On Jan. 27, OC Weekly hosts its first taco festival!
Viva Los Tacos pops up at Santa Ana’s MainPlace Mall, with more than 30 taco vendors from OC and beyond, among them: Tacolized, winner of OC Weekly‘s 2016 Summer Fest taco throwdown (cross your fingers and toes that the masters of el puerco bring their prized al pastor); Wild Taco by Bear Flag Fish Co., who in 2017 were our readers’ picks for Best Taco and Best Fish Taco; El Pollo Norteño, who has built a following since 1981 for its mesquite-grilled chicken; and the legendary Carnitas El Momo, which brings to the table its award-winning Aporkalypse taco, a combination of cueritos (braised pig skin), buche and Guanajuato-style carnitas. Get ready to taste the love and dedication that comes from Romulo Acosta’s (a.k.a. Momo) enormous copper pot, which has simmered the best surtido in Los Angeles for the past 50 years.
Other vendors include La Vegana Mexicana, who’ll sample delicious vegan tamales; El Pepino Loco, whose house-made chamoy brings fruit salad to a new level; and Rollin’ Creamery, slangin’ rolled ice cream tacos. Be ready to partake in unlimited food samples and drinks, a margarita competition presented by Milagro Tequila and a michelada bar with all the fixin’s by Modelo Tour de Sabor, as you enjoy what DJ Lala can do with turntables.
In celebration of all things taco, we pay homage here to a few of our favorite Orange County eateries, all of which offer more than just the standard, whether it’s by preserving heritage corn, introducing fusion flavors, or further proving why taco trucks should be on every corner. Read, drool, then go enjoy these Mexi classics, regional flavors, and innovative and bold combinations.
Carlos Salgado’s cuisine not only challenges preconceptions of Mexican food, but it also pushing the “alta cocina” movement forward. Salgado serves fresh ingredients while preserving emotional Mexican flavors. And if that’s not chingon enough, he’s partnered up with Masienda, the leading importers and purveyors of heirloom Latin ingredients and non-GMO maize, on a mission to elevate the tortilla by educating consumers and working with small farming communities to bring forth the real flavor, aroma and taste of corn. The next time you question why his tacos are $14 to $18 per pair, know he’s offering you a better product that supports our local farmers’ markets, purveyors of humanely raised meats and sustainable fishing practices. If you’ve never been to Taco María, order the taco arrachera—tender hanger steak cooked medium-rare, then served with roasted chiles and topped with a crispy strip of applewood bacon and queso fundido on a delicate but chewy heirloom blue corn tortilla. 3313 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa, (714) 538-8444; www.tacomaria.com.
BURRITOS LA PALMA
Yes, we know it’s a burrito, but this palm-sized creation has beat out established tacos to take home the distinction of being named Southern California’s best taco two years in a row at Tacolandia (2015 and 2016). Albert and Lauren Bañuelos have started a mini-empire, with a restaurant in El Monte, a food truck and a SanTana location. The birria de res and buttery homemade flour tortillas combine to form a succulent, tightly packed burrito that we can’t get enough of. 410 N. Bristol St., Santa Ana, (657) 266-0575; www.burritoslapalma.net.
Danny Godinez always has some awesome rotating tacos on his menu. The Chapman Avenue location’s brunch menu currently features fish tacos, but as with most of Godinez’s creations, these aren’t average tacos de pescado. Bite into a handmade, herbaceous epazote tortilla encasing generous chunks of flaky red snapper encrusted in a Creole-like seasoning that’s fried to a golden brown. It’s all topped with a slaw of citrusy pico de gallo, purple cabbage, micro cilantro and pickled red onions and garnished with creamy cubes of avocado and thin slivers of crisp radish for that extra snap. A side of chile de arbol aioli is provided for dressing—take our advice and ask for extra—to which you’ll add a heaping spoonful of smoky crema. 3737 Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 456-9642; also at 415 S. Main St., Orange, (714) 771-2333; www.anepalco.com.
This Viet-Mexi truck has gone brick-and-mortar, but you can still catch the truck roaming the county. Hop Pham and Viet Tran hit the streets in 2010, the peak of the food-truck craze, creating fusion dishes such as Hollywood chicken (coconut panang curry chicken, fried yams, tamarind and cabbage) and Bolsa pork belly (a five-spice roast pork belly topped with pickled daikon and carrots, cabbage and salsa verde). Everything on the menu is great, but the Oahu shrimp is our go-to: garlic shrimp topped with sweet pineapple, crema and crisp cabbage. 201 E. Fourth St., Ste. 139, Santa Ana, (714) 383-0414; www.doschinos.com.
