Guantanamo detainees. You can’t really go wrong at Leo’s though. Much of my preference for La Estrella comes from proximity and a contrarian urge to turn my nose up at Eagle Rock. Also, Leo’s is never on my way home from the York. Which brings us to…
1. Tacos La Estrella – Truck located at Ave 54 & York (across from the Super A), Taco Shop located at 6103 N. Figueroa
Leo’s could easily take this spot, and the Leo’s/La Estrella debate has become a frequent topic over drinks. I know the complaints: (spoken in a whiny voice) “La Estrella is the Starbucks of Highland Park with 3 trucks and an actual storefront”, “they use too much rice in their burritos”, and “they don’t have wifi or Nachos Bell Grande”. Still, they serve excellent carne asada and carnitas that require you to have a drink on hand. I’ve eaten with friends at the stand on Fig while other patrons threw up gang signs to passing automobiles, and I’ve stood pigging out at the truck on York while another customer wrote “A’s” on the truck with a finger, accusing them of being “bitches” for closing just before he arrived. My theory is this: Anyone who has been jumped into a gang must have lived in the neighborhood a while. Thus, it stands to reason that they would know where the best tacos are.
In short, every one of these places takes westside mexican food out behind the woodshed for a serious ass whoopin’. Next time you’re in the neighborhood, skip the ubiquitous fast food run and have an authentic L.A. experience.
Is there someone we forgot? Let us know in the comments section below.