Since the Weekly first reviewed the place in 2008, Lola Gaspar has evolved to become one of the county’s great restaurants. It serves tacos every day of the week, but our favorite are the spit-grilled lamb al pastor. Chef Luis Perez’s version of the chile-rubbed pork takes on the taste of slow-roasted, spiced shawerma with Mexi sabor, as slabs of lamb marinated in spices, achiote and vinegar are topped with pineapple, giving the lamb a delicious caramelized crust as it rotates over burning mesquite wood. 211 W. Second St., Santa Ana, (714) 972-1172; lolagaspar.com.
BAJA FISH TACOS
We still don’t know what it is that makes Baja Fish Tacos’ pico de gallo so good, but it’s addicting. The same goes for the shrimp tacos: plump shrimp sautéed in garlic butter and white wine; topped with cabbage relish, baja sauce and tangy cotija cheese; and served on a soft flour tortilla. Add a side of warm tortilla chips and call it a meal. Various locations; bajafishtacos.com.
One of our former editor-in-chief’s favorite loncheras and ours, too, Alebrijes is the creator of the legendary Cuernavaca-forged taco acorazado, a.k.a. the battleship taco. We’ve written about this delicious behemoth numerous times, but here’s a refresher: it’s a massive corn tortilla hecho a mano, fluffy rice and meat. Alebrijes starts with breaded milanesa, adding grilled strips of nopal, creamy avocado and queso blanco, piling everything so big that the weight of the taco alone easily buckles the styrofoam platter it’s served on. Be sure to come hungry; after smashing this gargantuan taco, you’ll understand why another meal isn’t necessary for the day. 100-198 W. Cubbon St., Santa Ana, (714) 655-3253.
EL CAMINO REAL
This Orange County institution draws in gabachos and Mexicans alike by serving classic, crowd-pleasing fare such as tortas, enchiladas, chile rellenos and menudo. But it’s the fantastic tacos that keep us going back for more. Here you’ll find your traditional taquería meats—asada, carnitas, chorizo, as well as offals and specialties such as tacos dorados and birria de res—enveloped by two corn tortillas. 303 N. Euclid St., Fullerton, (714) 447-3962; www.elcaminorealmexicanfood.com.
For 25 years, chef Ivan Calderon, the co-founder of Taco Mesa and Taco Rosa eateries, has proven himself more than just a chef and restaurateur. Calderon redesigned Taco Mesa’s Orange location as a non-GMO tortilleria and café, so he could accomplish his longtime goal of producing tortillas fresh, daily, free of preservatives and without exposure to chemicals. Despite the changes, the classic menu items remain intact, including our favorite blackened-calamari tacos: thick slabs of chile-coated calamari strips topped with cabbage relish, crema, cotija cheese and chipotle sauce, then served on one of those delicious housemade, non-GMO tortillas. Various locations; www.tacomesa.com.
From food truck to taking over the world one sustainable fish at a time, chef Andrew Gruel has kept the taste, integrity and flavors of his cuisine the same since Slapfish’s humble beginnings—and that is why he’s killing the franchise game right now. He created a modern beach shack known for its gigantic lobster rolls and chowder fries (natural-cut potatoes smothered in creamy clam chowder and bacon) while changing the way people eat seafood. As with everything he puts out, Gruel’s food is big, messy and delicious, and his ultimate fish taco is no exception. The sea creature is battered, then fried until golden and crisp; served in a warm tortilla; and topped with cabbage, pickled onion and spicy awesome sauce. This two-handed taco—it looks as if you’re eating a whole fish!—is a one-and-done kinda deal. Various locations; www.slapfishrestaurant.com.
From luxe lonchera to brick-and-mortar and recently expanding to Long Beach, Seabirds continues to dish out delicious, seasonal, vegan fare. It appeals to vegans and non-vegans alike with dishes such as creamy butternut enchiladas stuffed with black beans and maitake mushrooms in a roasted pasilla pepper sauce; purple taquitos, filled with purple potatoes and topped with chipotle sour cream, fermented curtido and tangy almond feta; and ranchero tamales, stuffed with tender jackfruit and topped with red chile sauce, fermented cauliflower, frog hollow plums and hatch chiles. But it’s Seabirds’ beloved beer-battered avocado tacos that first caught our attention, with creamy avocado wedges enclosed in a crispy crust, then covered with cabbage, red onions and a spicy robust cream sauce dubbed Seabirds sauce. 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 549-2584; also at 975 E. Fourth St., Long Beach, (562) 317-5545; www.seabirdskitchen.com.
Cynthia Rebolledo covers anything and everything food, culture and spirits.